Diamond Dogs Aiming Higher

Wes Rea is an old college hand…but he's still a kid compared to true Dudy Noble Field veterans. "We've got fans that have had seats here 60, 70 years," the first baseman said, in only slight exaggeration. "They want to see that it's back. They don't want to hear us say I was content with making a Regional last year. I feel it's important to let everybody know, the tradition is back."

That tradition Rea refers to, of Mississippi State as an annual presence and contending power in postseason baseball, does appear to be coming back. At least this is the consensus of seasoned Diamond Dogs as they count down to Opening Day 2013. Even on the first afternoon of February there was talk of tournament time.

"I think we've got a pretty good balance of guys this year," shortstop Adam Frazier said. "The chemistry is better than any team since I've been here. So I think all that combined we've got a good shot to get to Omaha and take care of what we want to take of."

John Cohen doesn't mind this talk today, only a week into preseason practicing. Such ambition and optimism is exactly what Mississippi State's coach has invested the previous four seasons of recruiting and development and playing through all sorts of issues and obstacles. To hear his team, and a reenergized fan base too, talking Omaha in advance of Opening Day is indeed a return to the good times.

But… "There is no World Series, there's practice today," Cohen said. "You keep doing that the right way for five months, some positive things can happen."

Of course there have been positive points these last couple of seasons already. His 2011 team caught a June spark to unexpectedly win the Atlanta Regional and come up three innings short of a monumental upset of Florida in the super regional round. A year ago it was an unprecedented six-day run to the reformatted SEC Tournament championship. Though, that came at a real cost in Tallahassee Regional a weekend later.

"Knowing what I know now I might have IV'd our entire club after the SEC Tournament!" Cohen said. The real story of 2012 though was State reaching the forty-win benchmark and posting a 16-14 SEC record despite first-month injuries that should have derailed everything. Instead adversity brought out the Bulldogs' best.

"We were 11-4 the second half of SEC season," Cohen said. "Our kids just got on a role." And if that roll ran down in the Regional, the overall results showed what State is again capable of. "Knowing what it feels like is great preparation," said Cohen.

"All of our kids want more. Now do we get more, we have to wait and see. But they all want more from the experience they got in the postseason, really the last two years."

Longer even. "It's been a process these four years," senior pitcher Kendall Graveman said. "I remember winning six SEC games my freshman year, now to win a SEC Tournament and go to a super regional has been great. It was a good year last year and a good year the year before. But this year I think we have something else to prove and something else to try to work towards."

The '13 team work has been underway a week aided by fair winter weather so far. Friday afternoon featured the fifth scrimmage game of preseason and first of a second busy weekend at DNF. There are intrasquads Saturday and Sunday as well.

Bulldog buzz has been amplified by preseason polls which start State anywhere from 18th to 5th best in the country. Three Diamond Dogs—Frazier, reliever Jonathan Holder, and outfielder Hunter Renfroe—have been projected as All-Americans. And Baseball America's #5 ranking is by far the best for any State squad going into a season since 1989 when Cohen himself was in the lineup.

Fun stuff, sure. Encouraging even. "But there's not a lot of discussion of that in our daily work," Cohen said. "You're not trying to defeat the polls, you're really not trying to defeat the opponent. You're trying to defeat the game." And these rushed weeks of preseason—State saved three for spring semester after using six of the NCAA's allotted annual nine in fall practicing—means beating the calendar as well.

One thing not being rushed is setting any rotation. Not yet anyway, because there are so many arms yet to be evaluated in both scrimmaging and the schedule's opening plethora of home games. "Especially early in the year when you get 80, maybe 90 pitches out of somebody," said Cohen, who figures Coach Butch Thompson will cobble-together a staff selection for each game.

"But we have five or six candidates we really like. Evan Mitchell pitched really well in the fall." During his previous two years the righthander has often pitched well enough to start, but not quite crack a regular rotation role. 2013 can be Mitchell's breakthrough, and some suggest he has the shot at reprising what All-American and first-round draft Chris Stratton did in his own '12 breakout. "He's probably a little better athlete than Chris," said Cohen. "He's run some balls up there 94, 96. And his ability to control the running game has matured."

Another still-developing righthander seeking Stratton innings and outings is Ben Bracewell, the '10 freshman flash who has been off more than on since then with arm issues. He's thrown twice already in scrimmages and has impressed not just with velocity, which was always there; but with location and late movement. Also, "I'd say Brandon Woodruff is the biggest wild card on our staff," said Cohen. "He has dealt with some arm tenderness." The righthander/outfielder has been held out until this Sunday for a scrimmage start just to be sure he's ready. "If he comes back strong he is a great candidate as well. (Lefthander) Jacob Lindgren has pitched really well, he's controlled the strike zone for the most part."

And what of the ranking moundsman, Graveman? He got on the mound Tuesday (see report from that scrimmage) but before had tossed two impressive bullpen stints showing he is over his sports hernia issue. "He's just about full-speed now, his two bullpens were phenomenal," said Cohen. "He'll be a mainstay for us."

But on what day? There Cohen doesn't go by conventional weekend wisdom, especially with this staff. "For our club Saturday is the biggest issue. Fridays and Sundays we can cut a starter short," Cohen said because of great relief depth and experience stockedpiled and proven. "But the Saturday guy has to get us six or seven innings." Which would be Graveman's forte, based on the past three years and an excellent '12 record.

"There is so much prowess attached to Friday night guy," Cohen said. "But every one of those games is just as important."

Now healthy again, juniors C.T. Bradford and Daryl Norris have regained their starting jobs at centerfield and third base respectively. Yet Cohen isn't writing down any lineups in ink just yet as he wants camp competition to continue.

"Daryl has elevated his game and is going to be a factor. But we have some other options. Daryl is more of a power guy. If we wanted to go a different direction in a runner guy Kyle Hann is very capable at third base. He's a talented defender, but he's still figuring out his swing." Which the coach said is no easy task against this pitching staff.

Rea for his part is settled at first base for another year, and now entirely over those nagging shoulder issues from high school that at times left his right hand too numb to feel a bad in it. Rea may well be the best defensive first baseman in the league or even land at his 6-5 size, and is in best-ever shape with 272 pounds. Now, Cohen said, the big guys batting is starting to show the benefits of good health and hard lessons.

"He's got a chance to have a nice two-strike approach, he has a chance to have some power. He's much more knowledgeable. The swing and miss part for big guys can really hurt you and Wes struggled with that. But all indications are we can make that adjustment."

That said, senior Trey Porter has improved his defense and is now a good left-handed matchup alternative. So is either-corner infielder Alex Detz, while injury-redshirt Nick Flair has swung a good righthanded bat in scrimmages. Frazier has a lock on shortstop and returns to the top of the order after hitting a team-best .371 as a sophomore. Though whether he leads off or not isn't a huge deal since Frazier or Bradford are practically interchangeable in the 1-2 slots.

For that matter the great what-if of '12 remains the offensive losses when Norris and Bradford, both swinging fine at the time, went down on the same March evening. A year later both are back and better. "I was doing some film with C.T. this morning and his swing vs. a year ago is night and day," Cohen said. "I think he has a chance to be a hit machine. Now he's trying to get hits instead of hit balls hard. He's made that adjustment."

Now the great what-might-be is Renfroe, a .252 sophomore with nigh-unlimited potential to tap. For one example, Cohen reports a 3.84 clocking home-to-first by the outfielder, fastest on the club. "I told him if he did that just one time in front of the right people it would make a difference." Scouts already know Renfroe can run, as well as throw strikes from the outfield to out runners and go over the wall for catches.

Power? Take Rea's word for it. "Last night during BP I'm pretty sure all 39 guys stood like this and just watched balls go over the wall for 15 minutes," he said. That's when Renfroe makes contact of course, which is his challenge. "His deal is he has to get hits instead of just trying to reach back for something extra and do too much," Cohen said. "That's just part of the maturation process for him. But in raw tools and skills I don't know if I've ever seen the full gamut that guy brings to the table."

Renfroe showed in Bradford's absence he is a fine centerfielder, but that rifle arm serves well from right too. Left is the field to fill and Demarcus Henderson is off to a fine preseason start Cohen said. "He was player of the week last week. He's really made a jump, he's a special athlete who could have a great year." Tyler Fullerton split time in '12 and has improved his offense. Most impressive in the field so far is frosh Jacob Robson, who isn't merely fast but has a fine feel for leftfield already. "He has a chance to be a great player in our program," said Cohen, adding that freshman Cody Brown is now a potential redshirt outfielder. This is in no small part because relief pitcher Luis Pollorena can assuredly snag a fly ball, as well now as swing the bat as a late-game substitute.

Catcher is in fine starting shape with ironman senior Mitch Slauter working the staff and hitting for average mid-order. But senior Nick Ammirati is making a real case for innings now. Cohen admits it is hard to take a steadying influence like Slauter off the field. "But Nick has become a different guy. He is by far the best thrower, and against running clubs that is important."

This leaves the large remaining question of second base. Defensively, Cohen and club are comfortable with soph Matt Britton. "The question is can he get on base enough, certainly he's a great runner." But so can freshman Kyle Hann be now. As for balance, "Brett Pirtle has emerged as the guy who is defender and offensive player," said Cohen. "His entire game puts him at forefront now."

State didn't have many offensive options last year, or much offense for that matter, and still won 40 games. What can they do this year with improved batting? The better question would be how far can a simply-competitive order take the team in conjunction with strong pitching and stronger defense?

"It all starts on the mound and defensively for us, but I feel capable offensive club than we've had in the past," Cohen said. Certainly the scrimmage contact has been good so far, though averages are hard to judge and power remains unproven against real pitching. But leave it to an expert to offer the most encouraging comment of camp.

"This is the first time I really didn't like throwing to our hitters," said Graveman.

A well-publicized adjustment to DNF's left field fence hasn't impacted scrimmages to date. And really the change is modest, with the left-most section straightened out more than brought in. Cohen said the difference isn't noticeable even in batting practice. "It made a very, very, very large ballpark into a large ballpark. The dimensions really haven't changed down the line (330 left, 326 right) and to the gaps."

So Dudy Noble Field will continue to play big in '13. Pitching and defense remain the club's core strengths. But a healthy roster offers encouragement of a more capable offense, and maturity by Rea, Renfroe, and others ought to bring a bit extra pop…especially in road games where routine flys by these guys could carry much farther.

The real difference is a team tested by adversity for one, two, even three seasons, and teased by brief bits of success. Just like the fans, who have waited since 2007 to see Bulldog baseball as it is supposed to be. And, to host tournament baseball in June.

Rea is certainly ready. "I think it's back. That is what Coach Cohen wanted when he came to coach here because he got a taste of the tradition and how special it is here. In my opinion he's done that. He's got the guys in the room to get us where we want to be, and where everybody else wants us to be."

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