SEC Season Is "Clean Start" For Bulldogs

Nobody downplays what has come before, because everything counts when NCAA seeding-and-siting time comes. At the same time, "It's definitely something we've been looking forward to as a team," said Jake Vickerson. "Just a clean start for us."

The start is of SEC season, as Mississippi State opens at Georgia. Game times are (central) 6:00 Friday, 11:00am Saturday, and noon Sunday. Game-two is for FSN regional telecast. The MSU Bulldogs take a 13-7 record to Athens, which isn't exactly what they'd hoped the pre-conference schedule would produce.

At the same time, "I actually think it was kind of a wake-up call, we kind of needed it a little bit to get going," said outfielder Demarcus Henderson. "Because everybody was still stuck on last year and what happened and how we started. I think we needed some growing pains because it brought us closer together."

So, as outfielder Vickerson said. "We know this is the most important time of the year, just try to go there and get some wins."

SEC wins, he means. That slate is clean for all 14 clubs as of today. And while what happens on the first weekend hardly dictates the entire season's course, any SEC veteran understands the value of a winning start…and how hard making up for early losses can be even over nine more weekends.

Mississippi State has set its starting pitching plans for the first two games, along the expected lines based on early-season showings. RHP Ben Bracewell (2-1, 1.74) will toe the Friday rubber, and RHP Trevor Fitts (2-0, 3.29) goes Saturday. For senior Bracewell it is an opportunity he has worked towards over some long and frustrating years.

"I feel good about it. My job is to go out there and kind of set the pace for the whole weekend, try to get Georgia swinging the bats and filling up the strike zone."

Getting the home Bulldogs to hack shouldn't be too tough. Georgia (12-6) will take their cuts based on scouting, recent games in particular. "They've put up a lot of runs here recently, so they're hot right now," Bracewell said. Not just at the plate but overall with ten-straight victories, including a walk-off win last week over Georgia Tech. This program has swung from highs to lows over the last few seasons which ended Coach Dave Perno's tenure in 2013. Such inconsistency is odd for a program sited within the SEC's richest recruiting region.

"They might be the premier amateur baseball state in the country," Coach John Cohen said. "You have a new coach so there are new ideas and new energy. On paper, early on they struggled a little bit but they've really found it and won ten in a row and have scored a whole bunch of runs in the middle of the week. They're a very, very talented club."

And, a club which has had something of a hex on Mississippi State with wins in eight of the last nine series. The maroon Bulldogs haven't won a weekend in Athens since 1997 and the most recent trip in 2011 produced a sweeping. State's last series win was in 2010 in Starkville. So history isn't on the visiting Dogs' side regardless of how either squads' season eventually played-out.

The only current Diamond Dog who has ever played in a win over Georgia is, ironically enough, Bracewell. As a 2010 freshman he saved a 9-8 game-one victory. Now all these years later he is not just starting a game but both a series and a SEC season for State.

"We felt the evaluation of the first couple of weeks of the season, Benny deserved that opportunity," Cohen said. "It's not a negative thing toward anyone else, that's why we were playing four-game weekends to determine who would get this opportunity." Those long weekends did put not just four starters but in some cases designated ‘co-starters' getting scripted stints; as well as the obvious and often copious use of the bullpen.

Or as Bracewell said after a quartet of contests in Arizona, "Last weekend we got a lot of guys out there, I think just about every guy we brought pitching-wise got in the game at some point." A 1-3 record and quite a few runs allowed wasn't what the staff wanted. Still it was valuable seasoning for a group still settling a lot of long-run roles…and in unfamiliar setting which Bracewell said will help pitchers, fielders, and batters alike now.

"No one is going to be first-time out on the road, they've done it now. It's hopefully settled down to doing what we do best."

What Mississippi State expects to do best is pitch and field. Maybe these aspects have not been exceptional so far, but of course last May and June raised the standards. These Dogs are melding at their own pace, and one reason Coach Butch Thompson is putting Bracewell out on opening night is because the old Dog field his position well and controls runners. Plus, "We feel he's thrown the baseball really well," Cohen said. "He and Trevor will be our first two guys out and we'll be able to evaluate Georgia a little bit and see what happens on Sunday."

Yes, the game-three starter is absolutely TBA. Veteran RHP Brandon Woodruff has opened two of the first three weekends and started three times, while true freshmen righthanders Austin Sexton and Dakota Hudson have taken the other starts. However, Cohen said today the Sunday starter might not come from that number…or if it does other arms would be ready early and often depending on how the bullpen is or isn't needed Friday and Saturday.

Even closer RHP Johnathan Holder or long-reliever LHP Ross Mitchell could for all intents be ‘starters' on Sunday pending how the series develops. Nor is Cohen ruling out RHP Preston Brown, who threw 8.0 shutout innings Tuesday in a win over Southern Illinois, for a little game-three use. More likely Brown will rest and, since there are no midweek games after Georgia, make a case for a rotation job the next weekend.

Foley Field isn't the biggest SEC park but neither is it a bandbox at 404 feet to center and 370/365 in the alleys. The interesting feature is rightfield's 314-foot corner compared to a 350-foot left. With a lineup that tilts to the left side in the top half all games and can swing more southpaws if needed later, that short porch will look tempting.

Resist it, said left-hander and leadoff batter Vickerson. "I guess it is normal to think about that, but I know my strength is up the middle and if I'm lifting it I'm not getting hits." Nor is most of this batting order likely to succeed with air-balls, having hit just five home runs in 20 games. The Bulldogs have six triples by contrast, four by CF C.T. Bradford as he's finding corners to rattle with line drives.

"C.T. is really starting to swing the bat well and is more and more healthy," Cohen said. "We feel the guys at the top of our order even though they aren't getting as many hits as they want they're having productive at-bats. That will come into play for sure."

In fact a .276 team average, and .351 on-base rate, is not nearly as productive as this squad wanted by now. Bradford and Henderson top the team at .333 each, with 1B Wes Rea the next-highest regular starter at .309. Rea does reach base more often though as he's worked 17 walks and five plunkings already. 2B Brett Pirtle is right behind at .308 average. The frustration has been with 3B/DH Alex Detz, an on-base machine much of 2013's stretch run who is off to a .192 start this season with too many fly-ball outs.

Cohen is still confident in the senior. "And even though he's been struggling statistically he puts together pretty good at-bats. He's got to take the ball out of the air." That means youngsters Reid Humphreys (.300) and Daniel Garner (.323) are staying in alternate, substitute, and pinch-batting roles for now.

The stat sheet doesn't impress immediately. Vickerson, who will have the first at-bat of SEC season tomorrow, has heard the coaches' evaluations though. "When we're going well we're hitting line drives, we're hitting ground balls, we're running, we're bunting, using our speed to our advantage. Our last game at Arizona we were able to do that." Which resulted in a 6-4 victory as timely hitting, or walks, and runners in motion showed what State really does best.

In fact these Dogs have stolen successfully 36-of-45 times, compared to last year's total 59-of-79…and that was not a slow squad by any means. Henderson (8 of 8) said the squad earned the green light with their fall scrimmaging and the coaches aren't slowing them down yet.

"The thing is we have to get on base to do that," Henderson said. "Once we get on base there's no telling what can happen." Which gets back to batting, or walking or whatever, in the first place. Offense remains the great unknown about this team and likely will remain so all season even as the lineup gradually shakes out. Somewhat, that is.

"There are still a lot of pieces that can help us win games," Cohen said. "I think our lineup is starting to solidify a little bit. I'm not sure that's an absolute necessity for you to win a lot of baseball games and have a chance to go far in the post-season."

There, he said it. Even as the SEC schedule starts, tournament time is already in the back of Bulldog minds and not really all that far back. What happens Friday, or this weekend, doesn't dictate the finish. But a fast finish is easier after a quick start.

"The non-conference games matter," Cohen agrees. "But things get amped-up when you get into conference play for sure." And even more amped when opening in unfriendly confines, right? Maybe, maybe not per Bracewell.

"It's going to be a good challenge for us and I feel that's what we need right now. To go on the road, face a team that's playing well and see how we do against them."


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