Fall Ball Opens For Diamond Dogs

He intentionally pushed fall team practices back to, literally, the first official days of fall. That is a long enough wait for John Cohen. Not to mention his Diamond Dogs. "We've had a good month and a half of strength-conditioning, and individual skill instruction," the coach says. "So I think our kids are dying to compete a little bit against each other."

That competition began Thursday afternoon as the Bulldogs assembled for the first day of real team work. Up to now, as noted by their skipper, it has been over five weeks of lifting, running, and stretching; followed by selected small group and solo player drills. Starting today, though, Mississippi State is playing games. Scrimmage games, to be sure, but games with final scores and updated-daily stats.

And, updated daily standings for every Diamond Dog as Cohen and staff begin serious work on setting a 35-man roster for the 2011 season. A total of 44 players are on the official fall roster, including the most touted recruiting class for MSU in many years. This only adds to the fall ball fever with Cohen.

"We have a lot of new faces and many of those kids haven't seen a live pitch on Dudy Noble Field yet," he said. "So they're excited about doing this today."

The overall excitement dimmed just a bit for the coaching staff, particularly pitching coach Butch Thompson, when lefthander Nick Routt underwent a Thursday morning surgery on his pitching elbow. "He had an ulna nerve displacement," Cohen told reporters. "Which is a common thing. Dr. Rusty Linton said it was perfect so it will be a four-week type of things with him."

Routt, the freshman southpaw standout of 2009, missed most of his soph season with nagging elbow and forearm issues. This procedure solves one of those problems, and while the nerve was being placed properly the doctor was able to answer another one. There are no signs of trouble with any ligaments. Thus Routt should be not only healthy but confident when cleared to resume.

"Nick wants to get on the mound as quick as he can," Cohen said.

A few other Bulldogs, including pitchers, won't be on the mound immediately. Soph Ben Bracewell is out for fall and, in all likelihood, the '11 season as well after summer surgery to correct a condition that limited the impressive rookie to short and scattered appearances. Catcher Cody Freeman can work behind the plate after shoulder surgery. "He can't hit yet, he can't extend his glove hand over his head just yet. But he's progressed nicely," Cohen said.

"(RHP) Michael Dixon is still a little ways away from being able to pitch off the mound, the same with (RHP) Paxton Pace. (LPH) Tim Statz is probably two weeks away from being able to pitch in a game if I had to guess."

There will still be games going on two weeks from now. A lot of games. As the coach noted, Bulldogs are tired of instruction and ready to compete in a true team-against-team atmosphere.

"We're going to intrasquad because we've done so much drill work. It's time for hitters to face live pitchers. We've been able to do a little of that in our four-on-ones but we want them to compete. It's a one-on-one battle, a hitter and a pitcher, and we want them to have that experience. Live defensive reacts off the barrel is hard to recreate in practice scenarios. This is really where you find out a lot more about your club."

The only aspect that is really different from a true game is that Cohen, as he did last fall, has structured scrimmages for six-inning contests. The games thus are shorter, but more of them can be played in the same six-week stretch. This is crucial to getting pitchers on the mound often, and against all sorts of batters and situations, without risking over-work. The script is pretty strict.

"We're going to ask each pitcher to throw 40 pitches. We want them to get through three innings, that might not be realistic in some cases but we have backup in case. It's four pitchers a day, two guys on each team, and six innings at a time."

More games also means putting position players in more, well, positions. And the fall roster features plenty of two- and even three-way Dogs; many of whom are being counted on to pitch in spring as relievers and even starters. But, Cohen stresses, for all the justified excitement about this rookie class, State hopes to be more controlled in how the kids get utilized than necessity demanded in 2009 or '10. Especially in the pitching staff.

"Our goal is not to have freshmen on the mound 68% of the time in SEC baseball games. I don't know if anybody has had to do that in a long time. But, I think our sophomores had a great experience and they're ready to compete. Our freshmen guys are very talented guys and are going to be sheltered a little bit. That's our hope.

As for the dual-duty guys, "You keep evaluating, put them in different positions and see how they react to it. Fall dictates a lot." Which is why Cohen, as do all his peers in college ball, try to figure how best to schedule the allowed weeks of fall ball. Many want to get it done ASAP and not just to set a roster. "It really dictates how you're recruiting. One of the benefits of having an early fall is you see what the strengths and weaknesses are in your club, and you recruit to that in the early signing period."

But of course that can't do much for the next spring's roster, barring finding some juco help immediately available over the winter. So Cohen and staff put off fall ball a little longer. "The reason I don't like doing that is we don't like putting pitchers on the mound until they're ready. I don't feel you can do that immediately when your kids come back." Plus, it allows guys who were shut-down over summer entirely to get back up to speed slowly; and spring surgeries a little longer recovery time.

State's roster did have some non-health changes over the summer with a few departures. Underclassmen missing from the final 25-man SEC roster of the '10 season are LHP Luke Bole, RHP Corey Collins, LHP Matt Lane; and other members of the full roster such as IF Frankie Rawdow, C Kolby Byrd, and IF Dallas Hannah. All left to go elsewhere, which is just part of how college ball now works according to Cohen.

"There's always transition. We're going to have people go to other places and people come in here. It's the nature of what we do and of Division I baseball rosters."

Off the field, the 2011 schedule is nearly finalized with only a couple of game times yet to be settled. State opens February 18-20 hosting a tournament event with Akron and Lamar. And this year MSU gets to end the regular season at home, again, hosting LSU May 19-21 in the now-annual Thursday/Friday/Saturday series.

A report on the first scrimmage day will be posted this evening.

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