Lineup, Rotation Still To Be Set For Opening

With a week to go he can only commit to a single position starter as competition elsewhere continues. And it won't be until the initial opponents have been scouted that any sort of rotation is assigned. Yet for all the T.B.D.s as of today, Coach John Cohen is determined on one absolute 2011 fact. "These kids deserve to go to the postseason."

It's not just the kids, either. After two tough rebuilding seasons since his return to campus, the Mississippi State skipper agrees that everyone involved with Bulldog baseball has a right to expect spring success again. Fortunately based on both last fall's work and the ongoing preseason practices, Cohen sees a squad with the personnel and potential to win.

"I'm really pleased with group we have this year," Cohen said today. "From the moment we got together in fall I felt some things were going to be different. I hate even talking about it, I'm at the point and level right now I want it to happen. I want you to be able to see instead of talking about it."

A week from today talk stops and the Diamond Dogs play ball, with a Friday first pitch at 4:00 against Akron. The opening weekend brings four games, with Lamar (11:30am) and again Akron (3:30) next Saturday; then a Sunday rematch with Lamar (2:30). It is the start of a 14-game homestand at the front of the schedule; a stretch Cohen and aides will apply to mixing and matching all sorts of lineups and rotations in preparation for another serious SEC season. By the same token State will also need to take advantage of these home dates to get Ws on the record and confidence in the club.

Wins have been too-few and far between since Mississippi State's last post-season appearance. Of course that one was the best possible trip, to the 2007 College World Series. Still even that post-season run was something of an aberration given how MSU has struggled overall since 2003, missing five SEC Tournaments in the last seven springs. Cohen knew what he was getting into, mostly, leaving the Kentucky program he'd built into a contender for an alma mater in serious need of rebuilding. It has not been much fun for anyone involved including last year's 23-33, 6-24 SEC finish.

Cohen claimed much higher expectations of 2010, but less than a month into the campaign State had lost the leading pitcher, third baseman, and centerfielder. At one point eight of 35 roster members were sidelined by injuries; at most points not much was healthy about MSU pitching or defense either. No wonder every optimistic outlook Cohen has for 2011 is qualified in the health context. "The thing that keeps me up at night is possible injury situations. I think we're really good as-is; if you take away a couple of pieces you're right back to freshmen having to do some things they're not ready for."

Yet last year's losses may turn out to benefit the current Bulldogs. Especially on the mound. "We have some sophomores that I think got punched in face a little bit with 35 freshman starts last year," said Cohen. "I don't want to experience that again in my career. It was necessary, I'm glad our kids did it, we found out a lot about our personnel." Such as one of the freshmen thrown into a lot of early action and who emerged as lead Dog on the staff as well as the core to rotation plans this second year.

But will soph right hander Chris Stratton (5-3, 5.29) get the ball next Friday? "Obviously Chris is going to be a huge part of what we're doing," Cohen said, projecting 80-to-100 innings of all-weekend duty. "He's a much more polished guy. And sending him out once a week with six days rest you don't feel going to overwork that guy."

Junior Devin Jones (2-4, 8.16) wasn't overworked as a primary reliever last spring, 28.2 innings in 22 appearances. This third season hopes are the righthander is built up into more than a bullpen regular, that Jones can step into the rotation and deliver. Cohen said a revised outlook on the game should help Jones' approach.

"I think Devin is ready to prove some things, not only to our fans and staff and team but professional baseball. He has tremendous incentive." The staff saw a tendency to ‘radar gun' pitching from Jones last season but also noticed maturing since, as he is comfortable with 88-to-92 velocity and better movement of the fastball; with a better slider to hopefully produce early swings.

"His biggest adjustment is every single at-bat was six or seven pitches," Cohen said of 2010 charts. "In fall he averaged just over ten pitches an inning, best on the club. That's a huge jumping-off point for a pitcher to manage his innings."

The name fans bring up most though is junior lefty Nick Routt, the excellent '09 freshman whose soph season ended early with elbow issues that ultimately meant moving a tendon in summer surgery. In fall ball the hope was Routt was ahead of return schedule; now it's less certain.

"We feel Nick has made some positive strides, he's not out of the woods yet," Cohen said. "But we'll see where he is, he's throwing a 60-pitch bullpen today and we'll see where he's at." The good staff news was how junior righty reliever Caleb Reed expanded his arsenal last fall and now expects to be key to much of State's overall pitching plans. Cohen said Reed had a great summer throwing but was even better in fall and winter intangibles. "He has provided team leadership, just become a real dependable guy and a great leader."

Lefties Chad Girodo and C.C. Watson were also among those face-punched frosh of 2010 who survived the shock and look for much better things as sophomores. So would relief specialist Ben Bracewell were he 100% recovered from his own arm problems; Cohen does not want to rush the righty back and figures March will be when decisions have to be made to activate or not. Then again, a number of precocious pups will have some say in rotation and relief choices as well, such as rookie Evan Mitchell and others.

All that will shake out over the extended opening homestand. As for who gets the ball first next Friday, "I guess now we have to make a decision after tomorrow, because we have to line up the week for pitching," Cohen said.

Speaking of lining up… The aforementioned starting certainty is, of course, shortstop. "I feel Jonathan Ogden, not to put pressure on, is one of the premier defenders in the SEC," Cohen said. "Arm strength, lateral quickness, vision, range, he's the total package." The senior is also totally healthy, having played all last season on a very painful foot. Removing a bone in summer solved the issue. "He's full speed, and he's been through the league," Cohen said. "And offensively I think he's going to be capable of producing at the plate."

Not just because on firmer footing now Ogden ought to improve on a .207 average; but because he and practically the entire order are going to be fast-forward. Cohen figures to have at least, at least, seven swingers each game that can run the bases well enough to straight steal or station-to-station per circumstances. For once, Mississippi State benefits from lucky timing too. 2011 brings entirely new bats to the college game, sticks of the same weight and length but constructed so as to deaden contact. Cohen and peers reported home runs cut drastically in fall ball everywhere.

This is an unexpected blessing for Bulldog baseball, according to the coach. "I have to tell you, with where we are at Mississippi State I don't mind it a whole lot!" Anyone watching fall camp saw why, too. Cohen is taking advantage of not just this team's overall speed but the much, much improved ability of older Dogs to play the bunting game…something few were familiar with when the new regime arrived needless to say. "It was a struggle two years ago," admitted Cohen.

"The second year with as many new guys, and teaching guys who weren't as inclined or short-game oriented…it's good to have some older guys who understand what we're trying to do and why we're trying to do that.

"I always hesitate to say this, before coming to Mississippi State and thinking about making a career move, that's the part that jumps out. The ball park itself screams out run, run, pitch, defend, run. It's not a home run factory, that's not a positive or negative that's a fact. Now throw the bats into the mix and it's really not a home run factory." Instead Dudy Noble Field becomes a racetrack if the Dogs can get on the paths first.

First base certainly changes offensive approach with the graduation of Connor Powers and his home run production. State has some interesting options here but based on the last month outfielder Ryan Collins has staked the strongest early-season claim. Though, "He played first his entire life before college," Cohen noted. Collins has made the smooth return and with the increased emphasis on infielding agility it is also a timely transition. "The things he's shown us the last month are phenomenal," Cohen said. Catcher Cody Freeman has first sack experience in college and since he and Wes Thigpen will alternate behind the plate a way to keep him in the order will be needed.

The long-term plan here though is with one of State's superb freshmen signees. "Daryl Norris, before all is said and done he'll be one of the best hitters in the SEC," Cohen said. "Strength, the ability to evaluate pitches. And he will give us some quality innings on the mound as well."

State can always bring Jarrod Parks over from the opposite corner if needed. But Cohen is just glad to have him healthy and ready to go at third base, where he was supposed to start last season before an old junior college back problem suddenly needed winter surgery. In the absence Nick Vickerson emerged as the usual third sacker and more to the point one of the best bats in an order that was desperate for offense.

Now State has an interesting situation with two good answers. "We're not 100% sure how to rotate Jarrod and Nick, but both have to play because they're two of our best offensive players," Cohen said. "Jarrod is very consistent defensively there; on spectacular plays Nick might have him there on arm strength. They complement each other…and they live together!" Cohen has praised Parks' batting for years and now he finally gets the chance to show everyone. "He also gets hit it seems every other at-bat," the coach noted. "He's a magnet!"

There is an opening of sorts at second base of course, but Vickerson is not comfortable on that side of the field. Sam Frost emerged as the '10 starter and has the edge this pre-season on that experience. Offense is an obvious question. So freshmen Demarcus Henderson and Adam Frazier, also a shortstop option, are in the thick of the camp competition here. At the moment frosh Brayden Jones is on the redshirt track, but nothing will be settled for a while yet.

Cohen might say the outfield positions are up for grabs still, but everybody else can pencil in at least a couple of the opening day starters with Jaron Shepherd in centerfield and a (presumably healthy) Brent Brownlee to one side or the other. Most likely the left flank. After a series of shoulder injuries junior Brownlee just needs to avoid the bug for a full season and use his range and reach in tandem with the equally adept Shepherd. And Collins of course is a proven rightfielder on days he isn't at first base.

The real fun will come when C.T. Bradford takes the field. And he will. "Our kids voted him one of the top five players on the team as a freshman" Cohen said. "He can really defend, really throw, he has a great idea of what he's doing with the bat, he can steal bases." Oh, and by the way, pitch relief as well as any on the staff.

"You talk about that combination of guys, the athleticism they bring to the table, we're going to be able to really run down some balls in the outfield," said Cohen. "We'll be better defensively, guys with more range that offer something different offensively."

Seniors Freeman and Wes Thigpen aren't burners but they are a very complementary pair of catchers. Then there's another do-it-all option with catcher, outfielder, and even pitcher Hunter Renfroe, part of the 18-man rookie class. "The best recruiting class I've ever been a part of, and I've been part of several that were top-five," said Cohen.

Then again top-five is standard procedure for most of the SEC, and State is about to put a lot of the new Dogs into immediate action against some of the country's best clubs. True, national consensus is that the SEC is not quite as stout in 2011, though some project Florida to play for the CWS title this time around. Cohen doesn't see it that way, entirely.

"I don't know if ‘down' is the right word; I just think a year ago it was ridiculous. It mirrors football, how good the SEC West was. As much as we didn't get it done on the field our RPI wasn't horrendous, we played 20 games against teams that won regionals. I think, check my math on that."

What does add-up is the need for these Diamond Dogs to break the three-year trend and win their way into post-season play. If all hands stay healthy, and the scars of last season have toughened the survivors in the right ways, Cohen believes the Bulldogs can cope with the grind of heavyweight SEC competition. It isn't easy, of course.

"But this is where you want to be. You want to compete at that level."

Before opening week, State hosts the annual Meet the Players event tomorrow at 4:00. This year's edition is different though, as along with player introductions, a former player's (Texas Ranger and 2007 State star Mitch Moreland) speaking, there will be some 150 donated items auctioned to benefit former Dog Ryan Duffy as he battles back from a spinal injury last summer. There will also be a morning 5K run as part of the fund raising effort for the 2010 senior.

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