Dogs Tuning Up For Road Trip And SEC Opener

That extended home-stand to open this season is coming to an end. Before the Diamond Dogs have to take their 2011 act on the road they do have one more chance for a home-field tuneup, hosting Eastern Illinois this evening at Dudy Noble Field. Gametime is 6:30 and Tuesday's contest is a full-network broadcast.

But while Mississippi State is playing a team of Panthers (1-10) the rest of this week may well be on most minds. Since last week's initial venture away from the home field at Alabama-Birmingham was suspended at six innings by rain, the Bulldogs are still awaiting their first true road decisions. That will happen now with a four-game stint in Nashville. The first, Wednesday evening, is against Lipscomb University and should be a fair test in its own right.

The real measuring stick fro Mississippi State's progress though awaits this weekend in the same city. By luck of the SEC scheduling draw the Bulldogs get to open their conference campaign not just at Vanderbilt; they are playing the nation's #2-ranked team on their own field. A Commodore club by the way which is 16-1 beginning their week.

Meanwhile Mississippi State seeks to shake the nagging feeling left over from their weekend at home. A winning weekend on the whole as the Bulldogs took two tight games from Sacred Heart by 5-0 and 6-5 scores. But after taking a 3-1 lead Sunday the sweep got away on two big, bad innings in an 8-3 defeat. For that matter the whole week was frustrating as rain delayed a home date with Mississippi Valley until May 10; and when weather halted Wednesday's game the Dogs had just fallen behind a run, but did have a pair on paths with no outs.

Which makes an efficient showing tonight a little more meaningful than usual for such midweek matchups. The Bulldogs want to regain some of their season-opening momentum before challenging anyone else in unfamiliar surroundings, much less one of the country's elite clubs. Coach John Cohen is counting on sophomore righthander Kendall Graveman (1-0, 2.25) to get this evening under way and under control against Eastern Illinois.

And, Cohen said, "Of course Graveman can go as long as he can go because he's had three starts. He's really pitched well in our yard, on our mound, and we're really like to ride him a little bit because we've had to use so many arms the last three days." No less than ten pitchers worked the Sacred Heart series in fact.

One who did not, though he trotted to the bullpen Sunday, was Nick Routt. As reported yesterday the junior lefthander will make his long-awaited and oft-delayed return to the mound this Wednesday at Lipscomb, just under a complete calendar year after his 2010 season ended with elbow issues.

As much as Routt wants to make a rousing return, Cohen is not asking him to stretch himself too much this first time out. "I'd be shocked if he threw more than 60 pitches," the coach said, signaling that more of the staff will be utilized as well Wednesday in, they hope, a final preparation for Vanderbilt and SEC season.

While the Commodores are stronger where it matters most, on the record, the respective stat sheets are surprisingly close. The clubs are separated by a single batting point, .302 to .301. Vanderbilt has 29 doubles to State's 25, but the Bulldogs are a bit ahead in both triples and home runs. On the base paths the Dogs have run more often (33 of 41) while Vanderbilt is 27-of-35.

And while Vanderbilt is justly noted for pitching prowess with a staff ERA of 2.61, second-best in the league this week, MSU moundsmen aren't far behind at 2.81 and both teams have issued the same total of walks. The one significant difference is 172 strikeouts by ‘Dore hurlers to 139 for State's staff. But then this reflects the core Commodore strength of seasoned pitching comfortable with coming after any and all batters.

At the same time Cohen has good reason to be generally content with how his own State staff has developed through the first sixteen tests. To no one's surprise soph righthander Chris Stratton has been central, literally, to the rotation as the game-two starter. He has won three of four Saturday starts and dominated them all with a 1.65 ERA, striking out 32 against just nine walks. It would seem tempting to move him up to first rotation slot…

…except for the very impressive work as well of junior Devin Jones. Officially 2-2 in his four starts, Jones has been far better than those numbers. He was a caught fly ball from one win, and the other loss came as he was on-record when rain interrupted another start for two hours; and other pitchers had to pick up where he left off. Jones hasn't overpowered with 20 strikeouts but he's become a real pitcher this year as a 1.37 ERA reminds, and a batting average-against of .167. The only MSU moundsman with better numbers has been classmate Caleb Reed, with three saves, 14 strikeouts, and no runs at all in 9.2 innings.

So whatever their sequence the first two in the rotation are as steady as State can ask. It's filling that third slot, the one that wins or loses so many SEC series, which remains very much in question. This week, especially, as Cohen is not ready to declare a final choice.

"I'd say right now it's a pool of four guys and it really depends on who pitches in the first two games."

As in who has to relieve, that is. And since Reed is about an automatic first call in the last-third of those games, that leaves all sorts of other options…as long as Jones and Stratton take care of scheduled stints. Depending on how long he works tonight righty Graveman could start Sunday but is more likely a middle-man lately. The last two Sundays freshman Evan Mitchell (3-1, 4.50) has opened with mixed results. He had things in-hand early against Sacred Heart before it got away in the middle innings.

"If we don't have to use Andrew Busby (2-0, 5.40) Friday or Saturday he might start," Cohen said. But by far the most interesting option would be another new kid on the Bulldog block. Though freshman C.T. Bradford has only worked 1.2 innings in two late-relief appearances, his talent is so tantalizing that the coaching staff is at least pondering the possibility. State also really wants at least one lefthanded starter available as the rest of the rotation comes from the right side. The caution is over-working such a kid who otherwise starts in the outfield every day.

Yet here in mid-March the growing concerns are not with pitching, which though still somewhat young has all sorts of obvious potential. Offense is another matter; also young in many areas but not producing as hoped against the caliber of pre-SEC pitching. A .223 weekend average against Sacred Heart did little to build confidence, or a .309 on-base rate and 29 left on bases. Simply, State did not take enough advantage of what opportunities they created, and had the Dogs not scored twice on Saturday wild pitches the series might well have swung the wrong way.

Sunday was the most frustrating of all as the game ended on ten fly- or pop-outs against off-speed pitching. "We were really disappointed in the last four innings, we just had so many outfield put-outs," Cohen said. "But some were hit really well. We know we need to do a better job of that."

At the same time no coach could ask better than what 1B/DH Daryl Norris did with bases loaded and two outs in the sixth inning, in a 5-3 game. The rookie hit a rocket that, heading just a couple of degrees to either side, would have scored three runners. Instead it went directly to a well-positioned leftfielder. Compounding the frustration was how Sacred Heart scored two runs twice on excellent State pitches, bad hacks, and classic baseball bounces.

"We're looking at the film and it's just crazy how this game works," Cohen said Monday. Crazy or not, State's latest hitting results leave questions about how the various orders will bat in SEC action. Especially against arms the caliber of Vanderbilt's. Though the head coach cautions against absolute early evaluations as his team continues adapting to how the 2011 college game is played with low-power bats.

"The thing is our numbers and Vanderbilt's numbers are so similar offensively. We've hit seven home runs and I think they've hit four! But when you look at it, you're really playing against your yard on that day. It's become more like a golf course on any given day, what opportunities are you getting in terms of the short game." And State must play short at home, though Cohen can be forgiven for wondering what a few of his new kids could do with old sticks. Especially Norris. "In two days Daryl has nine RBI on two home runs if you use the old bats! But you have to deal with it and do what we're doing, which is running and bunting and doing the little things we need to do well."

In many ways this opening SEC weekend pits opponents who play much of the same game; with Vanderbilt having the advantages of experience and home field. Yet despite recent swinging struggles there are clues that the Bulldogs also will thrive in such a scheme as they too gain experience…and all the more so on what has become by far the biggest-playing park in the league. So Monday the MSU coaches had their batters spend their hitting time re-focusing on fundamentals of hitting for ground-ball singles and gap-doubles, rather than lofting lobs as happened over the weekend.

"We hit a lot of balls hard, but obviously with these new bats all these hard-hit balls aren't going to leave the yard any more," said senior third baseman Jarrod Parks, one of the old Dogs adjusting to these bats. "They're all getting caught. All those balls, you just have to change the barrel-angle just a little bit and they turn into line drives in the gaps, line drives in the hole. It's just a little adjustment."

And, Cohen said, no time for knee-jerking reactions. He watches the games over, analyzes all at-bats, and reports that reviews are actually encouraging. "You think we're not hitting the ball hard, then you watch the film and it's dramatically better than you think. We're not going to be that club that hits a three-run homer in this ballpark, so we have to do some other things. We're really pushing the limits on stealing bases."

One old limit has been loosened. The NCAA has reconciled the regular season 25-man travel roster with their Regional total of 27. So it has simplified the decisions State coaches have to make about who gets on the bus Wednesday morning for the Nashville trip.

"And really among our non- redshirt guys we only have 28 that meet that restriction, so it will be easier for us. And having dual guys really helps your roster."

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