Ogden Optimistic As Diamond Dogs Host Auburn

Make no mistake, they are not satisfied simply salvaging the split. Yet something about the Diamond Dogs getting one in their win column gives a new outlook. "That's how we all feel right now," said shortstop Jonathan Ogden. "We still kept our heads up and pulled out a win. We got down four runs and never gave up. Looking back it's going to be a huge win for us this season."

A season that resumes this weekend, and on the home field, as Mississippi State hosts Auburn (14-7, 2-1). The series pits a pair of Western Division opponents who had differing results in their respective SEC openers. In fact the Tigers pulled off one of several surprising debuts by taking two at home from Arkansas. That, along with an equally unexpected series success by Alabama at Ole Miss and a sweeping of preseason West pick LSU at home by Florida, has the Tigers and Tide stepping out ahead here in the very early Division race.

Meanwhile the Bulldogs (15-6) began their conference campaign 1-2…but one would never know it by how the club carried itself in practices this midweek. An open midweek at that, as State left this gap in the March scheduling specifically to allow some down-time after the first true road trip of 2011. Good timing as it turns out, according to the senior shortstop.

"I think this first SEC weekend really showed the younger guys how much it can drain you. So it's great to have the week off and go into Auburn with a big win over Vanderbilt."

There it is again, the big win reference. Naturally any success against the #2-ranked team in the country, and on their own favorable field, is reason for pride. Besides, objective fans figured scoring a split at Vanderbilt would be an acceptable outcome given the realities of both the SEC and the still-unproven aspects to this '11 Bulldog ball team.

But also again, there were facets to State's Sunday salvaging that show this squad some of their larger potential. In fact, "It was a good weekend for us," Ogden says unabashedly. "Vanderbilt is a great team but we came in knowing that. Energy was high, the first SEC weekend. They put it to us Friday but we left the game with our heads up, we came in Saturday with expectations of taking a win. We struggled a little bit but we cut down the deficit. And we pulled out a win."

Ogden isn't exaggerating how the second-ranked Commodores put it to State in a 10-0 series opener, the margin inflated by some very out-of-club-character fielding errors. Saturday's 4-0 loss was closer but by the same token more dangerous to Bulldog attitude; and when they fell behind four fast runs and were trailing 6-1 midway a sweep loomed. In fact, it would have been practically assured in preceding seasons.

Not this time though…or perhaps better put, not this team. With nothing apparently left to lose the Diamond Dogs pulled off two rallies. First they cut the deficit to 6-4, then after Vanderbilt re-stretched the lead to 8-4 State still had something left to give. The result was a remarkable, manufactured five-run rally to first take the lead at the expense of a Commodore closer who hadn't allowed a run so far; then to hold it with a freshman pitcher, Taylor Stark, on the mound. Also worth noting was how another rookie, infielder Adam Frazier, provided the clutch two-run single to tie things up; and fellow frosh C.T. Bradford got the go-ahead single. Six of State's 11 hits came from first-year Dogs, and three of the five pitchers were also new-for-'11 players.

Not that upperclassman contributions didn't count, as the biggest single stroke of the day was third baseman Jarrod Parks' two-run homer in the first rally. Veterans Caleb Reed and Chad Girodo were just as vital in their mid-game pitching to keep State within striking distance.

"I feel we've all meshed well together as far as the young guys looking up to older guys and knowing what it's going to take to win in the SEC," Ogden says. "So it's been good."

It would have been even better of course to win the first series, ranked opponent and road trip notwithstanding. So Coach John Cohen and staff have been seeking a fine balance this week, of letting the still-melding squad enjoy their encouraging comeback while keeping a larger perspective. As Ogden notes, this remains a step-by-step process…but the signs are a bit more promising now.

"That's the mindset we're going to keep all year. If we lose the first game we still have the series to win; if we lose the second game we still have a game to win. The energy is always high on this team, we've got a lot of good team chemistry, and we're never going to back down."

Ogden knows something about not backing down from difficulty. He endured the team's struggles of all last season, compounded by his own private physical issues. A bone problem in one foot made playing painful all year and required post-season surgery. Few knew of the situation at the time, but now anyone who watched Ogden operate in the field last year can compare his work this spring and see the difference.

"I mean, I don't want to make any excuses for last year. But this year physically it's much, much better. My body feels good, I don't have any injuries. That also brings a lot of confidence, too and I think that has a lot to do with it."

State is completely confident with Ogden's glove again. Even better, he's made progress with the bat as well with a .278 average and three February home runs. Compare that to his .207 hitting as a junior transfer. So Ogden is more optimistic on offense now, even after he struggled badly with Vanderbilt pitching.

"I had a rough weekend, I don't think I got a hit, but I saw the ball well and hit some balls well. But I'm not worried about that, I'm going to move on and see the ball. I just got out of the cage from hitting a little bit, and I'm not going to press. Just stay in my routine, take cuts in the cage and feel good with that."

Speaking of offense, that is Auburn's calling card again. The Tigers are hitting .312 and have 13 homers, not bad for 2011 given how the NCAA-mandated bats have cut power across the country. Then again they play in a cozy park that encourages swinging for fences, especially rightfield with a left-handed heavy order. What might give Auburn pause is going on the road to play in a bigger park.

Then again Tiger pitchers might welcome more room to work with based on a staff ERA of 4.27, not to mention an allowed-average of .292 and ranking 11th in SEC strikeouts. By contrast the Bulldog moundsmen have benefitted from the spacious home yard with a .238 average-against, and a much better ratio of strikeouts to walks. And while MSU has just nine homers all year, the Dogs actually have a few more RBI over the same number of games.

Ogden is one of the State swingers who have shown occasional pull-power, but he knows how this club must win games. Throw strikes, roll ground balls, and make plays in the field. He certainly expects last Friday's final score to be the exception. "Our pitching staff, I can't say enough about how well Coach (Butch) Thompson has worked with them. I think they're going to know exactly what we need to do to cut down some runs."

And now that State pitchers, as well as the rest of the squad, know what is needed to score SEC wins again, it's time to do it. This series offers fascinating contrasts in both style and confidence. The Bulldogs have just gotten a little of it with one win, while there are plenty Tigers left from last year's West winners who went 20-10 in league play. So it is a team that has experienced big success coming to town, facing a home team that is still putting itself together.

Ogden, for his part, is optimistic. "Game one to game three showed the younger guys a lot of what to expect in a SEC weekend. So I definitely think we're going to build off that Sunday win and have a good year," he says.

"Anywhere from freshmen to seniors everybody knows what role they've got right now," he says. "I think we're coming in with a good feeling and hopefully take the series this weekend."

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