Bulldogs Bring Momentum Into New SEC Week

They are only two series into SEC season. Yet getting off to a four-win start in these opening tests does give the Diamond Dogs a long-sought sense of pride. Take it from one who knows. "This far into SEC season, is the first time we've been over .500 since I've been here," said senior Ryan Collins. "So it will be huge to get us going early in the season here."

The fourth-year Dog is correct in all aspects. This is the first time in his own tenure that Mississippi State (18-6, 4-2 SEC) has its nose above break-even two weekends into conference play. And, it is still early in the season. There are eight upcoming weekends still to play out before these Diamond Dogs can accomplish some much larger goals.

Then again, there always must be a starting point for any major turnaround. A weekend sweep of #22-ranked Auburn might just have turned that trick in getting Bulldog baseball on the right track. At least one other senior, albeit a second-season upperclassman, thinks so.

"It's a big step from last year," said catcher Wes Thigpen following Sunday's 5-0 shutout of the Tigers to secure the sweep. "But we know we have it, people don't respect us like they should but we know we're a great club and we're going to keep playing like we're a great club."

OK, so calling this team great is probably premature. But to their credit, and more importantly on their record, State has just scored four-straight success against ranked opponents. The sweep was MSU's first since 2007; the game-three shutout the first Bulldog blanking in SEC action since 2008. And so it goes, with the possibility of even seeing State's name when some of the new national polls come out.

All great stuff, and what Coach John Cohen has been working for in this grueling rebuild job. "But we won't even discuss or think about that," the coach said Sunday.

As coaches, he meant, because Cohen and club are surely going to hear such speculation all this week leading up to the next SEC series. It's at Georgia, the first of April, and another test of how far Mississippi State's squad has developed.

For that matter Cohen was not even looking that far ahead yesterday; this Tuesday's home date with Alabama A&M was already on his mind. "Because as we've seen in the SEC, in the midweek you can get destroyed," he said, referring to some of the March midweek upsets scored against conference clubs. Of course some of this also is natural coach-speak given AA&M's 3-20 record, putting another Cohen comment--"The only thing you pay attention to is how your opponents are doing."—in perspective.

Still he has a proper point, in that now State has tasted some success the coaches for their first time in years have to establish a regular routine for, well, for a winning team. First and foremost is taking care of such non-conference business, and not letting heads swell too soon. Especially, Cohen noted, if and when State does break back into the rankings.

"I think our kids will be excited about it, but our coaches won't think one second about it." They are thinking about setting up the new week, and today Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson are picking a starter from either Kendal Graveman or Andrew Busby, as well as weighing the likely opportunity of getting others some later-game work.

The past weekend's results offer encouragement that State's weekend rotation is closer to completion. Some 53 weeks after his last SEC appearance, Nick Routt returned to conference play by starting game-three, his second outing overall this year. If not dominating as he often was in 2009 prior to '10 elbow issues, the junior lefty looked just fine at times with a lively fastball and maybe more movement. He didn't quite make the 60-pitch goal but 3.2 innings sufficed for a first SEC test with two hits and three strikeouts against a big-swinging Tiger team.

"I thought Nick was very good," Cohen said. "We just weren't going to send him out there for a long time." Teammates were just as encouraged. "He came in and got a good start for us, and hopefully we see a lot more of that," said Daryl Norris, who by no coincidence took over from Routt and ran out the final five-plus shutout frames to get his first SEC win. That stint was nearly as long as all Norris' work in three prior outings, showing how much more a factor the freshman righthander is becoming for SEC season.

It will take a few days for them to say so but every indication is Routt will step into that game-three starting slot now. Then again the Auburn weekend worked out almost perfectly for State pitching. Almost, because a Friday 4-0 lead turned into a one-run deficit mid-game and chased starter Devin Jones. But Thompson was able to mix and match the last six innings without overworking anyone and keep the bullpen mostly intact for the next two games. A 15-8 romp, with a 13-1 lead after just two innings, certainly eased relief roles Saturday too.

Few weekends will work out so conveniently, true, but the outline of a real rotation-and-relief scheme is coming clearer, particularly as Routt gets up to SEC strength. Cohen said Friday he maintains faith in junior righty Jones (2-3, 3.86) to get weekends going, adding that at times his big-moving stuff can be a headache for backstops Thigpen and Cody Freeman to work with. The ability is there for sure to win SEC matchups; the key is Jones getting far enough that bedrock reliever Caleb Reed (3 saves, 1.65) doesn't have to enter too early and go too long.

Then again, the work shown this Sunday by Norris, or last Sunday by fellow frosh Taylor Stark at Vanderbilt, as well as prior relief outings from Luis Pollorena, Busby, and outfielder C.T. Bradford give Thompson a bit more freedom to wave Reed in earlier. The bullpen got another big boost too with the second strong emergency outing from Chad Girodo. In just two weeks the lefthander has learned a slider and he has made it work against two SEC offenses already.

"I threw that pretty much almost every pitch," Girodo said. "It's a new pitch I've been working hard on, and it's finally paying off a little bit." A lot of bit if he can be the southpaw slinger State needs in SEC action; in fact as he rounds out the repertoire Girodo could even work back into a starting job, since MSU is going to face SEC foes in small parks with short rightfield fences.

Meanwhile soph Chris Stratton (4-1, 2.61) remains the literal core of the rotation as Saturday's reliable winner. Maybe the righthander can't count on the sort of game-two offensive support he got against Auburn each week…but it was wonderful to see. For that matter State swung at a .387 clip over the weekend, had a .505 slugging rate (home runs by Thigpen and SS Jonathan Ogden and seven doubles), and reached base 42% of times. The only worry point was 22 strikeouts against five walks.

In fact a Bulldog offense that even fans had small faith in, and foes regarded not at all, had what might be seen someday as their big breakout. Admittedly, Auburn pitching is not the SEC's best. Still State had to make the contact and get on base, and the Dogs did.

"That comes with confidence," said Ogden who was 7-of-12 for the weekend. And, with a more disciplined approach at the plate. State cut down markedly on easy I-got-its and drove the ball all around their own park. "We've been swinging it well all year, but there's still those routine fly balls we need to get rid of," said Ogden. "We've made some adjustments at batting practice and focused on hard line drives and ground balls."

The weekend also showed why batting remains an eternal you-never-know. Not only did Ogden bust out of a personal slump, where he was shut down at Nashville. Thigpen was the big bat of the series, 5-of-6 with a homer and 88% on-base rate. The senior tried to say it was just seeing the ball better, but the coach was more complimentary.

"Thiggy is a really mentally tough kid, he's working so hard on his stroke. And I think he had a little bit more of an aggressive approach this weekend." Aggressive, yes, but in the right way. And while these two Dogs both hit balls out of the big home park it is no sign of State swinging for any fences. The really impressive aspect was remarkable two-out offensive efficiency; in the last two games 16 of 20 runs were scored with two down. And of course Friday it was Freeman lining the winning hit into centerfield with two outs that plated freshman 2B Adam Frazier.

"I think probably just our approach is probably better," Collins (4-of-10) said. "Seeing the kind of pitching we saw last weekend I think has helped out, you see a top-flight staff like Vanderbilt and it really helps when you face other teams. And we've had a bunch of new guys get their first experience in the SEC and that's carried over."

New guys like Frazier, who started twice at second base this weekend after delivering maybe the key base hit of State's win at Vanderbilt. Stark didn't pitch this week but did have an at-bat as did SS Demarcus Henderson, while rookie Hunter Renfroe got his SEC mound baptism Saturday. It wasn't fun for him but the four-run relief lesson was affordable in the circumstances and should pay off down the career line. Maybe even sooner as these kids are sure to be needed in the second half of 2011.

Besides, said Cohen, "When the opportunity presents itself we've got to get those young guys in there." As for their stumbles, "That's what freshmen do, and the way freshmen stop making mistakes is to make mistakes in the beginning. So we're going to be patient." Of course fellow frosh Norris and Bradford are already fixtures in the lineup, complementing veterans who are seeing some hard experience of previous years paying off now.

"It's great," said Norris. "Those guys have worked so hard and for us to finally get that sweep is great for them."

Said-vets also note how the sweep was set up the previous weekend. When players and coaches came back from Vanderbilt claiming new confidence on just one win over the second-ranked Commodores, there was natural cause for caution. After all, the two losses were by a combined 14-0 score and State trailed 6-1 in game-three.

Yet it wasn't the win itself as much as how the team, offense and pitching and defense alike, managed the comeback. And now they've shown by following up with a strong sweep that indeed a Sunday in Nashville might be seen someday as a real turning point for a rebuilding program.

"We're still coming off that win against Vanderbilt and it's giving us so much confidence," senior Ogden said. "So everything is going well for us."

Thigpen has his own outlook. "Everything is starting to come together for us," he said, adding "This team is all about having fun. We're a very close team and we never really press, we know we're always in it no matter what the score."

For his part Cohen does want the Dogs to have fun. The best way is to keep winning, so now the coaching staff has to turn attention to the games ahead and not the weekend behind.

"We're going to think about Tuesday and Alabama A&M and get some guys ready to play in that game. Because as we've seen in the SEC in the midweek teams come in to your place really excited to play and you need to match their enthusiasm or you can get in a really tough situation. Then we'll do a good job getting ready for Georgia."

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