State Hosts A&M In Tune-Up For Georgia Series

John Cohen is candid. "I'm not gonna sugar-coat how good Alabama A&M is," he said this morning. "I know they've struggled. But these are the games that scare you to death as a coach."

Maybe it's because now Mississippi State (18-6, 4-2 SEC) goes into tonight's rescheduled game with Alabama A&M (3-20) with something to risk. That being the momentum built up by MSU's Bulldogs over the past couple of weeks. Cohen's club brings a four-win streak, all of them SEC successes, into the 5:00 Wednesday evening contest at Dudy Noble Field. The last thing needed now is to stumble or even struggle against the visiting SWAC Bulldogs, especially as State prepares to face some other conference canines in the coming weekend.

With the non-conference home contest delayed a day by weather—which is expected to both clear and warm through the afternoon—Cohen has accordingly revised his pitching plans. Now Kendall Graveman will get the start, though he assuredly won't finish.

"We want to get as many guys involved as possible before we get on a bus to go to Athens," the coach said. Andrew Busby would have started had the game been played last night as planned. "We bumped him because he might pitch first long (relief) at Georgia."

In fact Wednesday's teleconference focused much more on the coming weekend than tonight's opposition. Obviously so, given how Mississippi State has suddenly become a factor again on the SEC's early-season outlook. Those four-straight wins (and five in the last seven counting a win at Lipscomb two Wednesdays ago) didn't just come in league play.

They were against ranked opposition. After being shut out the first two games by superb Vanderbilt pitching, the Diamond Dogs responded with a gutsy Sunday comeback to beat the #2 Commodores 9-8 in Nashville and salvage a split. They carried that encouraging effort through a week-off, then took advantage of the home field to sweep Auburn 7-6, 15-8, and 5-0. It was the first three-game series sweep by a State team since 2007. The result is two weeks into SEC season this team stands second in the Western Division, behind 5-1 Alabama and ahead of 3-3 Ole Miss.

It also has the Dogs now back in a national ranking (24th Collegiate Baseball) and knocking on other poll-doors. "I like the way our club is playing," Cohen said. "I like our chemistry, I like the way our kids compete, I like what we're doing defensively and on the mound for the most part." He also liked how his squad responded to Tuesday's preemptive rainout.

"Most times when you cancel a game practice is not great. Yesterday's practice was one of the best of the year, then we got in the weightroom and had a productive day also."

All good stuff. But then momentum is only good when maintained, and despite proclaimed fears over this evening Cohen is clearly thinking ahead to the weekend's opportunity…and challenge. Georgia's overall record is 11-14 but those Bulldogs have played perhaps the most brutal non-conference schedule anywhere. Including a Tuesday night clash with Clemson, which they lost 11-5. State can't look at that; all they need note is a 3-3 SEC record and a weekend series win over LSU to know this is a serious conference contender.

Is Mississippi State? Four solid wins are an excellent starting point but Hoover and the post-season are far, far away. So Cohen will use tonight's game, much as possible, to fine-tune the team for the weekend.

Though the lineup cards haven't been written the plan for now is sticking with the same rotation as this past weekend. It featured a new, or rather an old, face in the Sunday slot as junior lefthander Nick Routt made his long-awaited return to SEC action. A year and a week after his last conference outing Routt resumed with 3.2 innings, not enough to get credited for the win officially but a victory in most all aspects.

Routt was on a pitch-count in his first SEC, and second overall, start of 2011, and left after 53 tosses. This Sunday, "We're going to keep stretching him out bit-by-bit. We're pleased with what we saw Sunday. It wasn't quite what we saw (at Lipscomb) but still very promising. The fastball is far beyond what it was early in his career, and movement and location. He's found his this ‘cutter' and curveball. I think he's going to be a big part of what we're trying to do." Which means winning series, naturally.

And as Cohen added, "Basically, championships are won on Sunday in our league."

Then again series' tones can be set on Friday, and junior righty Devin Jones has had some struggles his first two SEC openers. He lost a 4-0 lead against Auburn, and while some clever bullpen match-work allowed State to keep the #22 Tigers contained long enough to rally Jones was rattled. Cohen said he and Coach Butch Thompson have met with the gifted hurler a couple of times since as they seek solutions.

"I think he's just a hair away from being a very, very productive pitcher in the SEC. You watch his bullpens and he's throwing 90, 94 at times; a slider that's a plus-plus pitch and is gonna get him more than in the door of professional baseball." The trick is making that stuff work now at the college level consistently, and "I think there's just times Devin is not as confident as he should be," Cohen said.

"We're going to send him back out there on Friday. I can tell you, be what happened the last couple of weekends, it's probably more likely we have someone waiting in the wings if things don't go well." Last Friday that was lefthander Tim Statz, and he scuffled through enough to get the ball to other matchup men. Now that Busby has been held out of midweek though this righty might well get the quick call…though obviously the ideal is for Jones to carry the club beyond half-way and eventually hand the ball to shut-down reliever Caleb Reed.

And Cohen agreed today State is more willing to run Reed out as needed because other bullpen Bulldogs have blossomed. A brand-new slider has turned lefty Chad Girodo into a fierce match, and Sunday it was frosh righty Daryl Norris coming to the fore to finish the shutout and get his first SEC decision. Cohen is confident with either Victor Diaz or Luis Pollorena in mid-relief as well, and rookie Taylor Stark never had to throw once against Auburn after he was the Sunday pitching star at Vanderbilt.

For that matter another frosh, C.T. Bradford, didn't go to the hill the past weekend either. "I'm looking at a list of 16 guys that have pitched for us," Cohen said. He'd rather not have to roll that many men to the mound over a weekend, of course…but it's nice to have such choices. And somewhat easier this year, too, since Bradford and Norris are regular position players/batters already on the roster, which for 2011 has increased to 27 men. Stark too can play an outfield position.

Speaking of positions, another frosh has worked into the lineup. Adam Frazier, who had maybe the key hit at Vanderbilt in the comeback win, got two weekend starts at second base and looks like a kid ready to stick there. "Adam is growing into that," Cohen agreed. "I'm pleased we had the depth and opportunity to bring him along very slowly. I'm pleased with his development, he had some arm issues at the end of fall. But he can defend, he's a guy that hits ground balls and line drives, there's not a lot of swing-and-misses. And he runs a lot better than people think."

Another Dog who can run, at least when healthy, might not be available again as outfielder Brent Brownlee is still hobbled by a sore foot. An initial MRI showed nothing, Cohen said, but there are concerns of a possible stress fracture. That would be yet another blow to a talented athlete who has struggled for years, high school and college both, with injuries.

"We're gonna have to make a decision whether to take him on the trip tonight after we hear from the doctor," Cohen said. "I think with (Jaron) Shepherd, Brent Brownlee, and C.T., and even Ryan Collins, we have one of more athletic outfields in country. Take Brent out of the mix and it changes things." How State has changed has been putting Bradford in centerfield and, usually, Shepherd in right. The senior just didn't look at-ease in left last Friday night but on the following two day games seemed more confident in right.

Another reason to have speedster Shepherd on the right side is keeping Nick Vickerson's bat in the leadoff position, as the senior is a serviceable leftfielder. It's not easy to DH Vickerson, also a second baseman, since alternate catcher Cody Freeman needs to hit every game too; as does Norris, whose first base position is held by Collins most days.

The Bulldogs leave for Athens on Thursday morning. They return for a week of home, or home-state games, as State plays in Pearl next Tuesday evening against Southern Mississippi; before hosting Florida for Super Bulldog Weekend.

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