Bulldogs Alter Rotation For Arkansas Weekend

Not that he ever toed the rubber himself, of course. But John Cohen played and coached this game long enough to know a SEC moundsman's goal. "Every kid who pitches in this league eventually wants to pitch on Friday night," Cohen said, talking of moving Chris Stratton to game-one this weekend. "And I think he'll handle this the right way."

Mississippi State very much wants to make some things happen the right way in their upcoming conference series at Arkansas. So with league season hitting the half-way point this weekend, the Diamond Dogs (21-12, 5-7 SEC) are making some moves on the mound to, they hope, match up more favorably with the Razorbacks. Start times are 7:00 Friday for regional telecast by SportSouth, while the Saturday (6:35) and Sunday (1:05) games will be broadcast by Cox Sports.

And starting out the series will be Stratton (4-3, 4.22) who has been the literal central figure in State's pitching plans. Cohen, just like many of his conference peers these changing days, has preferred riding the most proven pitcher in the middle of weekend rotations. Righthander Stratton has held up his end well in such use so far.

But in SEC series #5 of this season Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson are shuffling the deck and giving the sophomore his first Friday assignment at State.

Ironically the move comes after Stratton's shortest college stint, when #4 Florida knocked him out in a second Saturday inning. In fact, "I think he really wanted to pitch last Sunday," Cohen said today. "He didn't feel good about it and wanted to get right back on the horse and pitch." Now Stratton doesn't have to wait a whole week before working again.

"He's a great competitor, he works hard, his bullpens have been very good," Cohen said, as Stratton tries fixing what went wrong against the Gators. "It's just a situation where he has to throw it in the strike zone more and become more economical." As in, get quicker ground ball/fly ball outs and not go for multi-pitch strikeouts. As a rookie Stratton worked that way and was the clear staff leader, so it's nothing new in the planning.

Other of course than taking the ball on game-one. State is in the same situation as several SEC squads this year, not having a classic ‘ace' approach. In fact the last two Bulldog opponents each juggled their rotations prior to the series, moving someone new into the Friday slot. It worked for Georgia, not so for Florida as State got to their unbeaten ace early. Just another way that 2011 has not been a typical SEC sort of season, Cohen agreed.

What does change for Stratton is he won't have Friday to watch the opponents swinging as he has all his career to-date. "Which is an advantage," Cohen said. "I think he's mature enough to handle that, and we have a whole library of video on their hitters." As for any perceived pressure to get the weekend going right, "I don't think there's as much pressure as a year ago," said Cohen. "The starting guy has an opportunity to win and not go incredibly deep into games."

This is because the 2011 Bulldog bullpen is in infinitely better shape. And for that matter Cohen said moving Stratton is also easier because it can—in theory anyway—help keep the relief staff stocked for a full weekend's mixing and matching. All depending, of course, on Stratton getting the sort of quality start (five or more good innings) he's been known for.

The bullpen is even deeper this week because it has a new member. Devin Jones, the Friday starter up to now, will be held for relief roles the first two days at Fayetteville. Jones (2-4, 4.43) has had some frustrating SEC outings this junior season, whether from his own control issues at time or just plain bad breaks in others. Changing his role at this mid-point offers opportunity to right the course, Cohen believes, as well as allow some fresh staff flexibility.

Giving up game-one status can't be easy, of course. "We sat down with him and told him what we want to do, and Devin handled it as we thought he would. He wants to help our team any way he can. I think he's disappointed with his starts, but he's a talented young man. It's just not happening as often as he wants right now." Cohen doesn't exaggerate the talent, which is obvious of professional potential. Now Jones can show it in some other ways.

"In a one-out stint where we need a slider, or one inning of relief. Or if we get to Sunday and haven't used him, we can start him." That game-three slot is open because Nick Routt is also getting promoted, to Saturday after three Sunday starts in his return from a full year's absence.

Each weekend Routt (0-1, 2.35) has increased both his pitch count and his efficiency, to the point State is confident the junior lefthander is ready to match up with the SEC's best. Which he of course looked like himself as a 2009 freshman, prior to the soph season-shortening elbow issues. This is not quite the same Routt, though. Age and development have refined some skills which as this season winds along should only improve further.

"His fastball is different. A year ago even though it had more velocity probably, he was much more hittable. Throwing the way he is now it's 88 to 90, but really hard to see. And you love a pitcher that creates a lot of spin and movement. He's staying on his delivery better."

Other possible Sunday starters include Evan Mitchell (3-1, 4.12), Andrew Busby (1-0, 9.28) and Luis Pollorena (3-2, 1.52). The latter has emerged mid-season as the top long-relief lefthander too, though Wednesday night he also took the loss based on two batters faced at Alabama-Birmingham. That was a resumed-game, picked up with State trailing 4-3 in the sixth inning. They tied the score up only to lose 6-4.

This loss followed a too-familiar theme for State, of getting runners on bases and leaving them unscored. In fact play resumed with two on paths with no outs. The Dogs tied the game with a sacrifice fly by Wes Thigpen but didn't get the clutch hit to take charge. They also left two more on, again reaching with no outs, in the seventh, as Blazer relief pitching retired eight-straight to run the evening out.

Unlike frustrations following a 3-1 Sunday loss to Florida, as well as a series where batters were 3-of-21 with runners in scoring spots, Cohen could only shrug at Wednesday's letdowns in clutch swinging. Thigpen's fly ball, for example, was a serious shot with bases loaded. "A right on right slider situation, he hits a ball right on the screws at a leftfielder." Or when C/DH Cody Freeman also slugged into a ball that going a few degrees to either side scores multiple RBI. Instead the waiting centerfielder catches a line-drive.

In each case an upperclassman did exactly as he should in terms of contact. "You can't say he's not a clutch hitter," Cohen said. "It's hard to get upset about those situations when guys are doing what they are supposed to do. Where if he takes a bad swing and gets a hopper that gets through, that's not good hitting but it's a hit!" For that matter Cohen credits State's sweeping of Auburn to such bad swinging, as more than a few Bulldog runs came on bouncers and dribblers and bloopers.

"It's kept happening to us, we're getting good swings and can't buy a hit." He's heard comparable complaints around the league this year, too, even from winning clubs who aren't comfortable at the plate in this new-bats era. The last team to take on Arkansas is another example as LSU pitched superbly at Fayetteville and was swept all the same because runners went unscored.

"It's the same subject with every team, situational hitting," Cohen said. But then it is The Subject for State these days because Bulldog batters have struggled more than most in the last two weekends. The season average is just .287 overall, .265 in SEC action; which has offset a lot of the good starting and relief pitching provided so far.

Timely hitting looms larger, if possible, this weekend as once again MSU matches up with a top-twenty team…a very familiar situation this season already. In fact Cohen notes that all of State's SEC series will have been against teams coming off either a series success or outright sweep, as is the case with Arkansas.

"I don't know if there is a team in the SEC that has a weekend that is not huge, but Arkansas is playing well," Cohen said. "So it's going to be a challenge for us." Capacity crowds, which are leading the league this year in actual attendence, are expected at Baum Stadium for the West matchup.

The challenges don't decrease upon return home, either. The Bulldogs will be in Pearl's Trustmark Park next Tuesday for the annual Governor's Cup battle with Ole Miss; then host defending national champions South Carolina in the next weekend's series.

State has an afternoon practice at Dudy Noble Field this afternoon before flying to Fayetteville.

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