"All midweeks are big," Coach John Cohen said this morning. "But this one takes on a little different flavor because of the rivalry." A rivalry that certainly has an added dimension with this extra non-conference clash, begun three decades ago as the Jackson-based Mayor's Trophy before moving across the county line to the superb new professional park in Pearl in 2007. Through the first four such meetings the score is, fittingly, tied at two wins apiece.
State has already won one at Pearl this season, rallying to defeat then-#17 ranked Southern Mississippi 5-4. The Rebels lost their meeting with the Eagles at the park last week, one of many recent examples how the mighty SEC has struggled in out-of-conference competition lately. Cohen, who spent seasons in other leagues before returning to the league, understands why though. Mostly, he said today, because SEC weekends are such an increasing grind.
"When you get to the middle of the week your kids emotionally, physically, in every respect are spent. It's very tough to get your kids back ready for a midweek." By that standard though this is a different sort of midweek for MSU and, presumably, the rival Rebels. Cohen doesn't worry about his guys getting up for this one.
"You have to take care of your pitching situation, but I think our kids will be excited about going down to Pearl. All our great fans there are supportive. This one probably takes on a little different flavor because all the kids know each other, you're playing a SEC team, both these school recruit heavily in this area."
Taking care of pitching will weigh greatly on both head coach's minds, much as they each want to win before the typical big crowd. A Tuesday game does allow a little more margin in terms of who can throw, at least a little, with two days of recovery. Still in State's case Cohen was not naming a starter as of this morning. For that matter they had not begun formal scouting of Ole Miss, having just returned from a weekend in Arkansas.
Yet there will be a Monday practice, against usual policy giving the Dogs this day-off. The most likely starting choices would be Andrew Busby or Kendall Graveman, followed by whoever, whenever. "We'll make a decision this afternoon, but I would say it's going to be a short stint because we need to throw a lot of guys." That list will likely include Luis Pollorena, emerging as the top lefthanded reliever mid-season, and his sudden new righty counterpart in former starter Devin Jones.
"We could get an inning or two out of Devin potentially," said Cohen. "I think we can run a bunch of guys out there and I'm sure Ole Miss would do the same thing."
State is surely pleased with how Jones, up to last week the Friday starter, performed when moved down into a relief role. The junior came in after Arkansas took charge of Saturday's game-two, eventually winning 6-1, and shut them down for almost three innings. Whether it was the role or the situation, change did the talented righty good.
"He had six punchouts and his slider became Devin Jones' slider again," Cohen said. "I think that was a huge confidence boost." Not just for the pitcher, either. "We haven't given up on Devin becoming a (starting) factor again, maybe he becomes a Sunday guy instead of a Friday guy."
The other two SEC starters, righthander Chris Stratton and lefty Nick Routt, won't throw Tuesday. Neither will bullpen bulwark Caleb Reed after his exceptional relief stint Sunday to earn the decision as State beat the #13 Razorbacks 5-3 to salvage a series split. Reed was rolled back to Sunday after he threw 25 pitches last Wednesday in an abbreviated completion of the rain-stopped UAB game. If not for that unscheduled stint the best bullpen Bulldog would surely have been called on to hold a 5-2 lead Friday evening.
That one got away though as Arkansas got to Stratton in the eighth inning for three runs. Not that Cohen faulted how the first Friday start for Stratton went, not at all. It was a winning performance in all but where it counted, lost because Bulldog batters didn't completely cash in their runners-in-position potential back in the middle innings. Most notably after they had taken that three-run margin and still had two in scoring spots with one out and the top of the order up.
A single, well, single would likely have put State in superior enough position to rattle the Razorbacks. Just as a weekend before when the Dogs were tied with #4 Florida and in position to take a lead, the one key hit didn't come. That is the difference between a 6-9 league mark and, quite conceivably, State sitting over .500 halfway through SEC season.
The Bulldogs did scrap to a Sunday success, and "I felt yes was a big win for our team," Cohen agreed. "You can't help but feel if we'd held on Friday and made a pitch or two , a ball finds a hole, we're winning two of three. It's disappointing, although I'm really pleased with the way our kids fought back on Sunday."
The whole SEC season has been an uphill fight. In fact Cohen notes every foe faced so far has been coming off winning its previous series, even sweeping. That holds true this weekend too with South Carolina riding high from their series win over Vanderbilt in an Eastern Division showdown. And of course the Gamecocks are defending national champions. So no, nothing gets any easier at all to open the second half of the SEC schedule at State.
The encouraging signs though are exemplified by Stratton throwing so well in a Friday start, and Jones getting back into some sort of SEC synch. Even a rough Saturday start by Routt doesn't diminish his progress upon return to conference play after the injury-aborted '10 season. The emergence of Pollorena and other relievers, whether for extended stints or matchups, strengthens the staff further. State also played two errorless games at Arkansas and is second in conference fielding percentage.
Offense of course remains the chief concern of all. But it's easy to forget State lost Friday without Jarrod Parks in the starting order, after taking a pitch to the head at UAB. All the senior third baseman did the rest of the week was hit 5-of-9, walk four times, and raise his average to a SEC-best .395. His Friday presence could well have tipped the series balance.
State will be without one weekend starter Tuesday, not to injury though. Outfielder Brent Brownlee will be suspended for making a vulgar gesture to fans after he caught Sunday's game-ending out.
"He's not going to make the trip," Cohen said of the one-game suspension. "Which I know Brent being from Oxford and the great rivalry we have with the folks up north, that's going to be really disappointing to him." At the same time Brownlee disappointed himself and the program despite whatever provocations provided at Baum Stadium. Cohen has been told what the leftfield area fans were calling, even the suggested threats made.
"Our issue isn't what provoked it…but knowing what I know about Brent it would take a lot to provoke him. That still doesn't excuse what he did, Brent knows that. I'm just going to be responsible for one of my players, Brent is going to assume responsibility for his actions. It doesn't matter what is said or what threats are thrown."
Cohen can certainly provide some perspective on such things based on both his own playing experience as a SEC outfielder, as well as many ensuing seasons in coaching boxes as an assistant or head coach. He notes recent, and tragic, examples of fan behavior getting out of hand in Major League games. For that matter Mississippi State fans earned quite a reputation back in the day for verbal abuse thrown at outfielders, especially over in the famous left side of Dudy Noble Field. When Cohen's Diamond Dog teams went on the road the host school's fans would return such favors as best they could. Or, worst.
"I remember playing places where they threw russet potatoes. In fact, I remember having one thrown at me, and picking it up and putting it in my back pocket." Not because he wanted a snack though. "Because I didn't want to trip on it!"
The larger point being that lines can be crossed in the natural interactions of home fans and visiting players, especially that far away from umpires and game management. "I don't think you can ignore the fact things can go overboard quickly," Cohen said. "And I say that knowing how supportive our people are in our outfield. For the most part the stuff that happens in college outfield bleachers is pretty good-natured, pretty creative, and part of the game." For players to fire back during or afterwards, is not.
"It is an unfortunate incident on our part. Brent made a mistake, he's going to move on, we're going to move on. I'm a big believer in track record and Brent's behavior, his academic record, every part is flawless so I'm going to back him."
Meanwhile the Bulldogs get back to action against the top rival, on a field that will officially be neutral but really be split by well-balanced fan bases. The teams' respective power ratings are pretty even these days, too, with both a point or two either side of a (unofficial) 30 RPI. Winning Tuesday would be another big boost to State's post-season opportunity, but…
"I just think about these games in terms of we need to play well and be consistent and find ways to score runs," Cohen said. Easier for the coach to see things suchly; players are more easily caught up. "It's a tournament-type atmosphere," Cohen admitted. "You feel more is on the line than in a typical midweek game." Which might have something to do with State having a rare Monday practice, though Cohen will give the Bulldogs their weekday break on Wednesday this time.