The 2011 Diamond Dogs can vouch for that. In fact, it seems unlikely anyone arriving in Omaha this June will be part of a eight-team field any stouter than the lineup headed for Hoover in May. And Mississippi State will have already played all of ‘em along the regular season way. The brutal Bulldog schedule continues this weekend with a visit from South Carolina (29-7, 12-3 SEC), only the current #2 ranked team in the country as well as the both overall and Eastern Division league leader.
Oh, and defending national champions, just for the record.
All of which would make for a major weekend challenge at Mississippi State (23-14, 6-9 SEC). Except, for these Diamond Dogs it's just the latest such matchup. Cohen's club has practically played a top-twenty schedule since SEC season began, including opponents at the time ranked top-five (#1 or 2 Vanderbilt depending on poll, and #4 Florida) along with a #20 Auburn and this past weekend #13 Arkansas. So this is nothing new for State.
What is new? An increasing level of club confidence that the Dogs can hold their own. For all the first-half frustrations facing such a league lineup, State remains very much in the SEC Tournament mix. In fact, a 6-9 mark may have them only 9th overall right now…but that is only two games different from the three 8-7 squads currently tied for the West lead. And MSU has series ahead against two of those.
First though are the Gamecocks coming to campus. Game times are 7:06 Friday for ESPNU telecast; 6:06 Saturday for FOX Sports Net; and 1:30 Sunday.
Cohen and staff got busy scouting South Carolina yesterday, after returning from a 6-1 Tuesday night win over Ole Miss in Pearl. What they watch on film matches SEC word-of-mouth. "The thing you're hearing and seeing is they just don't make mistakes, they don't give you anything. They're just really balanced."
South Carolina certainly is stingy on the mound. They don't just lead the league but this week top the NCAA stats in earned run allowed, in hits allowed per-inning; are sixth in fielding average, 25th in walks. And anyone reaching base rarely advances; the Gamecocks have turned more double-plays than anyone in the land. Their offense is middle of the SEC pack in sheer numbers, but efficiency matters more as South Carolina takes advantage of their opportunities.
And, "They dominate so many average things," said Cohen, which to his coaching mind is quite a compliment. It also signals how the Gamecocks have easily adapted to the new reality forced on college baseball by lower-powered bats. "And with the new bats these are the clubs that have a chance to win the whole thing," Cohen said. "You're going to see clubs that don't beat themselves, that 1-through-9 can really execute offensively, that don't walk people. All the basic things."
For his own team's part, the Bulldogs have shown improvement in most basics over the course of Cohen's third season. In fact this team already has as many victories, overall and league alike, as State scored in all 2010. A good start, true. But a berth in Hoover is still far from assured at this point and much work remains.
"That's going to be a fight for our club," the coach said. "From the standpoint of the clubs we played first five, six weeks, it's a preparation for the last four. But we're going to have to win some games at home and on the road. And this is a big, big weekend for us. We've got to do whatever it takes to get to the post-season."
Based on the last ten seasons, reaching 14 wins practically guarantees a SEC tournament spot. Only once has such a record failed to qualify, and that was by a tie-breaker with a team that played one less league game. A 13-win mark generally but not always does the trick, too; while a dozen wins comes up short as often as not.
Also, looking at how this year's SEC is stacking up and who plays whom in the second-half, there appear to be four clubs—at least--likely to be scrambling down the stretch for the 7-8-9 slots. Though some observers project the SEC might well receive nine NCAA bids this spring, judging from how other major conferences are looking right now, that's a lot closer than Cohen wants to cut things.
"But the good news for us, and I think our players realize this, when playing week-in and week-out teams that have a chance to win the national championship; and you're right there with them and making these strides, our kids are saying ‘wow, if we can beat these teams why can't we be in that mix?'"
Cohen refers to solo State wins against Vanderbilt, Florida, and Arkansas (two of those on the road) as well as oh-so-close calls with the Gators and Razorbacks that, in review, ought to have been Bulldog wins. Not could have, should have. Finishing off either contest would have State a game under SEC-.500 going into the second half; both and a still-rebuilding team is suddenly atop the West. That is how close things have been for the Bulldogs through the first half.
"We're a much, much better defensive and pitching club than a year ago," Cohen agrees. "And the bats have helped."
By the same token hitting, at least in clutch situations, has also been State's weak point in those close calls. Still each week sees Bulldog batters making a little more progress in this aspect. Though only 9th in pure SEC average, and 11th in slugging—a stat not bothering Cohen in the least—this order is 4th-best in on-base average. And, to the surprise of many, 4th in both runs scored and RBI. It is interesting to note that State and South Carolina are 1-2 in walks, and only one base-on-balls apart at that.
So the Dogs do more with the hits they get than just about anyone anywhere. The obvious key is collecting just a few more such safeties, especially with runners in scoring spots. A single, well, single on Sunday against Florida and last Friday at Arkansas would have State on a faster post-season track, not to mention shaking up SEC standings. Tuesday night offered a reminder than when this team scores six runs, they are 17-1.
State even leads the league in one offensive category. Senior third baseman Jarrod Parks is batting a SEC-best .402. He's hit safely in 30 of 36 games and posted 17 multi-hit games. It's well worth noting how the team's top swinger was not in the Friday order at Arkansas due to taking a pitch to the head two nights earlier at UAB.
Cohen did say the Governor's Cup victory over the Rebels was not a "typical" game for this team. Certainly the Dog defense had more errors—three, two by SS Jonathan Ogden—than usual in any win. "Besides that I thought we pitched it well, we did a good job throwing strikes early. We gave up some contact but that's OK in a big ballpark." On offense, "We got some timely hitting and capitalized."
"It's a good game to catapult us into the weekend where we're going to play one of the best teams in the country."
Even better, State was able to ride midweek starter Kendall Graveman four scoreless innings, limit the work of lefthanded long reliever Chad Girodo to 3.2 innings which should have him ready by Saturday again; and give rookie Taylor Stark the closing opportunity. All of which means MSU pitching is well-stocked for this SEC weekend. Especially if soph righthander Chris Stratton follows up a outstanding, if losing, Friday at Arkansas with another such game-one.
Moving Stratton up a day to start the series was possible with the return of junior lefthander Nick Routt from '10 injury. He didn't have a long or successful start Saturday against the Razorbacks but Cohen is confident the veteran will find his game-two footing down the season stretch. As for rounding-out the rotation, "It's going to depend on what we need to do with Devin Jones," Cohen said.
State already did one big thing with the junior righty, moving him out of the Friday starting slot he'd held the first eight weekends. Jones responded well and was the bright Bulldog spot in a Saturday loss to Arkansas, shutting the home team down in a middle-relief stint. His bullpen assignment might not last long now…or will it? Because Jones was loosening Tuesday night; he did not enter the game Cohen said because "He felt it wasn't there."
The coaching staff does feel Jones can be counted on to be ‘there' from now on in whatever situation. If he doesn't have to work in either of the first two games this weekend Cohen lists him as a Sunday starting possibility. "The other issue is do we have to use Luis Pollorena, he's Sunday option." Cohen even offers the idea of starting top bullpen Bulldog Caleb Reed in a game-three if he doesn't have to throw the first two games. Which, the coach adds, is not very likely of course.
"So I feel there is some flexibility there. We pitch differently in our ballpark, but as Nick comes back, as his secondary stuff comes back a little at a time, if he can get a five, six, seven inning stint it changes our bullpen and helps our cause there." And the bullpen is State's true 2011 strength as Reed, Girodo, Pollorena, Daryl Norris, and Taylor Stark, and more find their best roles in relief.
It will be understandable if the Bulldogs look beyond this weekend with some other relief, as the ‘murderers row' schedule does ease up at least somewhat. And should State come out of the South Carolina series successfully they will have made a major move ahead as everyone sets up for what looks to be an even more intense than usual SEC stretch run.
"After this weekend we'll have played three of the top-five teams in the country, and Arkansas ranked 13th to 21st," Cohen said. "Our kids are starting to realize, we're one pitch away and very, very close to being able to compete with anybody. And if you do that, you have a chance to do something special in the post-season."
If, the coach follows up quickly, they can win that opportunity. "Our team is just trying to get to the postseason!"