"It's something that hasn't happened here in a long time," Cohen said. Since 1993, in fact, the last year the SEC played doubleheader days before switching to the current three-day, all-nine inning schedule. There have been conference twinbills since due to weather; and of course State has played pairs of games in pre-league weekends or in post-season tournaments.
But a scheduled double-day at DNF? That has indeed been a long time coming back to campus, despite requests over the last dozen years from all MSU coaches and athletic directors to have the option just once a season. Now Mississippi State is getting what it has asked for at last. "And we'd absolutely love for our Bulldog family to show up and help these kids," said Cohen.
Then again there is another very good reason for the fans to come back for this weekend. After a brutal, no other word, first six weekends in league play the Bulldogs now come to their make-or-break month in surprisingly promising position. Surprising, because at 24-16 overall and 7-11 SEC the record(s) won't open eyes at first glance. But a team that technically stands fifth in the Division and ninth overall in the league, one slot shy of SEC Tournament status, is also just two games out of the West lead.
Not only that, but given who the four squads in front of State have to play this could become a really remarkable weekend opportunity. As in by taking care of home-field business the Bulldogs could find themselves up with the West leaders by Sunday evening. That is the kind of year it has been, and seems likely to stay, in this SEC chase.
Yes, the Diamond Dogs know this already.
"Our kids and staff believe we still have a chance to win the SEC West," Cohen said today. "They're all difficult, but the most difficult part of our schedule is behind us and we feel we match up well with the next four ball clubs." Though, the coach immediately added, "Matching up well and playing well are two different things."
At the same time the remaining matchups should be more promising for a State squad that has been ‘seasoned' against a lineup of powers. Not just conference powers either; in the first six weeks the Dogs played three teams that were then and remain now ranked in the national top-five. For that matter both West foes faced so far were ranked at the time and now are tied for the Division lead. Scratching out single wins against Vanderbilt, Florida, and now South Carolina is no mean feat.
For that matter last week had to be considered a good one overall as MSU also took a 6-1 victory over Ole Miss in the annual Governor's Cup game. Yet when the Dogs left the field Sunday there was a sour taste from a 13-4 loss to #2 South Carolina. Not so much from the margin, as the manner.
"If you look at the last four games we feel we played fairly well," said Cohen. "Yesterday being the exception. We had a chance to make a couple of defensive plays and didn't, and we just didn't pitch it. The fourth and fifth innings we didn't challenge the strike zone and make quality pitches."
But that was against the #2-ranked squad in the country, as well as defending national champions. Similar stories came out of series with the Commodores and Gators, as well as the weekend at Arkansas. The rest of the schedule doesn't show a ranked club which offers some reason for optimism. So does this weekend's opponent. Alabama was the early-season surprise of the SEC with a fast 7-2 start, but the Crimson Tide has lost eight of their last nine league games with sweepings by Vanderbilt and Florida—no shame there—and a puzzling pair of defeats by Tennessee. In a weather-forced doubleheader, at that.
So State would apparently be catching this club at the right time. Yet as Cohen noted, a favorable matchup is far from a sure thing in this SEC season. As for those who make much of the Eastern Division dominance over the West so far, well, the coach has his own perspective.
"It's easy to say the West is not as good; I think the more accurate thing to say there's three in the East as good as any team in the country! Any one of those three has a chance to continue the trend of SEC teams winning a national championship. It doesn't mean the West isn't solid. The RPIs really bear that out." By the way, the Bulldogs own three of the West's wins in inter-Division competition.
Adjusting the schedule for a double-header is one case of good MSU timing. Another is having no midweek games for final exams. The Bulldogs it turns out need the break, three of them to take care of health issues. 3B Jarrod Parks is the league-leader again for both batting average (.409) and on-base average (.533) but he has played with back pain. "Jarrod is going to Jackson today to have some work done on his back," Cohen said. This is related to the January 2010 back surgery Parks had to correct a condition resulting from a junior college incident.
"It's just a recurring back issue," said Cohen. Which makes Parks' production all the more remarkable this season. He has hit safely in 33 of 39 games and the one missed was after taking a UAB pitch to the helmet. It kept him out of the Friday Arkansas lineup, a game State was one more hit away from clinching mid-way; a game where the league's leading hitter could have tipped the balance.
Back pain can explain why Parks seemed somewhat static in the field Sunday, but he was not leaving this lineup. Nor is SS Jonathan Ogden who will get treatment this week for a pulled abdominal muscle. The senior has played with this pain for a long time too; not surprising because he played the entire 2010 season with a bad foot and never mentioned it until summer surgery. "It's become more painful to get into a fielding position," said Cohen.
The painful fact though is State cannot afford to sit these two left-side infield starters now or maybe the rest of the season. "They've played in pain every day but don't talk about it. They're seniors and leaders, and we want them out there. And the positions they play, with our depth, they know how badly we need them." Meanwhile freshman CF C.T. Bradford tweaked a hamstring early in the week; he was able to play the field all weekend with no obvious issues, but the leg kept him from pitching late left-handed relief as hoped.
"I think this is going to be a beneficial week for us," Cohen said. "Our kids have played hard and are really banged-up." Despite this, the Bulldogs have banged and battled into a position where they can see opportunity…and that has a way of making everyone feel better.
As Cohen said, this is the most important weekend State has had so far.
"Our destiny is in our hands. I believe we match up the last four weekends with the teams we play, and I know we have an opportunity. We're excited about this stretch run."
Coming Tuesday: Cohen looks at pitching plans for the weekend series.