Staff Still Setting Starting Pitching Plans

They have a game-free midweek, as well as a whole extra day before the series begins. But no matter how coaches scheme up the two-day weekend, all plans for rotating and relieving hinge on solving John Cohen's big pitching problem of late. "We've got to throw to the strike zone."

Little else matters at this Mississippi State moment. As the Bulldogs (24-16, 7-11 SEC) prepare for the four decisive series left on their 2011 regular schedule, Cohen and club are focused on fixing what has been the weak link too often. Specifically, getting more and better innings from those who toe the rubber first in each weekend's rotation.

"The issue for us with starting pitching recently is just throwing more strikes, pounding the strike zone."

A rotation that reclaims the strike zone does appear to be Mississippi State's best call in achieving their basic season goals. That being, qualifying for the eight-team SEC Tournament; and earning the NCAA bid that this year seems almost assured for everyone reaching Hoover. In fact some speculate the best SEC squad not making the league tourney will still earn a bid based on the conference's collective power ratings.

That's not a chance State wants to take though. Nor will the Diamond Dogs need to sweat selections if they win their way through the upcoming four series. That is entirely possible, too, at least when comparing who they played in the first six SEC series against the remaining row of Alabama, Tennessee, Ole Miss, and LSU. The Bulldogs have their own fate in their own hands.

Primarily, in the right- or left-hands of the rotation. It isn't even that Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson are asking starters to run the route, as helpful as that would be of course. "We've got to get the hot guys on our staff in position to help us win a game," said Cohen, meaning State's impressive relief combination of lefthander Luis Pollorena and righthander Caleb Reed. Giving either, or better both, of them the ball with a lead and less than half-a-game to go has been about as close to a sure thing as Mississippi State has found so this season.

It's an obvious fact that State starters have been matched up with the SEC's best squads, and thus some of the country's top clubs. So mixed results were to be expected. Still in the last two, three weekends there have been bothersome results from the rotation. Most notably from Chris Stratton, who up to then had been the one reliable rotation presence. But after absorbing seven runs on nine hits Friday evening against #2-ranked South Carolina the questions were coming.

The answer? It was pretty clear to State's coaches. "He's just elevating pitches in the hitting zone," Cohen said. "When he's down in the zone he's really good, when he's elevating pitches and getting behind people he becomes a little bit generic, and generic gets you killed in this league." At least it will facing elite teams such as the Gamecocks. Or, his shortest stint when Florida battered him in a brutal second inning three series ago.

The temptation is to suggest moving Stratton from game-two to series-starter has affected the soph somehow. That watching the opponent a whole game before pitching is the best approach for this particular pitcher. Cohen does note though that in his first Friday turn, at Arkansas, Stratton worked into the eighth with a 5-3 lead and had thrown better than ever in the preceding inning. Then just a couple of elevated fastballs produced a hit and a homer.

The encouraging fact is Stratton's proven prowess when he keeps his stuff in the lower half of strike zones, so nothing major needs changing. As to moving his most reliable rotation man back to the second game, Cohen would like the luxury as he called it…not that it matters as much this weekend with State playing a Saturday doubleheader.

"We talked after the game," said Cohen of setting up the Saturday pitching. "We're definitely going to have to make some decisions. But because we don't have any games this week and kids are in finals we have more time to watch Alabama (tape) and see who matches up the best."

Judging by how he continues to strengthen with each outing, Nick Routt could well get game-one anyway. State was still cautious how he was used against South Carolina, pulling him after 3.1 opening innings Saturday once Routt began missing. That was an easy call since both Pollorena and Reed were ready in relief of course. Still the hope now is the junior lefthander can get much deeper into Alabama's order and limit the need for relief support.

"No doubt in my mind down the stretch Chris and Nick know what is at stake and are going to give us more quality innings," Cohen said. "Then we'll have to see how we fare on a day-three." There are even inevitable suggestions that Pollorena and, to a lesser extent, Reed be worked into starting jobs. Cohen isn't against the idea…he just doesn't see it as practical barring an amazing effort from the first two starters.

"I can't imagine us pushing one of those guys back to Sunday," he said of the top relievers. "If Caleb hasn't pitched on Saturday--which would be shocking!—you'd be inclined to use him more innings on Sunday, as with Pollorena."

For a week the coaches thought they'd found another top right-side reliever, after taking Devin Jones from his Friday starting slot. A good outing at Arkansas after the game was out of hand; then a dozen good pitches late against South Carolina set up Saturday expectations. But taking over with a 3-2 lead and runners on bases, Jones was hit hard and consistently and took the loss. That surprised the staff for sure after the first two relief appearances.

"But they weren't everything on the line," Cohen said. "Maybe those are the kind of things that will propel him to the future, and again this was the first time he had to throw two times in one weekend. So it's a new role for him also."

It's also not impossible Jones could regain a starting role if he ever translates obvious talent into consistent effort. But for now State will just work through Saturday's twinbill, see who remains, and scramble through Sunday. Besides, Cohen reminds, the bullpen is still the strength of this squad. "The starting part is easier," he said, as any serious starter ought to get through an order at least once and maybe twice before turning it over to Pollorena, Reed, "Because those are the hard innings."

Such innings, or any turn for that matter, is easier given offensive and defensive support. State's scores and batting averages against South Carolina are somewhat misleading as the Bulldogs made good contact all weekend with little to show for it Friday and Sunday. In fact it was a series of softer-struck balls that found ground in game-two that made the difference, the epitome of ‘that's baseball.' Cohen doesn't have a lot of offensive options to make adjustments with anyway this season, so State will continue setting up the order for the best batting hand-on-mound side matchups. This generally means moves with outfielders.

Despite frustrations from the middle-infield that always seem to open doors for opponents, State will stick with Jonathan Ogden at shortstop. The senior was playing with a abdominal muscle pull over the weekend, which did not appear to impact range. And he had just one error all series…which as things always seem to go contributed to a big Gamecock inning. So did a ground-ball booted by 3B Jarrod Parks in game-two, but State overcame that one; and it was learned Monday this senior is playing with pain also, a result of an old back problem that won't be fixed entirely until he's done with baseball.

State has increasingly relied on one new glove, giving frosh Adam Frazier more starts at second base. He rewarded the opportunity by handling all 11 chances over the S.C. weekend with one splendid grab-and-throw for an out at home plate Sunday. Frazier also figured in double-plays in the Arkansas win and in State's midweek victory over Ole Miss in the Governor's Cup game. He was beaten by Gamecock pitching with a 0-for-10 series but Cohen commented on the excellent contact he made. "So you feel at any point he could put together some hits."

Another mid-season adjustment was giving Wes Thigpen the last seven starts at catcher. Up to then the senior had alternated with classmate Cody Freeman two-for-one; now Thigpen looks to get more like three starts out of four, or maybe more.

"He has caught so much better on back-to-back days than after we give him a break," Cohen said. "He'd been telling us that all along, he's better when he doesn't have rest, and I'm starting to believe that." Though offense will always be his issue—though he had some big hits in the Arkansas series—this is the better backstop to work with the types of pitchers State needs on the hill this coming month.

"We need what Thigpen brings on an every-day basis," Cohen said.

The Bulldogs will practice around their final exams schedule, as well as the threats of serious weather on Tuesday and Wednesday, as best they can. Saturday's double-dip, the first scheduled SEC twinbill at Dudy Noble Field since 1993, begins at 2:00 with the second game starting approximately a half-hour after completion. Sunday stays on the 1:30 schedule.

Mississippi State also has graduation ceremonies on Friday evening and 10:00 am Saturday. So fans should plan on working around traffic snarls on campus, or just parking at a safe Saturday distance.

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