Dogs Control SEC Fate In Four-Series Stretch

Mississippi State spent six series contesting top-tier competition and trying to gain control their own fate. Now that they are in that position it is time for the Diamond Dogs to deliver over the four weekends which will make or break. "This is when it's got to happen," said John Cohen. "We are battling for post-season, and really an opportunity to get to the top of the West standings."

Really, they are. Though the Bulldogs (24-15) are 7-11 in SEC action six weekends into the season, they are also just two games out of the Division lead currently shared by three 9-9 teams. And, Mississippi State opens the four-week run to the scheduled finish with an Alabama (26-18) team that is immediately in front at 8-10. Opportunity, indeed.

And, risk for teams that up to now seemed to be in solid position, too. Especially so in a Western Division where five teams could entirely change positions top-to-bottom in the space of a single series; much less the rest of the schedule. So "These four weeks aren't just important to us, but certainly we have our chance to make a mark on the SEC West," said Cohen today.

The chance should be particularly promising for the Bulldogs not only because they can make up some ground themselves. The tied trio at the top have difficult weekends in store as Auburn heads to South Carolina, Arkansas goes to Georgia, and Ole Miss is at Florida. Those host teams are either tied for the East lead, or in Georgia's case in fourth and on a roll themselves. That will make for quite a bit of scoreboard-watching at Dudy Noble Field over the next two days.

But not Friday. This series is delayed a day for evening graduation conflict, setting up the first scheduled SEC doubleheader at Dudy Noble Field since 1993. Saturday's set, which follows morning graduation, begins at 2:06 with game-one telecast on SportSouth. Game-two will follow the opener with an approximate half-hour break. Sunday's finale is 1:30.

"We're really excited about this weekend," Cohen said. "Our kids have had some time off, and we've been able to let a couple of kids heal a little bit. I feel our kids are ready to play well. They had a great practice yesterday, very high energy." The Bulldogs will practice again Friday, the fourth of a week working around final exams schedules.

And, some injury situations that likely would have left two, maybe three Dogs sitting out any midweek action. SS Jonathan Ogden is being treated for an abdominal muscle pull that has hampered him for some time now, without missing a start this season. He did not practice much Tuesday or Wednesday after taking a shot, doing light work per the coach. "He'll be a little more full-speed today." But will he be full-go for Saturday is the question.

Asking Ogden himself may not result in a real answer, either. Even teammates did not know he was hurting until this week, though Ogden did have some early-season issues with the same muscle. "We thought it had diminished but apparently its come back," Cohen said. For that matter Ogden played the whole junior season on a bad foot that needed summer surgery, without saying a word. Toughness is a good baseball characteristic, Cohen agrees, but it also makes for some uncertainty.

"In these situations we let the kids made the decision if they can go," he said. Only Ogden will never say otherwise. "He's such a tough kid mentally it's hard to decipher if he can do it or not." So all the coaches can read is how Ogden is playing, and against South Carolina there were obvious problems with him getting into good fielding positions on a few plays or running bases at times.

"But we'll see after the shot how he performs," said Cohen of today's practice, adding "We've been practicing some other guys at the shortstop position in case Jonathan can't go." They include current starting 2B Adam Frazier, as well as backup and alternate second-sackers Sam Frost and Nick Vickerson. "We're just looking into our options." The late-season surprise is not having freshman Demarcus Henderson as one.

Cohen said Henderson's problems wearing contacts, which he did not start doing until college, has gotten to the point State will seek a medical redshirt. And, that the rookie is looking at summer laser surgery to correct curvature problems. That could well be the real fix to Henderson's first-year problems at the plate, because in the field in practices or games he has shown a surer fielding hand and improving footwork.

3B Jarrod Parks played last weekend in pain as well with a back problem that goes back to an old junior college off-field injury and sidelined him all of 2010 following surgery. He is also being treated as best possible and won't have the issue fully addressed until he is through playing. Parks will play as usual, Cohen said, which means State will have the SEC's leader in both batting average (.409) and on-base percentage (.533) in the order.

Also, OF C.T. Bradford pulled a hamstring in last week's win over Ole Miss in the Governor's Cup; he played the field and hit as usual over the weekend but did not pitch. "It's still nagging, and it's hard to get a lot of information out of him as well!" Cohen said of another tough-guy Dog. "But I think the pitching part is a possibility, it is usually a game-time type of thing, we tell him to rev the arm up a little bit ant tell us how you feel."

At the bat Bradford is hitting .308 and so far has the most hits of any SEC freshman.

After an open week to scout and consider, State will stick with the rotation of Chris Stratton and Nick Routt for the opening two games. Stratton (4-5, 5.02) is coming off three tough weekends and has struggled with leaving fastballs up in hitting zones. But Cohen has faith in the sophomore to correct such issues and get this series started well. Routt (0-2, 4.15) has pitched better than that record, and each weekend looks a little stronger since his March return to action from a year's layoff to fix the elbow.

Of course Cohen is counting on both to get the Dogs deep into the doubleheader and hopefully limit how many pitches bullpen stalwarts Luis Pollorena and Caleb Reed have to throw in Saturday relief. The coach would love the option to start either of them in a game-three if that were possible, though he admits it would be "shocking" to get through two games without calling on both.

"The other part is we really believe they match up well against Alabama," Cohen said of his two set starters. "We've had a great week of preparation, and then we'll have the option in the doubleheader of seeing who they swing it against right and left, and make the decision for Sunday. But we're going to worry on Sunday about Sunday. If Devin Jones or Kendall Graveman can help us (Satrurday), they'll pitch."

Alabama has listed righthander Nathan Kilcrease (5-3, 2.94) for game-one and lefthander Adam Morgan (4-4, 4.28) in the second starting spot. The Crimson Tide, too, will wait and see for Sunday.

Just getting out of town for a baseball weekend is big for Alabama though, after Wednesday's tornado that hit Tuscaloosa hard. Cohen wanted to make a trip to his home town yesterday, too, to check on his mother as well as sister after her law office was destroyed by the storm. The sister and her husband were not injured, and Cohen stayed in Starkville when advised the roads were either blocked or busy with recovery efforts. So did Vickerson, a Tuscaloosa native as well who was informed that thankfully his grandparents were safe.

"It affected a lot of people," said Cohen. "I know a lot of people are suffering and we reached out to all of them, not just Tuscaloosa." In fact the MSU coach reminded that many areas of his new home state were hit just as hard and suffered greater destruction. One nearby, personal example being East Webster High School, coached by former Diamond Dog Wes Johnson. "I don't want to diminish anything we had in Mississippi," Cohen said.

There were suggestions the weekend series might be delayed or not played, which proved untrue. Alabama will come to Starkville on Saturday, since Friday graduation would make getting to DNF for a practice problematic anyway. Cohen communicated with Tide Coach Mitch Gaspard, an old friend from when both were coaching in Louisiana college competition, by text since phones were tied-up to offer any assistance. He also noted how Alabama participated in Mississippi State's fall efforts to raise funds for injured and still-recovering alumnus Ryan Duffy.

"We're competing against each other as hard as we can, but when things like this happen we all work together," Cohen said. "Those are the moments priorities are put in perspective for you. Always more so when you know people and its close to home."

With finals this week the Diamond Dogs themselves were not able to participate in any aid efforts around the region, but when the schedule offers a chance Cohen said State players will step up to that plate. "We are going to take part in that, definitely have a team-wide activity to do all we can for those folks."

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