Goals Remain In Reach As Dogs Go On The Road

The weekend didn't go nearly as well as hoped, and needed. Yet thanks to comparable outcomes for some of their direct competitors, the Bulldogs remain in control of their own post-season possibilities with three remaining weekends. As John Cohen said today, "We still feel we're right in the middle of it in the SEC West."

SEC standings after seven weeks confirm the coach's outlook. Mississippi State (25-18) came out of a frustrating Alabama series 8-13 in league play, as well as still fifth in the Western Division and ninth overall. That being one place outside the eight-team conference tournament field, of course. But at the same time State is only two games behind West leaders Alabama and Arkansas, not to mention a single success out of qualifying for Hoover.

Which means all of the Bulldog goals prior to dropping two-of-three over the weekend remain very much in reach with nine (weather permitting) conference games still to be settled. The next three for State will be against Tennessee (22-20, 5-16 SEC) this coming weekend. Cohen expects his club to shake off the last series and focus on this one quickly, and easily.

"We have a great opportunity at Tennessee," he said. "Our kids are really positive, we'll have a great workout today and play well against South Alabama. And prepare for a Tennessee team that in my opinion is a lot better than the record." Certainly no Dog expects the Vols to play as poorly at home as they did at Nashville over the weekend with three lopsided losses to league co-leader Vanderbilt.

First though the Bulldogs have midweek business to take care of with a Tuesday trip to Mobile. Game time at Stanky Field is 6:00. South Alabama is a very familiar foe for MSU and SEC squads over the years; in fact these Jaguars are 2-1 against the league having split a series with Alabama and beating Auburn in a single game. This will also be the last time State plays a Steve Kittrell club as the Jaguar coach is retiring after 28 seasons in Mobile.

Cohen figures for now to start Andrew Busby (1-0, 8.49), but not leave him on the hill too long. "Instead of throwing bullpens in the middle of the week we'll run guys out for an inning or two. We have a bunch of guys available." Some of them, such as lefthanded mid-game reliever Chad Girodo, worked an inning or less over the weekend and can use this work to stay sharp. And a Tuesday game, compared to Wednesday, does offer more opportunity to hone arms which will definitely be called on for weekend action.

Not the expected starters, though. And in this week's case that will now include a new name. Cohen confirmed Monday morning that soph Luis Pollorena is being prepped for his first starting shot after 16 relief appearances with a 1.65 ERA. "It's no secret Pollorena is one of our best guys," said Cohen. It's also no coincidence that half of Pollorena's turns in relief have resulted in decisions and a 5-3 record.

"We're going to wait and make a final decision later in the week, but we might make a few changes," Cohen said of the SEC rotation plans. "I think there's a very good chance Pollorena will be pitching Friday or Saturday. Who he will replace, we don't know yet."

Altering rotations isn't a big Dog deal in most cases, and for that matter State has had no designated game-three guy anyway all season. But taking a proven bullpen performer out of that reliable role and handing him the ball for first-pitch is a major move. Especially so if this first-year man goes on Friday against, presumably, the best Tennessee has to throw.

At the same time Pollorena has earned this starting shot, particularly with how his hard left-side stuff seems to match up with Tennessee, Ole Miss, and LSU based on what State has seen to-date. Cohen also knows he can count on ironman Caleb Reed in late relief and has increasing confidence in Taylor Stark as well as some other young arms. Yes, the coach acknowledges, the bullpen has been State's core strength much of this season.

"But our issue is the beginning of the game. And you can lose just as many games in the beginning as the end." So, Cohen said, it is time to make a move. "At this point we're willing to make that trade, Pollorena in the middle vs. the beginning of the game." Not that it will be easy, should Pollorena be booked for Saturday and Friday's game go sour mid-way, for the coaching staff to grit teeth and keep him on game-two schedule. "But at the same time that's where we are. That will be a challenge for us, but I think we will have enough."

Cohen said he should be able to provide a more definite starting pair for the first two games by Wednesday. If Pollorena is assigned for Friday that would presumably push Chris Stratton (4-5, 4.98) back into the Saturday slot he seems much more comfortable with. Or just as possibly the Sunday game that he usually drew as a 2010 freshman. And if both moundsmen can get deep into the first pair of games without burning too much bullpen, picking a Sunday starter becomes far easier with such options as Nick Routt, Kendall Graveman, Devin Jones…or yesterday's standout Evan Mitchell.

"We'll made decisions on Wednesday. We'll have to alter lifting and work schedules based on who starts." State has a 1:30 practice Monday now that the spring semester is completed. Cohen and staff have been scouting South Alabama this morning and just begun working up a report on the Vols.

"When we get into the Tennessee stuff and see how they are left and right, we'll get a feel for who will be the best matchup. But at this point I just have to feel Pollorena will pitch either the Friday or Saturday game."

Cohen doesn't mind having a non-SEC game this week, though he also welcomed the open last week for final exams. It helped several Bulldogs rest nicks and knocks, most notably three starters who have played in pain lately. SS Jonathan Ogden certainly benefitted from a break, as well as the shot to a pulled abdominal muscle. Of course the senior also had to have some Saturday night work done to stitch a busted nose back together after he took a skipped relay throw to the face in game-two.

He came back Sunday morning, begged his way back into the lineup, and performed perhaps as well as ever. In fact Ogden was flawless on nine fielding chances in the series, and while he was just 2-of-9 batting he drove in three runs and had a sacrifice-fly. Cohen knew Ogden was a tough kid already; Sunday only amplified that opinion.

"He understands what's at stake and I thought he really defended well. He got some relief from abdominal pain, he got in fielding position better and threw the ball better."

3B Jarrod Parks continues playing with a bad back, which hasn't kept the senior from pacing SEC hitting for several weeks. Despite a .364 average against Alabama, his .406 rate for the season still tops the conference as does his .530 on-base rate. And CF C.T. Bradford didn't miss an inning on a tweaked hamstring. The pull is high-up on the muscle and doesn't impact his running, as proven by some fine galloping grabs in deep centerfield over the weekend. Cohen even noted how the freshman clocked a 4.12 on one dash up the basepath.

All that is limited is Bradford's pitching, as the pull won't let him completely extend off the mound. That kept him from making one, perhaps two weekend appearances in left-handed matching ups. Cohen does expect to get Bradford back in relief work soon, which would further ease choices on starters.

The only bright spots in Saturday's double-defeats were the excellent offensive exploits of OF Jaron Shepherd and 2B/OF Nick Vickerson. They combined to hit 13-of-23 for the series with four RBI, three doubles and three home runs. In fact Shepherd, who had hit just one homer in his prior 83 college games, slugged two in game-one. Vickerson was 8-of-15 at the plate, yet his most impressive work was in the field as he handled 16 chances without a bobble and even made some sparkling stops-and-throws. Getting Vickerson hot here down the stretch would be priceless in every aspect, and make picking both a lineup and an order that much simpler for the coaches.

Cohen said today he could still sense the team's disappointments at losing a very winnable series, even after the Bulldogs rallied from 5-2 down to take Sunday by a 8-5 final. At the same time the players remember just how close they were to not merely winning the series but sweeping—"Just two pitches," was Cohen's calculation both at the time and upon further reviewing.

The trick will be making those pitches in the games to come. The games that will decide Mississippi State's tournament fate, agreed Cohen.

"They all sense what's at stake here and are crucial to us finishing up the right way."

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