State Stakes Stretch Run On Revised Rotation

Early in the week the coaching staff was weighing the wisdom of adjusting their rotation again. Now, as the Diamond Dogs leave on their afternoon trip, the pitching pieces have indeed fallen into new places. Including a new face for Mississippi State's must-win series at Tennessee.

Just as he forecast—tentatively--on Monday, it will be Luis Pollorena starting Friday's 5:00(ct) opener at Knoxville. This morning's confirmation that the sophomore lefthander will make his first Mississippi State start was not any surprise, especially after he was held out of Tuesday's high-scoring win at South Alabama. Putting Pollorena in game-one duty for such a debut, now, was another matter.

Yet an obvious one at this point of Mississippi State's season, Cohen said today. "Success breeds success," is the fundamental reason for making this May move. "If Pollorena can give us six, seven innings it certainly makes the next guy better. That's why we'll put Pollorena in that position, he's our hottest guy."

He has been that, despite taking a tough-timing loss over the weekend to Alabama. His season line still reads an impressive 5-3, the most wins on this staff, and an ERA of 1.65 that is second only to bullpen comrade Caleb Reed's 1.00. Those are good numbers but not the real reason Cohen is entrusting the junior college transfer with this opportunity.

"He's going to bring the enthusiasm and energy. He's a rally-around-me type of guy. Quite frankly, we need him to go out and have a great performance for us."

There is another very good reason for putting Pollorena out there first. Because as both Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson agree, were any other opener to get in Friday night trouble it would be almost impossible not to call on Pollorena's proven relief talents. Which in-turn would not allow him to start either ensuing game.

The accompanying gamble of course is having sufficient bullpen Bulldogs still available without the reliable ‘Pollo'. But with Mississippi State (26-18, 8-13) heading into their do-or-die stretch of SEC season, still very much needing to secure a berth for the conference tournament, the coaches are counting on more than a good start to this series. Cohen hopes this adjustment allows the other starters to pitch to their own strengths.

With Pollorena taking first turn, Chris Stratton (4-5, 4.98) moves all the way back to Sunday this weekend. The soph righthander had started the last three weekends with somewhat better results statistically than the three MSU losses showed. Cohen has great faith in Stratton, who got very comfortable as a freshman last spring throwing on Sundays anyway.

If, the coach adds, Stratton can keep his pitches down in zones as he does when at his best. That has been the issue since a second-inning shelling by Florida to open April, and entirely out of his previous character. It's true that a season-and-a-half into a career pitchers are well-scouted, but Cohen knows the righty is capable of controlling games. He's done it before, after all.

"It's got to be a confidence thing, just from the standpoint there is no doubt Chris is a mature young man, he's talented. When you're throwing balls up in the zone and get behind and you known everybody is depending on you, you're just trying so hard. It's a very mental game and you have to be confident.

Though he downplayed the suggestion a few weeks ago, Cohen is acknowledging that Stratton may be one of those moundsmen who benefit from watching the opposition's order for a day or two. Now he will have that opportunity at Tennessee. Though, the coach added today, Stratton himself would gladly do other duty if asked; such as a relief matchup against batters vulnerable to a hard breaking ball.

"It would have to be a very specific situation. And to tell you the kind of kid he is, he's volunteered to pitch in all three games. That's why we have all the faith he'll turn the corner."

Another Bulldog on the verge of better things is, hopefully, game-two starter Nick Routt. A 0-2, 3.81 record in seven starts doesn't reflect how the junior lefthander has progressed since returning in March from a year's injury-exile. Now, Cohen said today, there is no pre-set limit for his pitching. The only restriction will be the results.

"The issue with Nick is if he's missing arm-side, we've got to get him out of the game. That's the tell-tale, when he can't re-create his delivery." But if Routt is working both sides effectively with the fastball, then he will keep tossing. Cohen also said Routt has been working to develop a usable changeup down the season's stretch which would only aid the harder stuff.

"It wouldn't surprise me at all if he came out and pitched a game like we know he can pitch," Cohen said.

The timing is certainly right to ask such efforts from all three starters. The Bulldogs had a great opportunity last weekend to build post-season momentum only to drop a double-header to Alabama. Ironically though, Mississippi State lost no real ground to the Western Division leaders who are all 10-11 today. The chief concern was the push from behind LSU now is providing after a home sweeping of Kentucky. Whether or not it signaled the pre-season picks to win the West are back in contention will be better judged by how the LSU at Alabama series plays out this weekend.

Meanwhile Tennessee is struggling at 22-20, 5-16 after five-straight league losses. But that is in the East, where defeat is no shame this season. Even a sweeping at Vanderbilt by a combined 39-5 score is no reason for assuming the Volunteers are done. After all, Cohen said today he will remind his team en route, Tennessee took a double-header at Alabama just two weeks ago.

Nor does he want the Dogs reading too much into this week's SEC-only stats where Tennessee is last in batting, on-base average, slugging, and runs. For that matter Vol pitching is also last in ERA and opponent-average. The trick is remembering what Division they play in, that the Volunteers are at home, and they too are in all-or-nothing SEC status.

They also have players that concern Cohen after early scouting. "They have three really good runners who can steal at any time, so we've worked hard on that. They're a much better offensive club, it looks like, at home than on the road. (Steven) Gruver can really pitch, he's had some success. They definitely have some short (relief) guys at the end of the game that have some velocity.

"And they've been one of the best defensive teams in the SEC all year." That's a fact as the Vols are adept at turning double-plays and give away few runs to errors. "I think they're capable of getting their club going," Cohen said.

But then this is when Mississippi State must get it going, too, if they are to reach Hoover for the first time since 2007. Cohen liked how the squad rallied from a three-run Sunday deficit to salvage a 8-5 win over Alabama; then how after giving away a lead Tuesday to fall behind 9-5 State stormed back with a ten-run inning to beat South Alabama. Despite the two big Jaguar innings the bullpen wasn't worked too hard. Cohen thinks Chad Girodo should be fully available by Saturday, while Daryl Norris is wait-and-see for game-two but certainly ready by Sunday.

The larger point being as hard as they made the last two games on themselves, the Bulldogs did what they had to and won. "I think they believe we can win anywhere and beat anybody," Cohen said, "we've played some of the nation's best and beaten some of them." For the coming three weekends now Mississippi State should see more comparable opposition, so the opening is here.

So is the obligation to take advantage.

"It's a great opportunity," Cohen agreed. "And we still believe we have a chance to win the SEC West. And our RPI dictates we still have a great opportunity for postseason, if we really take care of the game the next three weeks."

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