Bulldogs Carry Momentum Into Key SEC Week

Just two weekends of SEC scheduling remain, and still almost everything about the upcoming tournament season remains to be won. And, lost. Which is just fine with John Cohen. "Because this is what our league is all about. It's exactly what you expect this time of year in the SEC."

If the Mississippi State coach seems satisfied, even excited, about the intense-verging-on-frantic SEC status here in May 2011, he has good reason. Thanks to a weekend sweep at Tennessee and a five-game winning streak the Diamond Dogs (29-18) are suddenly right in the thick of this reckless race. Mississippi State goes into their remaining two league series 11-13 in league play and tied for third place in the Western Division.

In fact if ties were being broken between State and competitors Auburn and Ole Miss, it would be the Bulldogs on top today. They swept the Tigers back in March, while two weeks ago Auburn took a series from the Rebels. But of course deadlocks aren't decided this way. More to the point, MSU and Ole Miss will settle the issue between themselves this week with a Thursday-Friday-Saturday series in Oxford. All are evening games (6:36, 6:36, and 7:06) for television.

So Cohen isn't letting his club bask in their Tennessee sweep too long. "You get off that buss, you've got to be healed-up in a short week," he said this morning. "We've got to get our kids ready to go." Which began with a 11:00 pitchers meeting and a 11:30 team practice to end around 1:00 before the Bulldogs head to the weight room. The good news is Cohen does not plan on riding the players too hard today.

"It doesn't take a huge amount of motivation from our coaches to get our kids ready to play Ole Miss," he admitted.

Both rivals will bring plenty of motivation, not to mention momentum, into Thursday's ESPNU-booked opener. Before brooming the Volunteers, State had routed South Alabama to get a win streak underway after their Sunday salvage game against Alabama. A Crimson Tide team, by the way, that today is tied with Arkansas atop the West at 12-12 and has the tiebreak in that matchup as well. But the Rebels are on maybe a bigger rebound, having just reversed a SEC downswing by taking two of three at home from top-ranked South Carolina.

No wonder Cohen anticipates a classic showdown of familiar foes at Oxford-University Stadium. "It's exciting," he said. "But our preparation is critical." To improve the prepping, Cohen called Mississippi Valley State coach Doug Shanks last night to discussed the doubleheader they had re-scheduled for Tuesday after a March rainout. They agreed to play a single 6:30 game.

"I don't think we were thrilled about the date of a doubleheader anyway," Cohen related today. "We had a Thursday game this week for ESPNU, and I think they are playing a doubleheader at Louisiana Tech so I don't think it worked well for either of us." A single game certainly won't stretch State midweek pitching as much in advance of an early weekend.

Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson planned to pick a Tuesday starter shortly. "It's probably going to be a mix of five or six guys to throw an inning apiece."

It will be no disrespect to the Delta Devils, who are in the thick of their own conference race, if State shuffles the lineup as well. Cohen has to protect a few gimpy Dogs in advance of the Ole Miss series after minor injuries or ailments at Tennessee. SS Jonathan Ogden even sat out game-two as he deals with a pulled abdominal muscle. All the senior did Sunday was deliver the first big hit of the afternoon to stake State to a lead, then make two great—make that one great and one spectacular—fielding plays. "One of the best I've ever seen," said Cohen of Ogden's dash into leftfield for a going-away grab to end an inning.

"He handled it the right way, I think that one day off really helped him, he was on a mission." Cohen said the staff watches how Ogden runs and twists and turns in pre-game closely for a daily health-check; as well as judging the opposing team for matchups and the chance to rest the senior shortstop. "And with how well Adam Frazier has done when he's gotten the opportunity, that eases a little bit of pressure on the middle of the infield."

OF Brent Brownlee, making the Sunday start in centerfield as regular CF C.T. Bradford was held back in case his left-handed pitching was needed early, twisted a knee making a fine play of his own. "On a ball in the gap when he made a double into a single," noted Cohen. C/DH Cody Freeman was banged-up on a slide into home plate but kept playing. And RHP Devin Jones' relief stint was better than anyone appreciated at the time as he'd been suffering with cramps. "Food poisoning, we think," Cohen said. "He pitched through it."

"So we just need to get healthy the next two-three days."

What is getting much healthier is the SEC rotation. State gambled moving ace left-handed reliever Luis Pollorena into not just a starting slot but the game-one role. The result was getting the UT series started successfully, aided greatly of course by a big offensive outburst. Pollorena worked into the sixth inning, long enough to keep the bullpen in good weekend shape and with modest damage to his line score. In turn this allowed State to shift three-week Friday starter Chris Stratton back to Sunday with excellent results all around.

So, Cohen confirmed today, it will be the same schedule this series even if everything moves up a date. Largely thanks to what Pollorena is providing in his new status.

"What Luis does for us is he's just an incredibly competitive kid. Sometimes his stuff is better than other times but he's always going to compete. And our kids really rally around him. He's so hard to run and bunt against and that's a big part of the game, all the pieces in the puzzle really add up."

Especially as junior lefty Nick Routt only continues to strengthen. He went to the 120-pitch plateau at Tennessee surviving repeated challenges and kept control. Literally, working his fastball efficiently and both sides just as hoped. Then on Sunday it was a much more relaxed and ready Stratton benefitting from his own scouting report on UT swingers.

"When he has the ability to watch a lineup go through two days, I think it really helps him," Cohen agreed. "He's a very cerebral kid and I think he was extremely confident Sunday." Which only increases the confidence of the entire club as they begin advance work on the Rebels.

"This weekend was really important to jump-start our team a little bit," Cohen said. "It's a team that has won five in a row and I think our team is starting to feel confident, like kids that have won five in a row."

If there was any weekend disappointment it was how a couple of other SEC series played out. Besides Ole Miss knocking off the Gamecocks to stay even with State, there was Auburn taking two from Georgia. These Dogs owed their East counterparts a big thank-you for rallying big and late Sunday to salvage one game at Auburn and thus maintain this three-way tie…as well as keep all three within a single game of the Division leaders. For that matter 8-16 LSU still has a realistic shot at reaching the front with six games left.

Things are almost as tight, and admittedly more impressive, atop the East where 19-5 Vanderbilt is a single game up on both South Carolina and Florida. Even more maddening is how nobody has been officially eliminated from the eight-team SEC tourney bracket. Though, and allowing that rainouts could result in percentage-wildcards, the next win by any of the 11-win West teams would eliminate Kentucky and Tennessee.

The larger point being that a Mississippi State team which still has a shot at winning the West could just as easily fall entirely out of the Hoover picture. And not merely by losing their remaining series; Cohen can foresee someone going 15-15 this SEC season and landing in ninth place overall. "And you go tiebreaker after tiebreaker after tiebreaker and don't get to go to the SEC Tournament," he mused today. "We're not too far away from that right now! I just think it's that competitive." That exciting, too, for a Mississippi State squad that can still control its post-season fate.

"I just believe in the way our kids are focused, that our kids are going to play well down the stretch drive."

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