"Because Nick Mingione and Lane Burroughs talk about that all the time," the head coach said. "I'm one of those people that kind of blows that off, you score as many as you possibly can. But that number has been there and its something we've talked about as a staff." For the record, so to speak, State is 4-2 when reaching five runs, too…but that proved insufficient to hold off a Florida comeback and 7-5 loss in the SEC Tournament. So, six is the magic number for this squad.
Or is it? "I think a big number for us also is when we score first," Cohen said. "That's really important." Obviously the coach has been looking at THAT stat line because when getting on the board first the Bulldogs are now 29-7, including both NCAA regional wins.
REFRESHED AND RECHARGED: Cohen is rightly regarded as a demanding skipper during the season, and his ‘active workout' program to prepare players has earned a reputation around the league. But even the toughest bosses know when to back off.
Which was exactly what Mississippi State did after their SEC Tournament letdown. For that matter, the 0-and-2 week in Hoover came on the heels of a frustrating final series with LSU, which Cohen could see was at least partly due to all the energy and emotion invested in crucial series wins at Tennessee and Ole Miss. So, while they hadn't planned on coming home from Hoover so early, Cohen turned it into an advantage.
"Our staff felt if we gave our kids two days off with no baseball at all, I mean none, we would have a different club." Sure enough, NCAA preparations early in the week showed the quick break had done Bulldogs good, and it has carried on into Atlanta.
"I just felt this is an energized group, this is a group that can go out and do something in a regional," Cohen said, adding quickly "We haven't done anything yet." As in, State has just two wins but not a tournament title yet. Demanding, remember?
"But from our practices last week and these last two ball games I feel our kids are reenergized. There's a spring in their step, the barrel is getting there a little cleaner, our delivery is a little bit better, its cleaner defensively. Everything is just a little sharper."
HOT PUP: Only one Bulldog has played in every game this season, and it isn't one of the old hands. Freshman outfielder C.T. Bradford has not missed a single contest in 2011; in fact he has started 57 out of 59 games and subbed-in the other two. His defensive range and arm earn a spot in the outfield; specifically now in centerfield with his first such start in the Vanderbilt series and with just a couple of exceptions he has settled ever since.
It's cliché of course, but this really is one of those youngsters that play beyond their years. "C.T. is not a freshman any more," says Cohen. "He's a sophomore. He's a guy that has played with tremendous poise all year long and done it in a little bit of pain. But his focus has never left."
Bradford has been hampered by a leg and foot issue that doesn't affect outright running as much as limit the ‘push' off the mound. Thus he has not been able to pitch late lefthanded relief as State really wants; that will have to wait to the sophomore season. Offense could be another struggle at times, as SEC play has a way of reminding most freshmen that they are, indeed, freshmen.
But after some inevitable ups-and-downs in the second half Bradford has regained his stroke. He has batted safely in all four postseason contests so far, giving the kid a ten-game streak going into Sunday evening. During this stretch which began with game-two at Ole Miss, Bradford is 14-of-45 or a .311 average.
And in post-season he is 7-of-16, or .438…which doesn't include four walks. More than just hitting the ball, Bradford has been integral in getting State's offense off to a good start as leadoff man. It's quite a responsibility for a first-year batter but Bradford accepted it and has made himself at home.
"I couldn't ask for anything more," he said. "I didn't start it that way, but recently I feel good at the plate and I'm just doing whatever I can just to help this team win."
Against Austin Peay State, Bradford led off the evening with an opposite-field single; then two batters later a double by 2B Nick Vickerson scored him with State's first run, something Bradford has gotten used to doing. But in the decisive fourth inning Bradford dive the driving-in. He got all the way around on a Jeremy Dobbs pitch and yanked it down the first base line, between bag and fielder, and all the way into the corner. It turned into his second triple of the season—no problems were noticed running that far—and scored 1B Ryan Collins.
"Just a huge swing of the bat," Cohen called it, "a simple short stroke that changed the nature of the game." Because it was the first RBI of a seven-run inning effectively sealing the MSU victory.
DOUBLE THE FUN: The man Bradford replaced as leadoff batter, Vickerson, hasn't been hurt by the move. Just the opposite. After taking some turns hitting fifth, sixth, or later, the senior has suddenly found his niche swinging fourth in the order. It isn't so much that Vickerson fits the classic ‘cleanup' image, though his seven home runs are second on the squad.
It is because Vickerson has been providing another sort of extra-base hit that works about as well. The second-sacker is producing two-baggers, and almost always with somebody on a base he can drive in. In both NCAA tournament wins, Vickerson has delivered a first-inning double for the first Bulldog run. For that matter he doubled-in another in the SEC Tournament loss to Arkansas.
Going into tonight, Vickerson has hit 6-of-16 in the last five games with eight RBI. That is out of 21 run Sate has scored in these games, too. And he leading the squad for the season as a whole in extra-base hits of all sorts, with 16 doubles, three triples, and the seven longballs of course. For a moment Saturday evening it looked as if he'd slugged #8, too, before that first-inning shot tailed into the right-centerfield wall for the run-scoring doublet.
But maybe the plate-prowess has come at a cost. Vickerson, who at one time was among the league's pacesetters in base stealing, has not done so since May 12 at Ole Miss. That is a ten-game unstolen stretch for a guy with 25 thefts in 28 tries.
DOWN THEY GO: Speaking of thieves, when C Wes Thigpen caught USM's Chase Fowler a bit too far off first base, he notched his sixth pickoff of the season. That gave him the SEC lead, too, after being tied with Georgia's Alex Wood.
Thigpen's next-closest competitor is actually someone he is used to receiving. Pitcher Luis Pollorena has caught four runners off at first base this season. No wonder the Eagles were doubly-cautious in Friday's game with Thigpen and Pollorena operating as a pair for six innings. USM did not steal a base or even try all afternoon.
TO THE RESCUE: With three shutout innings to conclude game-one Caleb Reed earned his 12th save of this junior season. That leaves the righthander just one shy of tying the Mississippi State season record set in 1994 by Scott Tankersley and tied by Van Johnson in 1997. For now Reed is tied with Adam Larson's dozen saves in 2000.
And until this junior year Reed did not have a save to his credit. But his former experience as a sometime starter came in handy when he went 7.0 innings against LSU, the longest relief stint for State this season. In that game he was just trying to run out the weekend for State's bullpen.
Take away that exception, and in his other most recent eight outings Reed has worked 15.2 innings with just 15 hits and two total runs. And for the whole season he has 64 strikeouts against 22 walks.
SEE THE THREE: Going into NCAA season, the Bulldog offense led the SEC in triples with 16. Three of those three-baggers belong to 1B Ryan Collins, who has ten for his career.
TAKING BACK CONTROL: In his first two seasons rebuilding Bulldog baseball, Coach John Cohen's clubs struggled with something once taken almost for granted: that Mississippi State would dominate the in-state rivalries. Instead the 2009 Bulldogs were 4-3 for intrastate games, then 4-6 last spring.
But things turned around much for the better in 2011 with a 7-1 record assured. This season State was 3-1 against Ole Miss, 2-0 against Southern Mississippi, and defeated Alcorn State (the SWAC champions) and Mississippi Valley State once each.
LESS THAN ZERO: The Bulldogs were within an inning Saturday of not only getting a complete-game performance from Evan Mitchell. They were three outs from a second-straight shutout in NCAA tournament play, something the program has never done.
In fact over the previous 30 NCAA appearances, either the original District playoff or current Regional format, Mississippi State had notched just four shutout wins total. And one of those was, oddly enough, the very first such postseason game: a 2-0 win over Richmond way back in 1949. Not until 40 years later did the Bulldog blank a NCAA tourney foe, but at least that 1989 team did it twice. Playing in the Starkville regional they hung a 8-0 shutout on Western Carolina, then three days later beat North Carolina 6-0 in a survival game
Until Friday's 3-0 win over Southern Mississippi the last such shutout was at Tallahassee in 2007 when MSU blanked host Florida State 3-0, setting the stage to win that regional the next night over the same squad.
MSU-ELLANEOUS NOTES: Senior 1B Ryan Collins notched his 100th and 101st career RBI when he drove in a pair of runs Saturday night…2B Nick Vickerson has six extra-base knocks in his last five games…SS Jonathan Ogden has a eleven-game streak of errorless play underway. His longest prior stretch was six games from March 27 to April 5. In Saturday's fifth inning he did throw one away but it was after stepping on second base for an out, making it a non-error situation as the trailing runner couldn't advance…This is the fifth-straight MSU regional that has been hosted at an Atlantic Coast Conference campus…The Bulldogs are 32-1 when leading after eight innings…Coach John Cohen is now 6-4 in his three NCAA regionals as a coach. As a player his three MSU squads were 10-5 in regionals, 1-2 in the 1990 College World Series.