The Diamond Dogs had their final campus practice this morning with Coach Butch Thompson running his hurlers through the usual mid-week routine. Rather, not so usual for the obvious reasons that A) this is the first super regional for any of these MSU players and B) the rotation remains unset. Still Cohen knows he has to make the call by tomorrow morning at the latest just so the right—or left—guy can be properly prepared.
"Butch and I are going to talk about that on the trip down," Cohen said. "It's either going to be Evan Mitchell or Nick Routt, it is just a matter of who and when." Which means the one not starting Friday will have game-two duty. Because this is a best-of-three series and not a double-elimination format as either of the last two weekends, the rotation is far more like a regular season set. At least it is almost exactly like how Mississippi State pitching operated in the second half of SEC season.
That's because once Thompson and Cohen tossed away the typical ‘rotation' approach in April they went to naming two starters and a TBA. If not ideal for a regular season it certainly suits the needs of a best-of-three schedule. More to the immediate point, both Mitchell and Routt have already gotten into tournament tone after drawing postseason starts in Hoover and the Atlanta Regional.
Besides, Cohen said, "The matchup is going to be the same Friday or Saturday. The bigger issue is, is Evan going to be better if he watches one game as a freshman where Routt has already pitched on Friday nights, at least he did as a freshman. The other thing with Routt is you get the one extra day."
This is where the uncertainty lies. All other things being equal Mississippi State would love to run junior lefthander Routt out to the hill Friday. After a season of ups-and-downs, a legacy of the elbow problems that cost him most of the 2010 campaign, Routt suddenly looked like the super freshman southpaw of 2009 when he put in a complete game against Georgia Tech.
In the first eight innings he mostly scattered three hits with two runs, until home team Tech strung together three more hits in the ninth with another score and two on base. Thompson wanted to let reliable reliever Caleb Reed slam the door; Cohen, in a very rare show of sentiment, let Routt remain. Two outs later he'd posted his first complete game of this year after he'd tossed four as a freshman.
Routt also worked against Florida back on April 10, allowing one run on six hits with five strikeouts and handing a 1-1 tie to the bullpen. They gave up two runs in the next inning for a 3-1 loss, but Routt proved he could match up with Gator batters. Still the 115 pitches last Sunday evening are an honest concern as far as recovery in time for Friday's heat. Mitchell is also coming off a long NCAA stint, having worked into the ninth himself against Austin Peay State. He even had a shutout through the first eight frames before plunking one and walking two.
Mitchell got the win of course, yet threw 130 pitches in the process. Still he has had the whole extra day of rest. Mitchell, too, has seen Florida. He gave up three runs on four hits in 3.0 relief innings back on April 9, when the Gators blew State out 18-0 and no pitcher produced. Then give the SEC Tournament start, the righthanded freshmen worked 5.0-plus with two runs on four hits, excused after a leadoff single in the sixth. He did not get any decision as the Gators, trailing 5-2, got the unlikely fly ball grand slam to rally for a 7-5 win.
"Evan did a great job at Hoover, and we're one pitch away really from a chance to beat Florida," said Cohen, which makes the rookie righty a realistic option for Friday. "But I think Routt is a very good matchup for Florida," said the coach, before qualifying the comment. "I don't know if anybody in the country is a good matchup for Florida."
State found that out firsthand going 1-3 in four meetings. Even allowing for the 18-0 rout inflating statistics, Florida still hit .324 with six doubles and two homers in those games; while Bulldog pitching was saddled with a 7.46 ERA in the process. So it is a daunting challenge under any circumstance and all the more so at Perry Field.
Cohen also stressed that picking the pitching is not a matter of matching arm and bat sides, either. "There is so much balance of left and right," he said of the UF order. "And a nice recipe of speed and power, the park can play small. They're a very formidable opponent. I believe Vanderbilt has the best pitching staff in the country, but Florida has the best overall skill level one-through-nine in their lineup and pitching staff.
"But we've beaten them, not as much as we wanted to but it can be done and our kids are believing."
The Bulldog belief is largely based in the late-season work of Routt, Mitchell, and more. It is a bit surprising to some that lefty Luis Pollorena won't get the Friday start, after combining with Reed for a regional-opening shutout of Southern Mississippi. But MSU coaches love having the tough-minded sophomore available in long relief if needed, especially given his low-trajectory fastballs coming in contrast to, say, the taller and longer delivery from Routt.
And Cohen does not hold Pollorena's bad outing against Florida in the SEC tourney, when he was tagged for that slam and the loss, against him. "I think he's still a good matchup and has his ‘legs' back under him. He did not have his best stuff in the SEC Tournament, but a guy who competes like that and pitches as he did against Southern Miss has to be a factor this weekend."
Besides, there are more fresh arms still to consider. Chris Stratton, the victim of that big Gator romp two months ago at Dudy Noble Field, has thrown a single inning in the last two weekends and can either throw righthanded relief or be saved for a Sunday start. And while junior Devin Jones, also an early-season starter, got up to warm twice in Atlanta his righthanded stuff wasn't required.
What it all adds up to is that the toughest decision Cohen and Thompson must make today is who takes the ball for noon Friday. Every other ensuing choice is now much easier because Mississippi State goes to Gainesville with a pitching staff suddenly at its strongest, deepest, and most confident in all 2011. Just at the right time, in fact.
The Bulldogs have a 11:30am Thursday practice at Perry Field, to last about an hour-and-a-quarter Cohen said today.
However, MSU coaches will be wondering about other decisions of this week…and over the course of all summer too. As of noon, pitcher Jones was the only active underclassman taken in the first two MLB draft days. He was tabbed in the ninth round by Baltimore on Tuesday, good news for him and for State said Cohen.
"And with the draft behind him that lends itself to a little more confidence also. He's a top-ten round pick and our whole club is so happy for him because he's worked so hard at it and things haven't gone exactly the way he wanted them to the last couple of years he's still a very talented kid with a bright future."
Senior 3B Jarrod Parks (20th round Texas) and senior 2B Nick Vickerson (24th round Los Angeles Angels) were also drafted on day-two, clearing their minds as well for further NCAA play. Cohen was disappointed that at the time other upperclassmen like OF Jaron Shepherd (who after the interview was drafted by Colorado in the 33rd round) and 1B/OF Ryan Collins had not been drafted. State also expected junior Routt to be called at some point on day-three.
"I really like what has happened with our club," Cohen said. "Our other seniors you want the best for your senior guys, you just hope it doesn't serve as a distraction."
But then the coaching staff itself might get somewhat distracted today as they wait for word on other signed players being drafted. Two were on Tuesday as righthanded pitcher Brandon Woodruff of Wheeler, Miss., High School was taken in the fifth round by Texas; and lefthanded pitcher Jacob Lindgren of Bay St. Louis, Miss., and St. Stanislaus High School went in the 12th round to Chicago's Cubs.
Not that either kid was sitting by a computer or phone, Cohen said. "Woodruff was on the golf course, which is great! Lindgren was actually in the Bahamas, his dad was so smart, he didn't want his son thinking about the draft all the time." Cohen has texted and phoned both, which is all the college coach can do at this point.
That, and wonder who else might get drafted outright or be offered free-agent deals between now and mid-August's deadline to sign. "We feel a lot of our other signees are draft-worthy," Cohen said.
"The thing that concerns you about high school guys is it doesn't matter what round they go in, what matters is what they are doing a month or two months from now. You've seen guys who are 87-88 miles per hour that at the end of the summer are 92-94 and the club has draft money left over because they might not have signed their first five or six picks. And here you go. It never ends, there never is a point you feel really good about it. because anything can happen."