Diamond Dogs Open Fall Ball On Friday

No question, some of the excitement lingers three-and-a-half-months later. Still John Cohen has no difficulty turning all his attention to the coming month-and-a-half. This is when Mississippi State assembles a 2012 ball team that must maintain momentum begun at the end of 2011 season.

Fall team practices for Bulldog Baseball gets underway tomorrow, and not with just a practice. Mississippi State opens their fall ball with a ball game, 4:00 at Dudy Noble Field. There will be scrimmage games on Saturday (2:00) and Sunday (2:30) as well. For that matter Cohen will spend almost every day of the fall team-practice session playing intrasquad games which he believes are the best practice to, well, play rael games.

"The most important component in the seven-week period is the one-on-one battle of the pitcher and hitter," Cohen said. "Because defensively you can re-create situations at practice, it's a lot easier to re-create ball off the bat scenarios than it is offensively or on the mound. Everything is different when a guy steps into the batters box."

How serious is Cohen about playing over practicing? He has tentatively (re: weather permitting) booked 24 scrimmage games between now and early November. "It's a 45-day window," he said of the NCAA-defined fall period. "And we have 28 or 29 practice dates."

So yes, the Diamond Dogs will be playing practically every day they report to the ballyard in these seven weeks. But this does not mean the coaching staff ignores more basic training. That is what staff and players have been doing since mid-August when school began with the NCAA's allotted small-group practices. A coach can work with up to four players at a time…and they have worked indeed, with staff arriving early in the day and not heading home until the evening hours after the last four-player group has cycled through.

"The four-on-one allows you to do a lot of constructive things," Cohen said. "Before you get to the team stuff you try to lay that foundation of individual ground ball work with infielders, really get a solid foundation of the throwing program."

Presumably the foundation is now laid…or re-laid at positions where players are competing to take over jobs left open by departures. But nothing exposes a player like playing; not just on the field but in post-scrimmage review. And yes, Cohen counts on having a whole lot of video to evaluate by mid-November.

"I really, really want that 50 or 60 at-bats from our positional players; I want that good 20 innings out of our pitchers. So we can really evaluate where each young man is and where we feel they are going to fit into our plans."

Mississippi State absolutely structures the fall semester around team scrimmaging. The first four, five weeks preceding fall ball are instructional; the few weeks following it, and before everybody takes their winter holiday, is correctional. So, for example, Cohen said there was little if any swing-construction tried in August and early September. He wants to see what kind of cuts guys take off live pitching, or better have the player see it himself in replay.

"I'd rather do that after we have a nice foundation of video because I just don't believe in doing film-work off of practice and B.P. It isn't realistic, I like seeing it in game situations." Ditto for the moundsmen. "I just love having that bank of film from 20, 25 intrasquad games to work off of, then go into swing-construction stuff. For pitchers, also. So the small group practices in August and September are more a lot of drill work, fielding, throwing, fundamentals. A lot of long toss."

Oh, and a lot of weightlifting and running. From arrival in June 2008 Cohen has advocated strength and conditioning work far more than his predecessors. Three years later, though, he is taking this to another level of intensity, based on peer examples.

"The premier teams in college baseball over the last ten years have really pushed the envelope on strength and conditioning. We laid a foundation for that our first three seasons, but now I think we're at a point we can really push that. Our strength coach Brian Neal has done a great job, he spent a lot of time with Matt Balis. And I really believe Matt Balis is Coach Mullen's secret weapon.

"We have taken a couple of pages out of their playbook to make our kids more physical, more confident. There is the mental toughness component also. We've seen some huge gains in our strength and conditioning program. I've spent a lot of time in the weightroom with our kids. With the nature of our workouts, I'm incredibly impressed with our young kids and how hard they push themselves."

Related to this, the fall 2011 roster is reporting not just stronger but healthier on the whole. The '11 team wasn't as devastated by pre- and in-season injuries as the '10 team was, but there were still players sidelined at times or all spring. Now? "I think we're good. You have the typical nicks and cuts and bumps and bruises, other than that I think we're in really good shape."

Or better shape at least. Pitcher Ben Bracewell missed all season after elbow surgery, and Cohen will always wonder what '11 may have turned into had the talented reliever been available when others struggled. Regardless, "Last year it was so constructive for him coming off his surgery. He's a guy that is a little bit forgotten, that I think is capable of having a huge year, a breakout year for us." C.C. Watson also had surgery and is "coming along nicely" per Cohen. "He's one of the hardest-working kids I've ever coached and I fully expect him to be healthy. I don't know if he'll throw innings this fall but he'll certainly be ready in spring." A high school injury meant first baseman/pitcher Wes Rea redshirted. Now the big guy is jusssst about back to 100% on the mound after some September bullpens with live batters. "I don't know if he will pitch this fall but he has a chance to really pitch in the future. He went off and had a great offensive summer and I think he's going to be a factor for us at first base and offensively." Meanwhile shortstop Demarcus Henderson's mid-spring eye procedure is showing benefits that should translate to more confidence at the plate. His glove is not a question at all.

"I feel pretty confident about our health," Cohen said. "Again, the strength and conditioning and our long toss program is a huge part of that." So is rest. State shut ironman reliever Caleb Reed down the first half of summer, then freed him to throw a few weeks in the Cape Cod League. "And I'm sure his club appreciated it because they won the championship with him on the mound! He's coming back in great condition."

So is starting pitcher Nick Routt. He naturally didn't plan on returning for 2012 but State has gotten the talented lefthander a retroactive redshirt for '10 so he still counts as a draft-eligible junior. Cohen said the key for a big season is reconstructing the changeup and progress was seen in summer ball at the Cape. Physically Routt is standing out more, and even taking a vocal leadership role now. I think he's going to be a much more complete pitcher this year."

Righthanded starter Chris Stratton's problems weren't health, as he struggled the second half of the season with control. Cohen watched the junior throw in the Cape, too, "And he was phenomenal. I mean, he was a poised, surgeon on the mound and pitched to both sides of the plate. I saw him throw 90 pitches in eight innings and was real economic.

"I think Chris really battled himself last year. I think he's got to learn how to get out of his own way a little bit. So we're very high on Chris, we feel he's a guy that can just take off."

Routt and Stratton lead the list of 14 returning pitchers from the season, plus redshirts and recruits. Of course several of those count among the 16 position lettermen as dual-duty Dogs. Such as centerfielder C.T. Bradford, who Cohen expects to rank among the SEC's best as both the body and swing develop further. But pitching coach Butch Thompson would love to have the sophomore southpaw a lot more often, too.

"The ball just comes out of his hand so well, Butch really believes if C.T. did nothing but pitch he'd be potentially one of our weekend starting guys. When he's really focused in on that he can get 88-to-90 and has a solid breaking ball and a devastating changeup. He could be great, but you have to weigh that against what he can do in center and at the plate."

Ditto for Daryl Norris. The freshman year didn't quite live up to signee billing but Cohen already sees the maturation as a first baseman, third baseman, and/or relief pitcher. For that matter, "Daryl has really improved on the mound, he could win the starting role. He just made that big jump from freshman to sophomore year."

And talk about multi-position talents, prize recruit Brandon Woodruff can do just about everything. "You look at his raw tools and go wow, that's special. Here is a guy at 220 pounds who runs and moves, so potentially he could play an outfield spot. He's really swung the bat well early on and I'll be interested to see how he fares this fall on the mound and in the outfield." State came out big winners in June as both Woodruff and lefty pitcher Jacob Lindgren turned down draft offers to play at DNF.

As far as position battles, practically the entire infield has to be restocked. But middle infielder Adam Frazier, who'll practice at both second and short, is a good starting point with Norris and Rea contending at first base first. They will also work at third, though Cohen is already high on redshirt Brayden Jones and late signee Nick Flair over on the hot corner. Frazier would love to play shortstop, and Henderson has been trained for that spot…but a new contender has arrived. And impressed.

"I hesitate to make any judgments after a couple of weeks but Phillip Kasey has a got a chance to end up being one of the great shortstops in the SEC before it's over. His range, he's 6-1 but gets in great fielding position, a very accurate arm, a lefthanded hitter who can run." Then there are other infield options with rookies Trey Fullerton, Matthew Brittain, and Trey Porter, all guys with power potential as well. Fullerton might end up in the outfield with his great speed, as could Henderson for that matter.

Relief pitcher Taylor Stark will work the outfield since he has some punch at the plate as well. Of course one corner of the outfield will be locked up with a healthy Brent Brownlee. Either one, Cohen said. "I don't know if there is a better centerfielder between he and C.T., but I know leftfield in our ballpark is difficult to play and rightfield even more difficult. And he's such a good athlete he makes it look easy in the outfield. If he can just stay healthy the whole time I think he can have a great, great year for us."

If there seems a lack of sheer numbers in pure outfielders, well, correct. "And this is by design," Cohen said. "Right now we really only have four outfielders on our entire club. I worked with Pat McMahon so much, he didn't believe in outfielders! I kind of agree with that, the only outfielders you should have are lefthanders; because righthanded outfielders should come from your infield."

The top fall catcher by contrast spent a little time in the '11 outfield. "Hunter Renfroe is going to have the chance to catch," Cohen said. "I don't know if there is any more talented athlete behind the plate in the SEC, you have to give him an opportunity to do it first." But Renfroe's talents extend all over the place. He was a summer league MVP with eight home runs hit. Then this month Thompson put Renfroe back on the mound for what was supposed to be 80% velocity throwing to test just fastballs and changeups.

"Hunter felt he was throwing 80%, just nice and easy…and he's throwing 91, 93!" Cohen reported. "I really think he's turned a corner as a hitter. Arm strength, power, running speed, he can run a 6.8-60!"

State signed insurance though with juco catchers Mitch Slauter and Nick Amariti. Then former football walk-on receiver Krisjon Wilkerson tried out for baseball and impressed the coaches as another type of receiver. Replacing Wes Thigpen and Cody Freeman isn't easy, Cohen said.

"But in terms of the depth and skill level we have behind the plate I feel we have a lot of options there."

Fans can see and evaluate the options for themselves as all scrimmages and practices are open to public viewing. The annual Dugout Club and Parents Weekend events will coincide, on October 8, and the intrasquad World Series starts the first week of November. Cohen welcomes fans to the stands, but cautions they not get caught-up in averages and radar readings too much.

"Certainly if you look at the history of the fall vs. spring it's usually never a great indicator of what is going to happen statistically. But what it does do is allow us to really understand some roles. Statistics can lie over a 20-game intrasquad but the skill doesn't lie. When you can evaluate the skill you feel it is going to play out over the course of 56 games."

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