Starting Pitching Is Setting Fall Ball Pace

Maybe it is the lingering good feelings from their post-season run. Perhaps it is the ongoing, and expected, development here in a fourth round of off-season baseball. Surely getting some healthy pitchers back is contributing. And no question the fabulous-so-far fall weather has been enjoyed by all.

Whatever our reasons and reasonings, John Cohen is giving the first half of 2011 fall baseball an almost completely positive review. Only a couple of injuries, neither seeming serious enough to threaten the 2012 lineup, have interrupted a productive team practice session to date. Well, and a change in the weather for the cooler coming Tuesday.

Mississippi State hit the ‘half way' point of fall ball yesterday with their 13th scrimmage game. Up to a dozen more intrasquad contests are scheduled at Dudy Noble Field (weather permitting) before full-team work concludes with the annual Bulldog world series in early November. Cohen has focused fall ball almost entirely on scrimmages, instead of routine practices, as competition is his favorite way of both developing players and settling positions.

Combined scrimmage statistics are updated in accompanying stories. Here, Cohen discusses various position competitions along with an increasingly impressive Diamond Dog pitching staff. Which the Q&A opens with:

Cohen: "Our experienced pitchers have been really good. Every time Ben Bracewell goes out there it's like a five-star signee going out there because I think he's going to be outstanding. Chris Stratton has really made a jump, he's been 94 and 95 every time he's been out there. Evan Mitchell looks like an experienced guy instead of being a freshman."

"So I think that's where it all starts for us, I think we're good. Caleb Reed has had just a flawless fall. Trevor Fitts did not have a three-ball count until today during the course of fall. Kendall Graveman has been phenomenal since he came back from the Cape. So I really like our pitching staff, I think those guys have a lot of confidence. That's where all the experience on our club is right now."

"And I like the athleticism on our infield. We have some freshmen who have really grown up a lot. The whole redshirt freshman group which includes Wes Rea, Brayden Jones, Demarcus Henderson, all those guys have come back and done really well. Adam Frazier has been very good for us."

"We had to solve some things behind the plate through recruiting and we really like Mitch Slauter. Defensively, there's a couple of things Hunter Renfroe needs to do, he's still there and he's throwing 1.8's between innings."

"C.T. Bradford is sitting out because he has a couple of injury things he has to take care of. He's going to be a great one. Brent Brownlee is having a great fall, Taylor Stark has really had an unbelievable fall, we think he's a guy who has really changed his game a lot. So I really like where we are."

Q: What is Bradford's situation? "In baseball you're always concerned about elbow and shoulder; his deal is we think it's potentially a hernia issue he has to take care of."

Q: How is the left side of the infield shaping up? "Demarcus is a guy who has just made such great strides. He ends up probably being shortstop or third baseman. The guy who got hurt who I thought really had a chance initially to make some huge adjustments in the fall was Nick Flair. And he still might, he dove into a base and sprained his shoulder. But he will be back soon."

"Again Jones has been really solid for us. And of course Daryl Norris is someone we've experimented with at third base. But clearly Demarcus is the best athlete that we've put at third base so far."

"And again Frazier has been very, very solid defensively. A real, not surprise but Matthew Brittain can really play defense too on the left side. So we're pleased with the progress he's already made."

Q: You were high on freshman Phillip Casey going into practices as a shortstop candidate? "He's doing fine. Phillip has just hit a little bit of a wall from a standpoint of exhaustion. He's tried to make so many different adjustments instead of just going out there and playing every day. But I think he's a super talented kid and is somebody who is going to end up being a great player here."

Q: How good is the competition at first base between Norris and Rea? "It's good. And of course Trey Porter is a guy who has made some strides there also. Flair is a guy we might end up giving some time over there. So yeah, there's some competition. And that's the great thing about practices right now, our kids are really competing hard because really nothing has been answered as of yet."

Q: In the cage you had Norris and Rea hitting the opposite way, to right field today? "We structure BP to be a defensive exercise. What we're trying to do is get guys to create defensive scenarios. Our situation stuff has really taken-off. Again, that's a lot of younger guys that are becoming older guys."

Q: Are you concerned about not being as athletic in the outfield this year after losing Jaron Shepherd and Ryan Collins? "Well, when you have Brownlee and C.T., I feel those are as good as any two defensive guys in the country. Is the next guy Stark? Is the next guy potentially Renfroe? He's a super athletic guy, too."

Q: And with Slauter coming on so early it frees him to play outfield again? "Right. Is it one of these other infielders who has exclusively been playing infield right now? I learned a long time ago from Pat McMahon it's just hard to recruit outfielders; you want to recruit great athletes and those are usually the best guys on the infield. So you convert those guys. It could be a Demarcus, it could be several of those guys."

Q: What are some pitching questions you still want to answer before team practices are done? "Obviously the question last year was we needed three guys that could get is six, seven innings into a ball game. Evan Mitchell needs to be one of those guys, Ben Bracewell needs to be one of those guys. Chris Stratton needs to be one of those guys. Obviously Nick Routt needs to be one. We want to have five or six guys who can do that."

"It's hard for freshmen to go out and do that but Fitts is certainly one we think can do that. And we feel we have some younger guys with great arms, too. Jacob Lindgren has a special arm, you just like to start the freshmen off a little more slowly. And when you have depth you can do that."

"That's our whole deal. I think if we have three guys on the weekends who can get us six innings, seven innings into a ball game, then you can go to a Taylor Stark and a Caleb Reed at the end of a game; that's where we can be special. But you can't do any of that if you're having to go get guys in the middle of the third inning."

Q: What is Pollorena's role looking like now? "Luis has gotten better, a lot of people don't realize he's just a sophomore last year as a transfer. We love him in that sixth, seventh inning; maybe he is a midweek starter or maybe if it's a club that really struggles with a lefthanded starter you start him. But he's just such an energy guy and our kids love playing behind him."

"You know, we've had 24 guys pitch so far during the fall so far; and we've had 19 guys throw a pitch 90 miles an hour or better. We've had twelve guys throw a ball 92 or better. This is something we've been planning for the last three years, trying to get this kind of depth on our pitching staff. Because that's what it takes to compete in this league."

Q: What is the plan for Brandon Woodruff so far? "He did hit today. He's just such a super talented kid and another guy who is going to be a star on the mound. But he threw a bunch of innings in the summer because his team had a chance to go to the world series. Yeah, he's special. He had really not thrown a changeup before he got here, and his changeup he was throwing earlier this fall looked like he'd been throwing it five years! So he's another guy you have to start slowly, and if he doesn't have a bunch of innings early he's that guy who can become a ‘sophomore' during his freshman year when you talk about getting into May and June." Q: You're 13 games into fall ball, roughly half-way through? "Yeah. I really like where we are as a team. I really like the bonding that is happening. And more than anything I love the six weeks we spent in the weightroom and conditioning, I love where that got our bodies. Because our older guys responded to it really well, younger guys are going to go through a ‘dead body' phase. But they'll recover in November and December, and in January we'll get it going again a little lighter than it was in August and September."

"And the weather has been phenomenal. I feel like we've just had a good fall."

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