"We let them throw 20-pitch innings, the front-end guys (starters Ben Bracewell and Chris Stratton) went two innings and everybody else went one. And when you know you're going to get one inning to pitch and that's going to be it for a week, that's a pretty comforting feeling in terms of giving it your best shot."
Who was giving those shots is in an accompanying scrimmage report, as well as radar readings and the batters who did manage to scratch out five total base hits. Cohen limited the scrimmage game to five innings because it had already been a full day at DNF. Some three hundred high school and academy coaches were on campus for the annual pre-season clinic; and they got to watch not just the scrimmage but an extended real practice prior to the game.
"And we had great weather to start our official practice," said Cohen, though this naturally had long-time Diamond Dog fans figuring on shivering through Opening Day come mid-February. For now the coaching staff was glad for the unseasonably nice first-practice conditions, the clinic turnout, and just how smart State looked in the pre-scrimmage drills.
"It's really neat to see our kids perform," Cohen said. "They have so much pride in what they're doing. Efficiency is important to us, and it's neat when that happens in front of 300 high school baseball coaches as well!" Or as he joked, the crisp session made it seem Bulldog staff and squad really knew what they were doing as well as talking about.
Especially the pitching. Even Cohen thought the moundsmen were sharper than usual for this point of the baseball calendar. "I was looking, our velocities are really good." Such as the solid 90s being clocked by new righthhander Brandon Woodruff, or the way old hand Caleb Reed was locating breaking pitches. Long-frustrated Tim Statz, having waited two years for a real shot, showed off the drop-down delivery to excellent effect. And rookie lefthander Jacob Lindgren was moving his stuff all around the strike zone.
While the coaching staff will analyze each pitch later, what jumped out at Cohen and Coach Butch Thompson was the health. As in for the first time in their coaching tenures at State, or for that matter several years here, preseason began with not a single full-time pitcher recovering from or sidelined by injury. The only possible cases of any limitations at this point are redshirt Wes Rea, who is working primarily as a defender and hitter anyway, and lefthander C.C. Watson who is cleared to throw.
"It's pretty exciting to see these kids compete," said Cohen. "And be healthy in the process."
Because all arms are available Thompson is able to script these 20-pitch innings in scrimmages as well as the practice bullpens. And, in turn, those who are throwing to give their best efforts without concerns of over-working. In fact the challenge for State in preseason is getting enough innings for all these pitchers. "And everybody will throw this week," Cohen forecast.
That includes the other secondary or alternate pitchers who have full-time duty elsewhere, such as infielder Daryl Norris and outfielders C.T. Bradford and Hunter Renfroe. Soph centerfielder Bradford is of particular pre-season interest given his limited fall work after surgery to fix a sports hernia which developed down the 2011 season stretch.
Bradford showed no ill signs on opening day of preseason, not only starting in center as usual but also leading off for his team. "C.T. looks great," said Cohen. "I can't wait to see him on the mound because his last couple of bullpens have been outstanding."
Norris got the start at third base for his team today, and batted third in the order too. A first baseman last freshman season Norris moved across the infield in fall ball and now has staked a claim to starting, allowing Rea and newcomer Trey Porter to battle for first base. And a good battle it is as both are outstanding defenders for their obvious size; size so obvious that the other infielders have no problem locating the target.
Brayden Jones was the other starter at third base with Norris, while at second Sam Frost and Phillip Casey started for the respective teams. Fans immediately recognize the name missing there, but only because '11 backup shortstop Adam Frazier has moved over to shortstop. "Adam is going to play one of our middle spots, we don't know which one just yet," Cohen said, agreeing that it isn't easy giving up a sure-thing second sacker like Frazier. But the soph wants to be a shortstop and the job is there for taking. Matthew Britton was the other starting shortstop today.
Tyler Fullerton started for the gray team in centerfield. Leftfielders were Taylor Stark and Demarcus Henderson; and rightfielders Brent Brownlee and Brandon Woodruff. Though, Woodruff also put in that impressive pitching inning, so Henderson moved over to rightfield with Renfroe subbing-in at left. Renfroe and Woodruff epitomize just how greatly Mississippi State's talent level has been upgraded in the last two signing classes…and the challenge Cohen has in finding ways for them to use all their talents.
"I think Hunter is going to catch for sure," Cohen said. "The first weekend does he catch one (game) or two? He's certainly going to play an outfield spot for us when he's not catching. And when he's not in the outfield he's DHing. He's going to be in the middle of our order, he's such a talented guy."
That doesn't even take into account Renfroe's right-handed pitching in relief. Woodruff eventually will be a starter though, and his outfield work is a way to keep him busy. Not to mention the fact he can play first base, though with Rea and Porter the corner ought to be in good gloves.
"Brandon is a very talented young man," Cohen said. "And the neat thing about it is we don't have to hurry, we can be patient how we get him in an the at-bats he gets and the innings." Which is a huge contrast to how elder pitchers such as Nick Routt and others were thrown into immediate and frequent duty three and two seasons ago.
Cohen said the only sidelined player for now is freshman third baseman Nick Flair. The summer signee might prove the best of that corner-bunch, but he hurt his shoulder in a fall scrimmage diving back to a base. He's also had a wrist problem over the winter. Cohen hopes to get the new kid swinging a bat in two more weeks. Otherwise, there are a few Dogs sore from off-season conditioning demands but nothing to keep them out of drills.
That's important because a long fall camp means a short preseason, just three real weeks of work. And Cohen knows this nice weather won't last. Nor will the first-practice excitement.
"The adrenalin settles back down and its all about execution and having a plan mentally, those are things we're going to work really hard on the next three weeks." By the same token, there should still be a sharp edge to attitudes as the coaches have made clear jobs remain open for winning, such as first and third base or all sorts of specific pitching assignments.
"I think it's fun," Cohen said. "I think there's a lot of competition, some guys are just trying to prove they can win a spot." Or even a backup spot for that matter.
What visiting clinic coaches might not have noticed, but longtime program observers surely did, was the sheer efficiency of the pre-scrimmage practice. There was a pace and rhythm and even atmosphere that was missing three years ago when Cohen assumed charge of his alma mater's program. Naturally installing an entirely new practice approach was part of that at the time.
But this goes beyond familiarity and routine. This team wasn't just moving station-to-station as expected but executing with a degree of precision—not to mention fun, too—which reminds how much progress has been made. Cohen agreed with the observation. "We've got the right kids in our program," he said. At the same time…
"We just have to get them experience. In our intrasquad there Trey Porter is facing an all-American pitcher (Reed) with a runner on. There's a base open, he's not going to get a pitch to hit. And he swings at three breaking balls in the dirt. He's going to be a great player but he's going to have to go through that.
"Our kids are going to have to get through all these experiences in order to be competitive. You know, we've only got two guys that really have SEC at-bats here on the field. So these next three weeks are going to be very important for us." Not just the practice weeks, but the early-season games as well which Cohen can count as an extension of preseason.
"The caution side of you says ‘yes, but' none of these guys have played in a SEC game. But we are going to play a lot of people early on in our season and see how they react."