Diamond Dogs Counting Down Preseason Days

OK, so technically the only clocks involved with baseball are for getting guys in the box and balls pitched. Or timing runners. Or, that big one on top of the scoreboard. Make no mistake though, John Cohen can hear a great big clock ticking away as Opening Day approaches.

Fortunately, the coach is eager, even impatient, to put nine Diamond Dogs on Dudy Noble Field and get 2012 started. Picking which nine might run up against the clock, now, but whatever lineup and order is handed over next Friday afternoon Cohen is increasingly confident going into his fourth Mississippi State season.

"We're excited about this group. They're different in so many ways from the other teams we've had. Probably a little different than any team I've ever had."

Acknowledging that every new season brings a new ball club, Cohen makes a point. The 2012 Diamond Dogs are a different bunch in all sorts of ways. Six weeks of fall scrimmaging and now two weeks of preseason show a selection of new strengths, as well as some lingering questions, differing from Cohen's first three State squads. The coaching staff has just over a week left to combine all this in time for 6:00 first pitch next Friday against Washington State.

The most meaningful difference may be intangible. Of the 37 roster Dogs, 16 were actively part of last June's NCAA run through the Atlanta Regional and pushing Florida to the limit in the Gainesville super regional. Others were watching from the bench or redshirting or rehabbing or even recruiting. All felt part of what became the turning-point of Cohen's program and bring real confidence at last into a new year.

That, and a little hunger, Cohen said. "All those guys know how close we were, and what they have to do to get to that point." Or better, beyond it. So can they? Practices and scrimmages have confirmed most of Cohen's expectations of a roster he's spent three years assembling.

"There's an athleticism with this group, and I feel we have some power and some runners," he said. "But more than anything I like the way we defend the field and the way we pitch."

No surprise there. All fall and winter reports and reviews confirmed these are the strongest State point: pitching and defending. Those were supposed to be the 2011 core virtues too but injuries and inconsistencies with the starting staff meant unexpected struggles. The tournament rotation had little in common with what began the season.

Fingers crossed, but so far so good with the preseason pitching, Cohen said. And not merely their talents, he adds. "I really believe the great teams don't have a staff on the sidelines, they have a coaching staff on the field. And our pitching staff has tremendous leadership. It's really the first time since I've come back to Starkville I feel we have great experience on the mound and leadership, and the skill level to go with it."

Cohen isn't ready to name a rotation just yet, but does tip his hand with the three most-mentioned moundsmen of preseason. Beginning with the guy who hasn't thrown a game since May 15, 2010 and never started in college. "Ben Bracewell is a starter now," Cohen confirmed. "He has the best command any starter has, he competes. It was a difficult decision last year to put him on the shelf but I didn't know if it was worth it to him to burn a year on a short stint."

Had State known how close they would get to Omaha on the last day, the decision might have gone differently. In the longer run Bracewell has benefitted from a full year-and-a-half rehab work. "His slider is as good as any in the league when he's on," said Cohen, who added that he isn't proclaiming Bracewell a weekend man right now. "But he's a starter at least."

So are Nick Routt and Chris Stratton. Neither had the '11 anticipated; both look back on track in time for '12. "Nick has come a long way," Cohen said. "Yesterday his fastball was 92, 93 but for some reason looks harder than that, he gets swings and misses and foul balls straight-back." Routt is still uncomfortable with the changeup that was so much an issue last year despite a late fast-fix, but Cohen sees a better breaking pitch now. The key is getting outs on four or five pitches, not six or seven which wears the lefty down faster.

"And Chris Stratton might be the most talented guy on our staff. When he's on the mound he draws a crowd." Of scouts, Cohen meant. Stratton sputtered down the sophomore season stretch, especially against lefthanded hitters, and lost starting status. But he revived over the summer and fall and looks like the guy who slammed down on LSU in his freshman year finale.

"He has a great arm, two different breaking balls," Cohen said. "In the Cape he looked more like a first or second round guy."

The weekend rotation will likely be a work-in-progress for a few, well, weekends. Not because the three mentioned me can't carry it but because they are being pushed by other quality candidates. Evan Mitchell is very much back in the starting mix, as is rookie Trevor Fitts. Nor should Kendall Graveman be overlooked; a sure-thing midweek man last season with five priceless wins, the junior righty is ready for weekend starts. "Kendall has gotten so much better, he had a great summer at the Cape," Cohen said. "Evan has electric stuff, I see him as a starter."

"And the midweek is a great opportunity for guys who didn't get to pitch on weekends."

Speaking of not-pitching… Cohen and Coach Butch Thompson certainly hope to not lean on long relievers as much in '12 as last year. Or the year before, and before that. "I feel so much more comfortable getting five-six innings into a ball game," Cohen said. "Good teams have a great record if they have a lead going into the seventh and eighth inning, but you've got to get to that point."

Once to that eighth-inning point of course the call seems automatic with preseason all-American Caleb Reed. Or is it? Good news this off-season is the progress by other late reliever and closer candidates. "Taylor Stark has been outstanding," Cohen said. "He has a plus-fastball and breaking ball. We've dropped down Tim Statz as a specialist for left-on-left." Freshmen Jacob Lindgren and Brandon Woodruff in time will be starters themselves, but for now their left- and right-handed mix strengthens the relief staff that much more. And of course position players C.T. Bradford and Daryl Norris will get the call on occasions.

"We have Luis Pollorena in the middle part of a game," Cohen said, though the junior lefty is a midweek starting candidate too in the right matchup. "Andrew Busby has made adjustments and improved. My hope is to keep Caleb a one- or two-inning guy."

Soph Bradford has a lock on centerfield of course, and should be better after a season's maturity. Not to mention getting healthy; the real story was how the then-frosh won Regional MVP at Atlanta despite playing on a sports hernia. "Talk about gutting through it," Cohen said, "that was a big part of him not being able to pitch." Brent Brownlee has had his own well-known injury history and missed a stretch of mid-season games including two SEC series. But once back he completed the season, and now the senior is full-speed to open a campaign.

Probably in rightfield, given how that corner of DNF plays in the harsh sun-angles of February and March. "I think Brent is one of the best defensive outfielders in the country, and as an offensive player he's come around as well," Cohen said. But Brownlee is just as confident and competent in leftfield, where soph Stark has practiced most so far. "Taylor had a great fall offensively, at times he is brilliant in the outfield and at times he's working on it," Cohen said. "Hunter Renfroe can play outfield as well days he's not the DH." Or the catcher, Renfroe's other job. "Tyler Fullerton we feel can be a great player, he's timed at 4.20 to first base on a ground ball, the average is 4.35." And left-side infielder Demarcus Henderson is practicing in the outfield as well.

Because things are stacking up at third base and shortstop these preseason days. And that doesn't include for the moment freshman Nick Flair, still coming off a fall shoulder and winter wrist injury. Cohen calls Flair "maybe the most talented" among his third-base candidates. "Hopefully he's ready the early part of the season. I would want not to have to redshirt him because he has a chance to be good quickly."

Of course Norris can be good already, having moved from first base in fall, and Cohen likes the soph against lefthanded pitching. At the same time redshirt Brayden Jones is making a strong starting case too, and Henderson has been working this corner after limited 2011 time as a backup shortstop. That position has been targeted by soph Adam Frazier, leaving Cohen a tough call.

"I think Adam is one of the best second basemen in the country. Our need might be, early, for him to play shortstop. And like every red-blooded infielder in the history of the game, he wants to play shortstop!" Which Frazier would play very well given the position. But so can a newcomer, Cohen said.

"Matthew Britton is special. He's a 6.6 runner, long, rangy, and tremendous arm strength." Cohen recounted how the rookie sent into the hole last week for a backhand stop and spinning shot that tied-up the startled first baseman. "His offense is behind his defense but he can do some things that aren't done a lot in the middle infield. Is it second base or shortstop, we have to wait and see."

Phillip Casey is in the middle-infield mix as a freshman, and junior Sam Frost always on call for late-game defense and baserunning. A healthy Wes Rea has the first base lead but juco Trey Porter has been impressive with the glove as well. The other infielders love having two large, or in Rea's case super-sized, targets to throw at, and despite their stature both Rea and Porter are shockingly agile around the sack.

State got an early-preseason scare when Mitch Slauter took a foul off the foot. Fortunately nothing was cracked and after two days he was back behind the plate. "Mitch is a big, physical presence, he blocks well, and he is going to be an offensive threat," Cohen said. "I like how he's learned our pitching staff in such a short time. Nick Ammirati is a great blocker and thrower. And of course Hunter can help us."

Can Renfroe ever. As a catcher, as an outfielder, potentially as a pitcher though this has been set aside for the moment so the soph can focus on fewer jobs. Such as slugging the ball. "Hunter is one of those few players that I've ever been around, even when I was an assistant coach on Team USA, that when he takes BP our whole team shuts down and says oh my goodness," Cohen said. "Or he takes the mound everybody says is he going to touch 100 today? He's a special talent but I don't see it as an overload situation. His development will continue because he works so hard at it."

Renfroe, Rea, Porter, and Norris are setting up as core of a batting order with more power potential. Not that Cohen is counting on home runs or changing his fundamental offensive approach. Speed first and foremost is how State will play the game, especially at spacious Dudy Noble Field. "Adam and C.T. at the top end of the lineup can handle the bat and run and bunt," Cohen said. Meaning Brownlee and Stark can work either end of the order with their own mobility on the paths.

"In the middle of the lineup we have some scary guys with Renfroe and Rea, Norris has power in the middle, and Porter can have power from the left side and force righthanders to leave balls over the center of the plate. There's some meat in the middle of our order."

Meaty indeed…but not entirely seasoned. While Bradford and Brownlee have been through the league a time or two, or three, and Frazier saw lots of alternate duty as a freshman, most of the likely lineup has not been truly tested. Not individually, not as a team. It makes for a kinda curious roster in some ways.

"We have a lot of returning guys, just not a lot of guys with experience from a positional standpoint," said Cohen. Much less plate production standpoint. So to a great degree much of the preseason optimism is based on potential more than proof. But the nature of college baseball these days actually leans in that direction increasingly due to draft and injury turnover. Real seniors are the exception in '12 and State has just three of them.

So if Mississippi State is shy on experience compared to, say, league favorites Florida and Arkansas, there are more good ballplayers on the roster being developed for this and next season. And Cohen likes the mix of pitching, in all roles, and defense with offensive potential and just plain athleticism. The coach also caught a great break with the 2011 transition from big-fly baseball to, essentially, real baseball.

"There was a time if you didn't hit 100 home runs you couldn't win the College World Series," Cohen said. "I think now it is more of a recipe. Defense has to be good, you not only have to pitch well but have stuff, create swing-and-miss." Which is something State ought to have going for it now in 2012. Give enough offensive support, and the Diamond Dogs can stay on the improving track in the SEC and NCAA play.

The preseason countdown continues through the weekend, with Saturday also bringing the annual First Pitch Banquet.

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