Tough enough that the series, interrupted by weather, went down to the last Cougar at-bat sometime around 9:09 Sunday evening. It ended a long, hard day for both teams with 22 innings and a pair of nailbiters; Washington State winning 6-5 in a 13th inning marathon with the tying Bulldog on third base, then MSU outlasting the visitors 5-4 with the tying man on first base. Perhaps the umpiring crew was as ready to finish as any participant as a dubious check-swing strikeout was called.
Mississippi State naturally was not protesting the win, which gave them the series after Friday's somewhat easier 6-2 success. Either way, everyone with the home team was relieved to take the opening weekend of their schedule, if a bit let down not to have seized the sweep.
"That's one of the better teams we've played to start off in a long time, or since I've been here," said pitcher Caleb Reed, a senior with long experience to speak from. "We're a little disappointed, but you have to move forward and get ready for Mississippi Valley and Kansas when they come in."
Those new opponents are coming in for a round-robin weekend at Dudy Noble Field. State (2-1) hosts Kansas first with a 6:30 Friday game, then plays both Mississippi Valley State (noon) and the Jayhawks again (4:00) for a scheduled twinbill this time. Sunday has a MSU-MVSU repeat at 2:30. The Jayhawks arrive 3-0 after their own opening weekend, while the Delta Devils are 0-2.
Cohen could have picked an easier opening guest than Washington State, especially with all the pre-season questions built into 2012. Such as replacing all four full-time infield starters, the entire catching rotation, one outfielder, and putting a reliever who hadn't thrown since mid-2010 season on the hill as game-one starter. Such factors typically dictates a SEC team paying a lesser foe for three sure wins.
But the coach was determined to throw this rebuilt team into the deeper end immediately. "It was real important to me at this stage to play a very good Pac 12 team," Cohen said. "On the whole, the Bulldogs handled it well, putting in a winning weekend for a fourth-straight season…and as Reed said against a quality opponent.
State wasn't alone scheduling a tough first test, as Vanderbilt, Florida, and Ole Miss also took on first-class clubs. So comparing league statistics just two and three games in means next to nothing. Still, State had a few interesting and even unexpected twists to their first set of numbers. Such as the offense showing up well with a .327 average. Cohen can't be satisfied with 18 strikeouts against a dozen walks, which cut the on-base rate to .394, but this was in line with league peers allowing for all the varied situations.
What mattered more in the early-season picture, said 3B Daryl Norris, was "We've got guys who can hit up and down the lineup." Norris was correct, as in all three games at least seven of the starters for that particular lineup got a hit. Or two. All starters hit safely in Friday's opener in fact, and eight of nine in game-two though obviously going 13 innings gave everyone lots of chances.
Norris was able to collect five base hits, as did senior outfielder Brent Brownlee for the weekend. And they weren't even the biggest sticks for opening weekend. That was DH Trey Porter with six base hits, including a double and two home runs. Both longballs came Sunday for three of his four series RBI. State expected the walk-on infielder to hit well, which is how he made the roster. Even the extent of his immediate contribution surprised no one, least of all Porter himself.
"Definitely the first at-bat I had huge butterflies, but after you get that first game out of the way its all down to playing baseball. I had a pretty decent first weekends my freshman and sophomore years (in junior college)," Porter added.
"Trey is a good player," Cohen said. "He's a tough kid who gets all over the plate and is very tough to pitch to. It didn't take us long in fall to figure out he's a difficult guy to throw strikes to, he gets in advantage counts and makes the most of it." State will make the most of the junior's new punch as he was hitting in fourth-slot by the third game.
Those were the only MSU homers for opening weekend , though Dogs did knock nine doubles; by contrast WSU's only extra-base hits were four doubles. Cohen relies on DNF to play ‘big' and that limits his own team's power potential, though 1B Wes Rea did reach the warning track on a cold damp evening and showed a swing that with just a bit of finessing should produce yard-balls soon. Norris has strength too though he's concentrating on contact just like the rest of the order(s). "I've been working on just keeping the barrel through the zone and giving myself a chance," said Norris, who with Rea, Porter, and C Mitch Slauter fill out the middle of the order. Cohen surprised a few folk with the top three, all ‘speed' guys in CF C.T. Bradford, Brownlee, and SS/2B Adam Frazier. By Sunday evening it was, more surprisingly, Bradford who moved down later in the order as he struggled somewhat. Changing to hitting fifth produced three of his four weekend knocks, which really signals the all-around potential in MSU batters in whatever combinations.
Four Dogs had a hit in all three games. Bradford wasn't called on to steal any but Norris, Brownlee, and LF/DH Hunter Renfroe all did once each, successfully.
The rebuilt infield only committed two errors, a third going to pitcher Ben Bracewell on an errant pickoff that produced an out anyway. "I thought we played well," Cohen said. He allowed soph second sacker Frazier to take a start at shortstop, too, though the coaches would clearly prefer to leave him at the ideal position and keep developing freshman Matthew Britton in the six-hole. Brownlee and Bradford are set in right and center fields while Taylor Stark or big-bat guy Renfroe alternate in left; something almost sure to continue to keep Porter as DH yet give Renfroe, the #2 catcher, chances to hit daily.
Slauter worked all three games behind the plate, though if not for the Saturday rainout Renfroe might have gotten his turn. Cohen is impressed with the JC transfer's immediate comfort level with a new-to-him pitching staff already, and if Slauter can improve his hitting he will get three out of four starts most weeks.
As for the moundsmen, Bracewell met expectations in a successful return to pitching after a year-plus layoff; and in his first starting assignment ever. The third-year soph worked 4.1 innings with two hits and two runs, both unearned; striking out five with one walk. Cohen had predicted the 2010 mid-reliever would make a Friday starter and Bracewell rewarded that faith. Though, he didn't get the decision based on scorer's choice; that went to former starter turned reliever Chris Stratton with 4.0 scoreless innings, allowing a hit and no walks with three strikeouts.
Stratton of course remains very much in the starting picture as the season develops, though for the first weekend Cohen booked he and Bracewell to divide the opening game and get both work. Getting a lead and keeping it helped stay that strategy. It didn't work as well in the delayed game-two as starter Nick Routt lasted just 2.0 innings with three runs and six hits before Evan Mitchell stepped in to settle things down for 4.1 innings. And, throw an eye-opening eight strikeouts.
"It's clear Nick didn't have his best stuff," Cohen said, adding that lefty Routt had been dominating in his final scrimmage…and in warmer weather. "Today he just couldn't get loose, but I know he's going to come back and give us some quality starts." Though Mitchell's strong showing might shake up the starting order, as he was also being measured for a rotation role. Kendall Graveman was even better in a 6.1 inning stint Sunday evening with two runs on three hits and four strikeouts. As Cohen noted, Graveman was a defensive play away from six shutout innings.
The best outing of all, of course, was the unplanned 6.1 innings in late…then later and later…relief by Reed. Naturally he was sent in to save a game in the seventh inning, then found himself going back out frame after frame when State failed three times to push the winning run across with one or two outs.
"That's what I'm here for," Reed shrugged. "I didn't want to come out." Neither does State want to rely on such extended stints from their closer, though, especially as Cohen said pre-season he saw Reed as a one-inning reliever only this year. "In a nine-inning game!" he joked after the series. "In a 14-inning game he's not a one-inning guy! But he battled his heart out for us and nobody deserved to win a game more than he did and it just didn't happen. But he was outstanding."
The real late relief plan was shown by using outfielder Taylor Stark as the alternate closer. While he had a shaky debut this season in the game-three eighth inning to allow WSU their fourth run, when Stark came back for the ninth it was after his offense had created three runs for the 5-4 lead. Stark slammed the door this time. Though both are righthanders, Reed and Stark have differing deliveries that will allow more mix-and-match at the end of games.
2011 mid-relief lefty Luis Pollorena got just one official inning; in fact his first '12 action came as a pinch-runner in game-two! But he and Chad Girodo did get to toss some as the left-handed relievers and set-up men, along with freshman righty Jonathan Holder. Cohen's main regret from first-weekend pitching was not getting freshman lefty Jacob Lindgren into a game, though that chance should come soon enough with four games in three days. Followed by a Wednesday game with Memphis, then another four-in-three-days weekend, then…
No wonder Cohen hopes the team took advantage of…wait, no there was no real downtime. "We'll get back on our weightroom program," the coach said. And even last Saturday's rainout wasn't wasted as the Bulldogs spent a couple hours watching video of themselves and opponents to better prepare for coming games.
"I just have this overwhelming feeling we have the right kids and we're going to be better fifty games from now," Cohen said. "Again it's a long way to go but this is what we envisioned. It's all how quickly they get experienced."