Diamond Dogs Settle Into Early Season Rhythm

Adam Frazier was in a mood for fun, and given how his team has opened the 2012 season this Diamond Dog had a right to joke with reporters. "I know y'all are getting tired of these close games!" Frazier said. "But whatever it takes to win is how we feel about things."

The Mississippi State infielder needn't worry about media feelings of course. As long as the Bulldogs keep scratching out victories, close or not, the only folk whose opinions count will stay content. That would of course be friends and fans who are rediscovering the delights of close, competitive baseball at Dudy Noble Field.

Oh, and their coach, too. Two intense weekends into the season, John Cohen is satisfied not just with what this State squad has done on the scoresheet. He is pleased with the way the Bulldogs have won, so far typically with intense contests against comparable opponents and even some tighter than normal tussles with others.

"In this ballpark I think we're going to have a lot of that," Cohen said. "And really we scheduled this with that in mind, because in our league that's the kind of game you're going to have against great competition."

Maybe Mississippi State's victims to-date won't count as great. But Washington State and Kansas were a better cut of competition than Cohen has dared schedule in previous years to open a season. The five games played against them proved true tests as hoped, with four settled by a run or two and the tying man in scoring position at the last out. The easiest win was by a 6-2 score in the season opener and far from a blowout at that.

"This is like SEC baseball, and that's what we want, that's why we scheduled these teams," Cohen repeated. For that matter, even perennial program punching bag Mississippi Valley State gave the homestanding Bulldogs a challenge in weekend-two. MSU needed a big middle-game outburst for a 13-5 win, then excellent young pitching for a 5-1 result in the rematch to stay undefeated all-time against the Delta Devils.

Mississippi State has passed all but one of those tests with a 6-1 record. Now they take their first swing, and pitch, at a midweek game by hosting Memphis on Wednesday. Game time at Dudy Noble Field is 4:00. The Tigers were 3-3 going into a Tuesday game at Ole Miss. Cohen was to name the Wednesday starter sometime today, but "All the guys who didn't pitch this weekend really need to pitch in that game."

Leading that list would be a pair of lefthanders who haven't seen many swings so far. In fact junior mid-reliever Luis Pollorena has done more substitute base-running and even playing centerfield than pitching since a short stint the first weekend. He's due to throw ASAP, as is Jacob Lindgren. The freshman got a one-batter college debut in the first win over Valley, an out of course, then was pulled quickly in case of need in the nightcap with Kansas. He wasn't.

Though, in that one MSU had to score three times in the last two innings to take a 3-1 win as the Jayhawks kept the offense at bay most of the way. It wasn't so different from Friday night's dramatic 1-0 walk-off win for State when 1B Wes Rea executed a run-and-hit emphatically, lining a shot off the left-field fence to score CF C.T. Bradford from second base.

That play exemplified both the strong and potentially weak points to State's batting on the early season, best summarized as doing just enough to win. Or in the case of the icing run against Kansas in the second meeting, putting the pressure on the other team to create a mistake. With two outs runner Sam Frost was put in motion from second as Frazier swung; it didn't go for hit but the infield fly was dropped.

It doesn't show up well on a stat sheet but is the sort of thing this offense appears capable of producing just by nature of how State attacks pitchers and defenses. And as Cohen noted, by using the home field advantages. "Those kind of things happen on the road. As a coach it drives you nuts when it happens to you!"

If not nutty, State's trend of unscored runners has to be at least a little annoying. There were 39 of them over the weekend, right at ten per-game. That is a real two-side situation for Cohen. "We're getting them on base," he agreed. What happens after that is the nagging bit, reminiscent of the lone loss where winning runners were stranded on third base twice by Washington State and another outed by taking a teammate's base hit off the leg.

Naturally were Bulldog batters making better use of their runners they would be both unbeaten and a whole lot less stressed as well, not needing late-game dramatics. But the larger point is as Cohen notes, people are getting on the paths, the key first step. Interestingly it wasn't by great hitting either with a team .280 weekend average for four games. Yet in those contests Dogs walked 16 times, and a dozen times reached by plunking. DH Trey Porter came away with more bruises than anyone, hit five times in 18 appearances! Nor, as has often been accused of Cohen clubs, were these Dogs leaning or crowding more than normal.

Also normally, individual averages made their early season fluctuations with the exception of Frazier. The sophomore has affirmed his place atop the order this spring, batting .375 over this weekend and .345 for the season. Also showing consistency is 3B Daryl Norris at the same season average; in fact he and Frazier are even at ten runs scored too, with nine RBI between them. After a tough first weekend Bradford looked more like his expected self, too.

The real encouragement came off bigger bats. Not that anything left the yard in four games, though Rea'S Friday liner sure seemed headed that way. "They were still giving me heck about not getting it over the fence!" he said. "I'll get one soon enough!" Maybe, maybe not because DNF is playing huge here in February. Porter, who lined two out the first weekend, wasn't c lose this time and hit just .250 after that explosive debut. Still after some swing issues to begin, big Rea is getting a grip with experience. He hit a team-best .400 for weekend-two with three doubles, including one the 290-pound redshirt legged out ahead of a throw.

"He'll hit home runs on the road, I can guarantee that!" Cohen said. "As long as he keeps it in the middle of the plate and doesn't get frustrated." Rea's progress was proven by Cohen telling him to run-and-hit in Friday's ninth, with the trust he would make contact and drive the ball somewhere. He did. Cohen was also pleased with C Mitch Slauter hitting .300 for the weekend with three walks as well. Because the junior transfer is going to play a lot more than even forecast based on how he has handled a varied pitching staff already. If anything Slauter is getting over-worked early, though Cohen did get Hunter Renfroe some time behind the dish and in one Valley game started Nick Ammirati, a strong defender with offensive uncertainties.

Dog defense could be outstanding this season. There were three errors for the weekend but two were by pitchers and the other by alternate RF Demarcus Henderson. There were no mistakes by regulars; more often just the opposite as the infield makes plays. Norris is blossoming at third base, Rea produced a couple of outstanding stops, and the middle-men Frazier and alternate SS Matthew Britton executed without a hitch. They had plenty of chances, too, as the pitching staff is rolling lots and lots of ground balls this season. That, and steady defense, meant a 1.28 weekend ERA with a 1.88 for the season to-date.

Coach Butch Thompson has two more non-conference weekends to set up a SEC rotation, and at this point there are still too many options to make projections worthwhile. Beyond the fact that righty Ben Bracewell is getting comfortable as the Friday man, with an unmarred ERA and .185 batting average for his two such starts. Yet even this needs clarification because both times Thompson has essentially used Bracewell and junior righty Chris Stratton as ‘combined' starters for the series-opener. Stratton in fact has more innings (10.0) with just two hits, no runs of any sort, and 11 strikeouts against a lone walk. That's a .067 average-against, by the way.

And Stratton (2-0) didn't even thing he threw that well in six innings to beat Kansas the first night. "We just competed, they made great plays behind me so I didn't do it all myself. I got out of rhythm a little but Mitch (Slauter) helped me out and made sure I got my energy going the right way." Energy being defined as a hard slider the aggressive Jayhawks barely touched.

Thompson's other ‘combo' has been starting lefty Nick Routt with righty Evan Mitchell warming up early. Routt was much better in his second sharp, possibly due to somewhat warmer temperatures his head coach thinks, lasting into the fifth and getting ahead of a batter with Kansas' second run in scoring position. Cohen made a bold call at that point, bringing in breaking ball specialist Mitchell to both foil a bunt try and get a fast out, which he achieved to keep it a 1-0 deficit. Then again State may have an overstocked right-handed roster now that freshman Jonathan Holder has emerged as another reliable mid-relief man. "You need a guy to bridge that gap and he can do that for us," Cohen said. Holder has so impressed the coaches that he, not Taylor Stark, got to wrap up the fourth game, meaning Stark will likely get a midweek inning now.

And now Kendall Graveman has another challenger for the other righthanded starting job after rookie Will Cox went seven innings with eight strikeouts and no walks against Valley. Yes, the competition has to be considered, but Cohen is high on the kid. "He's got great movement and he's a strike thrower, and his slider has come a long way. When that 87-89 becomes 92-93, and it will some day, he's going to be a real force. But for now he's a very good freshman pitcher."

After working over six innings in that 13-inning loss to Washington State, it was almost boring for Caleb Reed to need just two turns in closing out Kansas. Stark is his cohort closer but it will be interesting how lefty Lindgren is used in coming games here. Meanwhile Thompson would like to get some bigger leads and be able to work Tanner Gaines and Trevor Fitts onto the field as practical. For that matter freshman Brandon Woodruff has yet to throw a live pitch, though he started twice in the outfield. And of course Pollorena is itching to pitch some more.

The same holds for backup defenders like Brayden Jones, Henderson, and of course finding ways for Renfroe to play the field as well as stay in the order. That's no easy thing given how Porter has made an early claim to DH, but this is what pre-league games are for. As Cohen said, "You've got to share the wealth and let some guys get some experience."

After Memphis it is another four-game, round-robin weekend at Dudy Noble Field. State hosts Connecticut in a 6:30 Friday game; Lipscomb at 11:00 am Saturday before a 2:30 rematch with the Huskies; and a 2:30 Sunday finally with Lipscomb. Then comes a midweek pair with Penn State next Tuesday-Wednesday, and a standard series with Mercer.

It's a 17-game homestand to start this season, and if it follows the early trend there will be no lack of close, competitive, and even stressful hours at the ballpark. That doesn't worry Frazier, though. "As long as we're winning, that's all that matters."

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