Bulldogs Stay Busy With Penn State Series

Some would wonder about the wisdom of Mississippi State's March scheduling. After all, nine games in a ten-day span seems a pretty stressful stretch for a ball team. Except the Diamond Dogs aren't complaining. "It's fun!" C.T. Bradford said. "We're going to have fun. It's going to be long and it's going to be tough, but it's fun."

Now, maybe Mississippi State's sophomore centerfielder was still feeling the buzz from having slugged the first home run of his college career a few minutes earlier. Or perhaps it was just the general good feelings in the Diamond Dog dugout after a rare runaway victory, a 16-6 romp over Lipscomb. That win wrapped up another four-game weekend for State, both of them sweeps, and ran the early season record to 10-2.

And yes, "It was fun," said Bradford.

Bulldogs hope the home-field fun continues for another week, an even busier one too. The 2012 schedule finally brings a couple of true midweek and weekend series in the same stretch, beginning with a Tuesday-Wednesday set against Penn State. After a (rare for now) day off the Dogs host Mercer for the weekend at Dudy Noble field. That's a lot of ‘fun' crammed into an intense stretch by any measure.

And the ‘fun' is indeed parenthetical to at least one wearing a MSU uniform, Coach John Cohen admitted. This midweek series fell into MSU's lap as Penn State (2-6) is making one of those typical ‘snowbird' swings South. "We couldn't pass it up," Cohen said, though an aide disagreed. "Butch Thompson looked at me like, really? We're going to play four and then two in the middle (of the week)? And he was right," Cohen said.

"But I said how do you turn down the chance to play a Penn State when they're in our area. It's going to be a tremendous challenge for us, they're going to have some big, physical guys that can pitch. Thompson isn't objecting to the opponent of course. State is coming off a couple of solid weekend wins over defending Big East champions Connecticut by 5-4 and 3-1 scores, and two more over Lipscomb (6-4 and 16-6). It's the timing for two quality games that has the pitching coach concerned as a lot of arms got worked in a four-game weekend. And, the coming weekend should be used setting up MSU's likely rotation for their SEC opener next weekend.

So, "We're going to be a little short on the mound," Cohen said of the first-ever meeting with Penn State. Though this can be turned into opportunity as well; where originally Cohen and Thompson were talking Sunday of starting veteran lefthander Luis Pollorena and righthanded freshman Brandon Woodruff the two games, Monday it was announced southpaw Bradford would get to open one of the games. It would be his first mound action of the sophomore season.

Regardless, said Cohen, "Hopefully we can go deeper starts and go an inning at a time after that."

Of course going purely by the past weekend's numbers State isn't exactly depleted. Only three Dogs tossed four or more innings and two of those, Nick Routt and Chris Stratton, are reserved for weekend-only use. They each threw six frames and got wins, the first for lefty Routt and third for Stratton. The early-season twist is how Stratton does this not technically as a starter; he has been piggy-backing on Ben Bracewell's restricted starts all three appearances.

Restricted, because after the 2011 layoff Bracewell is still easing into full-time action as well as his first year at starter. He had 42 pitches in 3.0 innings against Connecticut, and so far his long stint is 58 pitches in the season opener against Washington State. Elbow soreness remains a concern for now, per the head coach. "Benny is still nursing a couple of things and we're waiting to try to get him to that 80-90 pitch mark. And a little bit later on we can do that." The idea of course is limit Bracewell's pitches in March so he can go full-steam in May.

Though, putting Stratton back in his old starting role is another option. Especially after the junior righty beat UConn despite not being all that sharp. "I'm really proud of Chris," Cohen said. "He doesn't have his best command but he kept batting. His stuff was there just not his command. I think a year ago or two years ago you would not have seen him be able to get that command back and battle through. But I'm proud of how he's competing." Stratton's 16 innings and 20 strikeouts are best on the staff.

Thompson has liked the other tag-team too, with Routt and righty Evan Mitchell sharing Saturday games against—to be honest—the better opponent in four-game weekends. This time though Routt had the longest outing, with one unearned run in the six innings and four hits. Mitchell thus only had to work two innings, scoreless with one hit, before handing the ball to Caleb Reed for the lockdown. Reed, interestingly, has yet to throw on a Friday, a situation almost certain to change come SEC season.

Righties Kendall Graveman and Will Cox have all the other weekend starts so far, and Pollorena opened the lone midweek date last week with Memphis. But anyone trying today to project who will start at Baton Rouge a weekend from now had best be patient. And the coaches have their hands full now getting innings for all the relief arms just to have game-testing to base travel roster picks on. It's been a challenge with so many close games, so Sunday was a rare luxury.

"Brandon Woodruff gets his first inning on the mound, his stuff at some point is going to be as good as anyone in this league," Cohen said. "Jacob Lidgren continues to do a good job for us in relief, and Tanner Gaines pitched very well for us too." The core of middle-relief though has emerged as righty Jonathan Holder and lefties Ross Mitchell and Chad Girodo. And, of course, Pollorena, who has been odd-man-out with more time running bases and even playing center than pitching.

He had a rocky outing against Memphis, unable to nick the bottom of the strike zone which is key to his effectiveness starting or relieving. Time is running out for getting C.C. Watson, Tim Statz, and Andrew Busby turns before SEC season, too. But on the whole State can't complain about so-far season stats of 2.17 ERA and .225 average-against, not to mention 114 strikeouts against just 27 walks.

Sunday went against the offensive grain as well, and in an encouraging way. Lots of Dogs got to fatten their averages at last, after a couple week's struggles, and the team improved a few points to .308 on the season. More meaningful, maybe, is an on-base rate nearing 40% aided by 41 walks and 22 plunkings. DH Trey Porter continues to be a magnet for the ball, hit five times already. Though, he had to miss three games after fouling a ball off his shin. That didn't keep Porter from slugging a crucial two-run shot against UConn Friday—good thing too as he couldn't have run the bases; trotting was just fine—that keyed the comeback win.

And comebacks have been a club calling card. As 2B Adam Frazier joked after State won that game on a two-run error in the ninth, everyone must be getting tired of nailbiters. Joking or not, there is a degree of club confidence the game is never entirely over. "That's how it seems every game we're playing, we hang in there to the seventh or the eighth and somebody comes up and dose something to get the momentum going," said Porter.

One such comeback fell just short, sort of, as State rallied from 5-1 down to tie Memphis before losing it in the ninth inning. Batters and pitchers alike agree, scoring more earlier and dictating tempo would be preferable. "But I think it will get better as we keep making adjustments at the plate," Porter said. "We just have to get some runs. I think we'll get it going earlier."

Daryl Norris certainly had it going over the weekend with a .476 average for four games, raising his season to .400 with ten RBU. Porter also stands at .400 and leads with three homers. Frazier (.373, 12 runs scored) has been Mr. Consistent swinging either first or second in the order, and big Wes Rea is shortening his swing with great results. The first baseman is up to .318 with ten RBI and a long-awaited first home run. Which Bradford has matched, to Rea's annoyance, though "He's probably going to get a few more!" Bradford said. "I'm just going to continue to hit balls up the middle."

Bradford needed a big Sunday to snap out of a slow start. A four-hit day raised his season to .294. That is still low for a lead-Dog but all are confident Bradford will be back in the swing…and in perhaps the most unusual item on the stat sheet, he still leads the team with 13 RBI.

"I just relaxed," Bradford said. "I'm not going to press at all, I've been through this before. And a lot of guys in our dugout know how to play, they're all mature and know there's no reason to press no matter how you do. So it's going to come together."

The pressing was somewhat inevitable because there's something about getting out when a teammate is on base that makes offense look worse than the numbers show. And Dogs have been reaching bases, and getting in scoring positions, then staying put. As Cohen noted before, this offense is taking care of the first two parts; getting the third is now key to getting in-synch for SEC play where opportunities are much harder to come by. But, the coach also says, many of the stranded Dogs were left despite solid contact; there have been fewer called strikeouts this year than last and some pretty good hacks with nothing to show for them.

"That's how it works in this game, you get ten line-drives in a row at somebody and suddenly you're in the middle of a tight ball game. I think the key to our ball club is how often we get to the middle of the field. If you see us hit to the middle of the field we're going to have success and we were able to do that today." And while Cohen doesn't count on power production with this order, he says not to write it off entirely either. Especially once State starts swinging in smaller yards.

"Sometimes I read things about they're not a physical group. Hunter Renfroe is not physical? Wes Rea is not physical, Mitch Slauter is not physical? What you want to have is to have a nice recipe of guys who can run and guys who can hit it out of the ballpark." Or guys with some of both like Norris, and even speedsters who can show unexpected pop in the right circumstances.

Cohen expects Porter back for this series after the layoff, and in fact the DH could had DH'd Sunday if needed. RF Brent Brownlee career-long list of injuries has 2012 additions but he was subbed in late Saturday for defense against UConn and is due to play Tuesday after a coaching precaution. Injuries still remain a threat to this season of course, especially should ironman catcher Mitch Slauter take a foul-tip off the wrong spot. His backup Nick Ammirati has a great glove, just not a lot of offensive resume.

The biggest weekend issue though was infield defense, middle-infield mostly with eight errors. None cost a game, but that isn't something State can count on against conference offenses. SS/2B Matthew Britton had an awful few days with five errors, three of them Sunday and two in the same inning as his confidence visibly evaporated. 2B/SS Frazier had one boot of his own and backup 2B Sam Frost two more, meaning everyone got in on the E-action.

State could possibly make a move here, such as bringing OF Demarcus Henderson back to the infield. But the outfield has little depth to speak off when Brownlee is gimpy and OF/P Taylor Stark setting up for relief pitching. So that would be a last-case option for Cohen.

The preference is to have rookie Britton work through his issues. And the kid showed the first two weekends he has all the tools to play shortstop and leave Frazier at his ideal second-sack spot. "You just have to keep him up," said Norris, who has been splendid in his first season at third base. "Those things are going to happen, he's a very mature guy for a freshman and he's going to bounce back from this and come out and keep playing hard every day."

Cohen is not about to write off the new middle-infielder. "I really believe Matthew before all is said and done is going to be a great infielder for us, but right now the game is punching him in the face a little bit. We have some work to do there."

That work will have to be done mostly in games from now on. Because these are going to be some very busy Bulldogs over the coming six days as Mississippi State wraps up the 17-game homestand. That's a lot of hours at the ballpark, agrees Bradford.

But, "It's better than practice!"

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