Diamond Dogs Open Home SEC Season

From one top-ten opponent to another. Or should we call it frying pan-to-fire? No, says John Cohen. It's just another weekend in the nation's premier baseball conference. "You go from playing an outstanding LSU club, to a phenomenal Arkansas club. That's the joy, the competition of the SEC."

One can excuse a bit of tongue-in-cheek from the Mississippi State coach about that ‘joy' aspect. The competition speaks for itself though as #3 ranked Arkansas (20-2, 3-0 SEC) comes to Dudy Noble Field for the second league weekend of 2012. Gametimes are 6:30 Friday, 2:00 Saturday, and an earlier noon Sunday first pitch for SportSouth TV in the network's SEC debut.

For Mississippi State (15-7, 1-2 SEC) it is more of the SEC-same after opening conference play at #10 LSU. Well, not exactly. First because the Bulldogs are at home this weekend. And second, the Razorbacks are better. "The record indicates that, and the statistics indication that," Cohen agreed. One key to a better outcome against even stouter competition is taking advantage of friendlier confines, where State was 14-3 in pre-league play.

The Bulldogs had hoped to add another W to the home-field account, only to have Wednesday's game with Alabama A&M rained out. No makeup date has been set for this matchup or for any replacement game.

So State will have had a whole week to bounce back from their initial road trip, and a SEC debut that could so easily have turned out otherwise. The Bulldogs lost a 2-1 lead in their Friday debut in Baton Rouge to fall 3-2 in ten innings, then left tying and go-ahead runs unscored in a Saturday comeback to lose 4-3. Sunday saw a lot of things fall into place with a 7-1 win.

Salvaging a SEC split left all sorts of mixed feelings depending on vantage point. Not getting swept by a top-ten host was a positive, yet the Bulldogs could have stolen the whole road series with a strike here and hit there. Complicating all evaluations is the overriding fact of State's early-SEC season situation: this is still a short-handed squad after a series of fluke injuries. The entire starting outfield, the starting third baseman, and weekend-opening pitcher were all sidelined.

And, are almost certain to stay so this weekend as well. ‘Well' not being a word heard often in the dugout these days. Cohen had initially hoped to have CF C.T. Bradford (non-throwing shoulder) back by LSU but now it appears he is out at least one more full week. RF Brent Brownlee is out at least a month more after a procedure to fix a nagging kneecap issue, and alternate LF Taylor Stark (hamstring) is also expected to miss four more weeks. That takes a late-relief pitcher out of the weekend roster, too. 3B Daryl Norris' right kneecap is another month from being ready to play and swing.

Closest to a return should be RHP Ben Bracewell. He stared the series-opener for three non-league weekends before being shut down the last two to protect the still-recovering right elbow after 2010 surgery. "I don't think we'll have access to Ben this weekend, I think it will take another week," Cohen said today. The hesitation there is because Bracewell (0.00 ERA in 10.1 innings as a starter) could get a game going against Arkansas. But the objective is having him able to both begin and go longer in April, May, and hopefully June games.

Should RHP Chris Stratton follow the same script as last Friday, the choice is all the easier. The junior was so splendid at LSU he earned NCBWA Pitcher of the Week honors for a no-decision. Stratton worked 8.2 innings with a career-best 17 strikeouts, four hits and one run. It is moot to ponder what he might have done in the ninth and if necessary tenth frames had Bracewell been able to get it going as before.

Regardless, Stratton (4-0, 2.12) will get the ball another Friday. "He's earned that spot all along," Cohen said. Stratton didn't just labor well but long with a 130-pitch SEC opener, but the coach said there have been no follow-up issues since last Friday. "He wasn't far off LSU's guy. He did stretch it out a little more in the fifth time out, but he's in great condition. He threw a mini-pen and long toss and was fine."

Of course the flip-side means matching up with Arkansas ace D.J. Baxendale (5-0). "Those are two of the better guys in our league," said Cohen. "Friday nights are an exciting time when you turn the lights on and have big-time talent on the mound."

Baxendale headlines a Razorback staff that tops the SEC at a 2.25 overall ERA, allows just .207 batting and averages over eight strikeouts per game. Though State's staff isn't so far off those numbers either with a 2.62 ERA, .232 average-against, and typical nine Ks per outing.

Pitching coach Butch Thompson will stay with the piggy-back Saturday scheme, starting LHP Nick Routt (1-2, 4.05) with RHP Evan Mitchell (1-0, 2.76) ready to enter after a few innings. How many hinges on Routt's efficiency against Arkansas' offense, which averages .292 (State is right behind at .291) but specializes in drawing walks with 115 free passes already. Nobody else in the SEC has more than 97.

So the Razorbacks will work the count and wait for something swingable. They have knocked 19 balls out of the park as a result, too. It's a challenge for any moundsman but maybe moreso for Routt, who can run hot and cold from inning to inning. "I think Nick at his best is very good, in our ball park which plays big that is an advantage also. Nick is helped from a standpoint that he gets a few more fly balls than other pitchers on our staff." As long as those flies stay inside the fences, that is.

Routt was stung for at two-run homer in his first LSU inning before settling down. State might have given some thought to changing the alternation and throwing righty Mitchell first, but either way the tag-team approach continues for another week. "It's hard to prepare for two guys than one, it puts more pressure on you. We just think those two guys combined end up being a real advantage for us." And RHP Kendall Graveman (2-0. 2.30), the Sunday standout at Baton Rouge, will have game-three.

Setting a game and even series tone with strong starts matters in any situation, but for State right now it is almost absolutely crucial. "That's why having the leadership of your club on the mound isn't necessarily a bad thing," Cohen said. Especially as State has had to revise so much of the lineup since opening day. In fact, the only constants have been Wes Rea at first base and Mitch Slauter at catcher, because the middle infield spots have frequently shuffled.

"It's no secret we're pretty beat-up," said Cohen. "Even the kids we have playing are beat-up." Such as Slauter who has played in all 22 games with 20 starts. But aches and pains must be ignored with all the real injuries forcing so many moves. Including, activating redshirting frosh Phillip Casey to take over at third base and Tyler Fullerton in leftfield. Both lost their spring break due to bad breaks, yet have stepped into starting jobs without major issues.

Fullerton has even been a happy surprise with his .412 hitting and .524 on-base rate. Casey hasn't hit as well, though he did debut with a two-run homer at Southeastern Louisiana, but has handled all fielding chances without a misstep. Hunter Renfroe moved over to centerfield quite capably and while Demarcus Henderson is still finding his footing in rightfield a .347 average has been a big help to an order that needs everything it can scratch up. Especially with Norris and his team-best .375 batting benched.

Otherwise no active Dog hitter in in the league's top twelve this week. DH Trey Porter's .349 is closest and has four of his team's nine home runs. State actually has shown a little more power than expected, at least in road games; home field homers are tougher to come by and the contact-and-move offense is still the best approach. For that matter, and despite some frustrating failures in pressure situations, the MSU offense is not far off the SEC average for situation hitting. Such as with runners in scoring positions, or two-out contact. This with Norris and Bradford out of the order, at that.

It reinforces what Cohen says about injuries creating opportunities for other players to take their swings. Still, "We have to get better in some other areas, quickly." And there is the other fact that now, with some games to study, upcoming SEC opponents are getting a read on those newer players, their strengths and more to the point their weaknesses. Nothing stays secret or surprising for long in this league.

"But I'm proud of how our young guys are doing, because they've been put in situations they weren't really prepared for," Cohen said.

Mississippi State certainly was not preparing to hit SEC season with so much of their experienced roster unavailable, and facing consecutive top-ten teams with a rebuilt lineup to boot. (Speaking of boot, no Dog was charged with an official error at LSU.) But no points are credited for injuries and absences so Cohen is not cutting any emotional slack for a matchup with the West Division pacesetter.

"Getting wins at home is really important. Our kids really sense how big this weekend is."

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