So why would the Bulldogs be frustrated? A couple of extra-inning losses and another by one run with the tying and lead scorers on base at the end naturally leave a rebuilding, or in State's current case re-rebuilding due to injuries, wondering what if…
"I know we're down about this," said senior pitcher Caleb Reed after Sunday's 11-inning loss to the Razorbacks. "We feel we easily could have took two-out-of-three again, like we did last week. But we have to keep moving forward and get ready for next weekend."
That being another weekend of Western Division play, this time at Auburn. Before that trip though the Bulldogs (16-9) have a 6:30 Tuesday home game with Alcorn State. Freshman righthander Will Cox (1-1, 5.62 era) gets the start. This is the first home midweek game since March 7 due to road trips and rain, and a lot of other pitchers can use the work tonight.
The whole team can use a win for that matter. Not so much because the Bulldogs are rattled after going 2-6 in the last two weeks. They and fans understand what has happened. Though, an item from Sunday did offer another perspective; the lineup card Cohen handed over for the rubber game with Arkansas did not have a single Bulldog batting who had ever faced a pitch from that Razorback starter, a veteran junior.
It is a fine line Cohen straddles these days; reminding himself and others just how depleted the lineup and rotation is from opening day, yet not relaxing demands on the remaining roster to perform as if nothing has changed. As he has said, injuries to some players offer opportunities to others. To their credit the healthy players and those pushed into prime-time roles have given the effort.
"Things are not going our way off the field," Cohen said. "But our kids keep fighting and putting ourselves in position." Otherwise, he added, State could and likely would have been routed in their first six SEC tests. Instead the Dogs have played maybe a little harder than ever and certainly been an exciting bunch to watch.
"We've played two of the best teams in the SEC in the last two weeks," said IF Sam Frost, one of those Dogs given unexpected opportunity. "And we've played some of the best baseball of the whole season, it gives us a lot of confidence knowing we can compete with the top teams. And maybe that we are one of the best teams in the conference."
Maybe so. But only the record really counts, which puts more pressure on State this weekend. Auburn (4-2) is an early-season SEC surprise story after winning series at Ole Miss and with LSU, and thus playing with new confidence. These Tigers might have a little payback in mind, too, after being swept at Dudy Noble Field last March.
But they will be seeing a very different Bulldog team from 2011, or for that matter from February '12. It is as Cohen says "the elephant in the room" in any evaluation, with four position starters sidelined along with Friday opener Ben Bracewell. There is increased hope Bracewell could be activated again at last after a three-weekend absence to spare his repaired right elbow, though this is wait-and-see still.
One injured regular, CF C.T. Bradford, did return for the Arkansas series with two starts and a pinch-run appearance Sunday. The result was 0-for-6 batting and more strain on the tender right shoulder that put the lefthanded hitter/thrower back on the bench. "I thought we were making progress there but we might be back to the drawing board," Cohen said. Meanwhile both 3B Daryl Norris (kneecap), OF/P Taylor Stark (hamstring), and OF Brent Brownlee (kneecap procedure) are expected to miss another two to three weeks at best.
So State is still far from full-strength heading to Auburn. Cohen noted that no less than 13 Dogs were in the training room Sunday for various issues, including starting pitcher Kendall Graveman with sinus-related illness. It took a trainer to notice the righthander was sick to get some quick attention, too. "Kendall would have never mentioned it," Cohen said. With teammates having injuries, it is a rare Dog that will complain about something like a queasy stomach even if their coaches want to know.
That example is another reason Cohen won't give in to frustration, and why a depleted club is still giving top-ten opposition all they can handle and maybe more. "These kids are competing their tails off and are right on the brink of being very successful," the coach said. "That's why when everything starts going our way this is going to be a very good baseball team."
State is doing some things very well already. Pitching and defense were projected as team strengths in 2012 and the stat sheet is indeed tilted that way. MSU pitching not only leads the SEC in strikeouts, they have rolled a league-leading 33 double-plays including five against Arkansas. The defense wasn't errorless over the weekend but fielding gaffes haven't cost a game in weeks. Whether having a veteran like Norris in position would have made one or two more plays to win games can only be speculated, so on the whole Cohen is content how the revamped lineups have played the field.
"You're re-inventing the wheel a little bit, not by design but out of emergency," he said. Frost, Brayden Jones, Philip Casey, and others have filled in at third in the interim. Bradford's replacement, Hunter Renfroe, has been fine in centerfield as well. And, given a boost with the bat such as two home runs—one an inside-parker—in the Friday win over Arkansas. Renfroe has hit safely in all six SEC games. Even if Bradford sits out this weekend the Auburn outfield is relatively cozy compared to DNF, so State would be confident with Renfroe lined up between Demarcus Henderson and Tyler Fullerton.
The latter, hastily activated for the Louisiana road trip, began well offensively too. But inevitably scouting tape provided a quick read on the freshman and he was 0-of-10 against ready Razorback pitching. Henderson was hitless for the series as well, and 2B Matthew Britton 1-of-7. This is no indictment on anyone given the high national regard of Arkansas arms; it was a reminder that State's offense has so little margin even on good days. Bulldog batters were 4-of-30 with runners in scoring positions over the weekend.
And, there were a lot of them getting there too, with 30 Dogs left unscored. Reaching base is actually encouraging…with the end results frustrating. Nothing epitomized State's fragile offense like a two-on, no-outs opportunity on Sunday with a 2-0 lead. Ironically, the obvious bunt situation didn't develop as Arkansas didn't offer a dumpable pitch to SS Adam Frazier. The soph had to swing away on full count and did, hitting a laser shot that should have scored at least one and likely both runners and blown the rubber game open. Except the UA first baseman was covering the bag and the line-shot smacked directly into glove for a triple play. Arkansas ultimately used the reprieve to win in 11 innings.
Only a week before a big inning at Southeastern Louisiana also ended on a three-out shot. "I've never had a club hit into a triple play in twenty years," Cohen said. "And now we've done it two times on the same exact play!" Yet no coach could ask for more given that Dogs reached base and another struck ball on nose.
‘So we're putting ourselves in the right positions," said the coach. And, he could add, getting the pitching to stay in such positions. Friday starter Chris Stratton couldn't duplicate his 8.2 inning, 137 pitch outing as at LSU a week earlier. But this time the righthander got a win on his 7.0 innings against UA, giving him a 5-0 record and 2.21 ERA…and raising his draft stock accordingly. When Bracewell returns, pitching coach Butch Thompson might have a tough choice whether to stay with the ‘piggyback' approach on Fridays or let junior Stratton have it to himself.
Despite taking a Saturday loss, Nick Routt (1-3, 4.01) actually showed the coaches something positive. "The best thing was Routt found his changeup, he got some swings-and-misses," said Cohen. "That is going to be a difference maker for him." For that matter pitching with a stiff breeze blowing out to rightfield the lefthander didn't throw many fly balls at all and none which reached the warning track. A good sign given where he will be throwing this weekend.
For his part, and despite the tummy troubles, Graveman was effective for five-plus innings Sunday, building on a full-game victory at LSU. It wasn't a good Saturday piggyback for righty Evan Mitchell, but he has thrown well before so nobody is concerned. Even if they are, there isn't much to be done at this point anyway.
"Our expectations on the mound are so high," Cohen said. "We're so dependent on them because we are so young and have so many guys who have not played a whole lot on the field. That part has to get better, too. We have to compete better at home plate because if you can't score you can't win. And you can't expect to win every game 1-0."
State would love to let Cox go a long stint tonight, but last week's rainout of Alabama A&M set all midweek work behind schedule. It also meant no chance to keep closer Caleb Reed sharp and that likely showed in less fastball command than usual for the senior Sunday. He had no need to throw in Friday's 11-2 win or Saturday's 8-0 loss.
"Caleb hadn't pitched in a while and that was not by design," Cohen said. "We need to get him in more games and it helps to have midweek games." By the same token there are many more Dogs who could use work, such as lefty Luis Pollorena who has just 6.1 innings so far. The schedule hasn't offered a lot of opportunities, not to mention too many tight games, to work a variety of arms in for both testing and tuning. Though, as Cohen noted in the game-two loss, after getting behind big the freshmen relievers rolled in and out threw scoreless innings with a bunch of strikeouts.
Not a lot has gone to pre-season plan here in the first two SEC weekends in lineup and rotation terms. Of course with two top-ten opponents even a full-strength squad would have had its work cut out and no shame in a 2-4 start. It is coming sooooo close, with such a cobbled-together squad, that actually offers a positive edge to the general frustrations. Besides, at one Sunday point Cohen noticed seven freshmen had gotten into the game.
"If C.T. is full-strength and seeing it like he was; if Daryl has his form," Cohen mused. "Between Brownlee, Norris, and when they bring in a lefty (pitcher) even Stark…that's 12 at bats that go to guys who have experience. Now those for 12 at-bats will help those (replacement) guys in the long run." In the short term, the growing pains show on the record.
"If anyone had said you're going to lose five opening day starters and have a great opportunity with the rest of your club to take two out of three from Arkansas, or to take two out of three from LSU, I'd have said I don't see how it is possible. But our kids are knocking on the door. We're going to keep competing our tails off."