Bulldogs Take Act On SEC Road To Auburn

There's no time for licking wounds these days. The schedule continues and Mississippi State must be ready for another conference series, and another Western Division matchup, as the Bulldogs visit Auburn. Short-handed or not, "We need to be up to it this weekend," Coach John Cohen said.

It certainly sets up as a weekend of high stakes for both squads. Mississippi State (17-9, 2-4 SEC) needs to change their March trend and win a conference series. Meanwhile the Tigers (15-10, 4-2) are an early season surprise story in the SEC West, having won series at Ole Miss and over LSU. They sit right behind Arkansas in the Division standings today and have another home weekend to maintain the momentum.

Game times are 6:00 Friday, 3:00 Saturday, and 1:00 Sunday with no telecasts.

It feels like piling-on to call this series a ‘must' weekend for the Bulldogs. There is no shame in their SEC record after all, given the setbacks have been to teams ranked #10 and #3 at the time. And, that the deciding games each time have been extra-inning affairs. That is how close Mississippi State is to break-even or better at this point.

Though ‘break' isn't a word spoken aloud in the Diamond Dog dugout these days. Not with all those sidelined starters nursing various injuries, leaving a depleted and revised lineup to face some of the nation's best—and healthy—clubs on uneven terms. Cohen has strode a fine line on that issue, cutting his club slack on one hand while pushing the available Dogs to perform regardless. Such as in their Thursday morning weightroom session, and the practice scheduled for this afternoon prior to departure.

"And I love the spirit of our club. No question, we've had some incredible challenges so far," Cohen said today. "But I love how our kids have responded, and it bodes well for the future."

The coaching staff is not relaxing on some basic things of course. Such as the official fielding errors and other mental gaffes in Tuesday's 6-2 win over Alcorn State. Cohen wasn't pleased with the midweek play, but does like how the players responded since in refocusing for Auburn.

"I think we've had a nice week of preparation." What State specifically is prepping for is a Tiger team that is playing with confidence. Auburn ranks third in SEC hitting with a .305 average, is second in on-base rate, and far-and-away leads the league in both steals and attempts along with sacrifice bunts. "They love to run," said Cohen, who has a team that—at least when healthy—likes to scoot, too. The aforementioned injuries have taken some of State's edge in that area obviously.

So it will be up to Bulldog pitching to keep Tigers off the paths as much as possible, and try to control them when necessary. The mound men have been State's strongest point, as expected, with a staff era of 2.84 and a SEC-best 244 strikeouts. Bulldog pitchers also have shown some good pickoff moves this season, the righthanders in particular. They'll likely be tested early and often, as well as C Mitch Slauter's arm. For that matter a good-bunting Auburn order will surely put pressure on whoever Cohen starts at third base this series, one of the positions missing its expected starter.

That being 3B Daryl Norris, still sidelined by the kneecap injury that has cost him 11 games already. Norris won't dress out this weekend either, but the team's leading batter (.375) will make the trip on his own to the home-state as an observer. In his place State will choose between three or four alternates, such as righthanded-hitter Brayden Jones or lefties Sam Frost—also a starting second baseman—and Philip Casey, and so on.

Last weekend it seemed at least one starting outfielder was back, as CF C.T. Bradford (shoulder) started twice against Arkansas. "C.T. said he felt great," Cohen said. "And he probably wasn't ready." Bradford was 0-of-6 batting, not a surprise after missing eight games and his timing. What worried Cohen was how the sophomore went to ‘effort' with the swings to compensate, though his batting practice cuts had been compact and crisp.

Bradford will dress for Auburn and can play the field at least. So, Cohen said in an update, can RF Brent Brownlee, sidelined 17 games by nagging kneecap issues addressed by surgery at last. "We'll put C.T. and Brent on the 27-man roster just in case we need late-inning defense, they can run down some fly balls." Auburn is not a big park really, and rightfield is fairly short with minimal foul space. Leftfield is trickier with a big wall to play off of and a kink in the fence that can create odd caroms.

CF Hunter Renfroe is completely capable of covering the ground there. Cohen isn't too concerned how the soph miss-handled a deep fly by Arkansas on Sunday—"I've dropped fly balls!" he noted—though an error on a routine Alcorn State drive was a reminder that nothing is routine. "Hunter has the athleticism and the tools, he's only a sophomore and he could be a big-leaguer as soon as his knowledge matches his skill level."

OF/RHP Taylor Stark's hamstring will keep him out of the lineup and late-relief for a while longer. The good news is RHP Ben Bracewell "might be in the mix" Cohen said. He's hoped the same thing the past two weekends of course, but now indications are the sophomore, who opened Fridays the first three weekends of the season, is really available again. Not as a starter, probably, Cohen said.

More likely is Bracewell assuming the role filled so far by RHP Evan Mitchell, as the ‘piggyback' pitcher to lefthanded starter Nick Routt. Cohen saw Routt's changeup working very well against Arkansas for four Saturday innings. "And that's what we've been waiting for, I thought he made some really good hitters look bad." It allowed Routt, normally a fly-ball type of pitcher (not something desirable at an Auburn-sized park) to roll more ground balls or strike people out.

So if the southpaw is on, he can get the game into middle innings before giving Bracewell or Mitchell the ball. That's a plan, anyway. "We'll stay with the same rotation," Cohen said. "Although Ben is certainly an option to be a second-guy who turns it into two starters instead of one in the course of a game. That might happen Saturday." Chris Stratton (5-0, 2.21era) and Kendall Graveman (2-0, 2.45) will be the righthanded starters on Friday and Sunday.

State has confidence pitching will play its part as usual. It is offense where the worries return. Even before all the injuries Bulldog batting was a daily question; now against SEC opposition too many of the replacements or newer starters are just overmatched.

"I don't like talking about it, it sounds like an excuse," Cohen agreed. Still, there is no hiding facts. "You're replacing at-bats."

"What you're losing is 12-to-15 at-bats a game, of guys who have played in our league before. Stark got us two huge hits to help us win games in SEC play last year. Brownlee got some huge hits down the stretch. C.T. obviously was MVP of our Regional. And Norris had a great summer and fall and was ready to be a mainstay in the middle of our order."

In the meantime the revised order takes their swings and their chances. In the long run this will pay off greatly for State with a very experienced roster for later this season and more so for 2013. "So it's a good and a bad thing. But I feel we are just so close, the one-run games and extra-inning games, you feel those guys would have made a difference."

For now? "You have to win some games just to be around for the stretch!" Cohen said wryly.

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