Bulldogs Host Crucial Series With Vanderbilt

It makes for interesting comparison, albeit for frustrating reasons, as John Cohen compares visiting Vanderbilt with his Diamond Dog squad. "I think they're a little bit like our club, just from the standpoint of younger guys are going to get better. They're younger on the mound, and we're younger positionally."

Meaning, a couple of revamped or just plain rebuilt rosters meet at Dudy Noble Field this weekend as Mississippi State (18-11) hosts Vanderbilt (12-17). Both will field lineups showing little in common with 2011's squads beyond uniforms. And, both are essentially in must-win situations for the fourth series of their SEC seasons with matching 3-6 league records.

"Vanderbilt is a very good club," said Cohen. "Their record doesn't indicate that, but they played some very good non-conference opponents." Others might call it over-scheduling, as the Commodores had to open against the likes of Stanford, Oregon, and San Diego; then begin SEC season at Florida. That was a lot to bite-off early for a team missing, by Cohen's count, 31 wins off the pitching staff that powered Vanderbilt to the 2011 SEC championship and first-ever College World Series appearance.

Cohen can sympathize, from a different standpoint that is. Not only are seven of the position starters in State's own super regional run gone, but the two returnees spent most of March sidelined by injuries. For that matter two more of the 2012 opening day starters have also been out along with the first-game pitcher. That is why two of the league's June standouts are limping along this April in a three-way tie with South Carolina—the defending national champions of course—at the bottom of this week's conference standings.

"There is such a tiny little difference between being very good in our league, and losing," said Cohen. "You lose that one guy and it changes everything."

The encouraging news for Vanderbilt is their new team is getting older and better. Mississippi State? Most of the sideline-squad is either getting back into games or about to. Whether it will come in time to turn around the season, now…

"I like our club when we have the use of all its facilities and as the season goes on it will be better," Cohen said today. "All of us realize if you flip a switch or win one of the one-run games, we feel a lot better about ourselves. But I think we have a great opportunity to progress and win games."

It's an opportunity State must seize. To that end the pitching rotation is changing. Chris Stratton (6-0, 2.27era) stays in the Friday slot of course; there is no need to mess with success and the junior righthander has had that. He is second this week in SEC strikeouts by one K, and tied for fifth in the NCAA standings for that matter. Saturday will see a different starter, from a different side of the mound. After some sterling outings on Sunday, righty Kendall Graveman (2-1, 3.05) advances a day.

"We're going to go ahead and move Kendall into the Saturday spot," Cohen said. "It's not a demotion for anybody, it's a promotion of Kendall. He is one of our two best arms right now." Graveman has the only complete SEC game in the whole league through three weekends, and while he had some Sunday struggles the last time out the runs scored by Auburn had contributing causes from that rebuild and still-gelling defense.

So Nick Routt (1-4, 4.72) gives up his game-two spot. State coaches really believed the veteran lefthander was getting in a groove with the changeup based on a strong showing against Arkansas. But fastball command cost him dearly in a Saturday start the Dogs badly needed at Auburn. Nor, Cohen said, will Routt slide back to Sunday.

Instead he will get loose for such left-handed situations as needed, something State is short on this spring. Though, "With his changeup in some respects he's better against righthanded hitters than lefthanded hitters," said Cohen. It offers the option of getting a couple of games from Routt now, a role he did well enough down the 2011 stretch after his own injury issues.

"The other thing it does is, potentially, open the door for Sunday for the possibility of Caleb Reed starting," Cohen said. This is a most interesting prospect, given how Reed (0-4, 2.49) is the game-finisher on this staff. Like most closers his record reflects hard luck in that role much more than any real issues, and he saved the Friday win for Stratton at Auburn just fine. Realistically, getting through two games without requiring Reed's relief services seems a stretch right now.

"If Caleb can help us win Friday or Saturday, we'll use him and figure out Sunday from there." By then RHP Ben Bracewell (0-0, 0.79) will have figured if he's ready to throw again. The sophomore started on opening day and the next two weekends before elbow soreness returned, a reminder that he missed all of 2011 for recovery from '10 surgery. Bracewell is being carefully scripted and he did get a tender wing after a short stint at Auburn.

State isn't without other opening options too, with Evan Mitchell ready to go. Cohen even held out the possibility RHP Taylor Stark can throw again after four weeks out with a hamstring injury. The key there is can Stark, who would be Reed's alternate in closing, field a grounder or bunt.

Speaking of ‘ready', two recovering starters and batters are getting back in the field. And swing. But Cohen can't count on having both C.T. Bradford and Brent Brownlee in the outfield all three games. Maybe not more than once, in fact. The coach is just glad they can play at all right now. CF Bradford is a week ahead in recovery from his shoulder injury, and needed it at the plate. After showing inevitable rust against Arkansas he made quality contact at Auburn. "He didn't get rewarded but he's tough enough mentally to overcome that," said Cohen. "Having him in the lineup is crucial."

Brownlee made some contact in his return, with no hits to show, but also made maybe the key defensive play of the victory, snagging a fly ball and throwing out the tagged runner for a double-play to preserve State's lead. By Sunday though the repaired knee had swollen again, enough to sit him out. Cohen calls it day-to-day with the senior, though he's confident Brownlee can handle late-inning defense without problems. Offense?

"It's hard to start a guy not practicing, with the ability to read spin or get the barrel out there. It will be a game-time decision and Brent will probably help that decision." Brownlee, nor Bradford, would have played had Tuesday's game with Mississippi Valley gone off as schedule. Weather, which did not materialize, prompted the schools to reschedule for a May 8 twinbill, two seven-inning games, at DNF.

"But we're fortunate that game didn't happen for a lot of reasons," Cohen said. DH Trey Porter was excused for the death of his grandmother, and C Mitch Slauter was ill. 1B Wes Rea managed to bang his head and hurt some fingers on a slide into home plate Sunday and would also have sat out. All are back for the weekend. Not back, though, is 3B Daryl Norris as he comes back from the freak kneecap injury that has cost him 14 games.

The sophomore is doing some practicing now. "He took some ground balls and was stiff, as you'd imagine," Cohen said. "You watch him take BP and it makes you feel worse, because he's a good player." The player still atop State's batting average list, at that, showing some of what the offense has been missing for three going on four SEC weekends already.

"It's a little disheartening," admitted Cohen. "At Auburn, Brent was the only offensive player along with Sam Frost who had ever stepped on Auburn's field before." Junior Frost is a good example of how State is scuffling through this stretch. A veteran second baseman, he finds himself moving over to third base often as not just to have somebody on the corner who has faced SEC pressures.

Until last weekend, the left side had held up reasonably well whether it was Frost, Brayden Jones, Philip Casey, or Demarcus Henderson playing third base. Auburn was another matter as the Tigers attacked this area intentionally. "It really hurt us," Cohen said. "It's not Sam's natural position but he did fine defensively, of course we had him at second a portion of the series. You don't want Matthew Britton to get beat-up either."

For all this, the Bulldog defense is second in NCAA double-plays. They can handle most of the routine situations, and the pitching can keep State in contention more often than not. For that matter Bulldogs are getting on bases just fine, probably better than any would have imagined with the missing men in the order. The difference in 3-6 and 6-3 has, essentially, come down to one more good swing by somebody with those teammates in scoring positions.

So the Dogs know where the shortcomings have been. It is simply up to them to do the hardest thing in the game, to deliver the timely base hits that get the 2012 season on a better track. There's no time like the present.

"I don't think anything is off the table at this point," said Cohen. "Because we have to treat every SEC game like a World Series. We've got to do whatever we can to get in position to win games."

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