Dogs Hope Series Success Is Fresh Start

Sure they celebrated, as much for pride in winning a SEC series as…well, for finally winning a SEC series. There is no denying the validation Mississippi State found in rubber game success over Vanderbilt, though. "We know we're just as good as any other team if not better," said Evan Mitchell. "To finally get a win after playing these teams down to the wire it's good. It's great, actually."

Actually, yes, it was. When the Diamond Dogs mobbed Daryl Norris standing on second base, as Mitch Slauter crossed home for the margin of Sunday's 8-7 victory, everyone got to feel great. Those three previous weekends of SEC frustration can't be erased from the record. Still finally breaking through to take a series of their own might, might be the start of something greater.

Or re-start, maybe. Because as Coach John Cohen commented, for as big as winning a weekend was to the team, "Our kids are in there right now asking why didn't we sweep these guys?"

That is as apt a comment as any on what Mississippi State expected of itself in 2012, how the first four SEC series have ground away at record and reserves, and now why the Bulldogs aren't exactly sitting back in relief. Much less satisfaction.

"Before the game Coach mentioned we were so close to knocking down that door, just to be able to be a great club," pitcher Luis Pollorena said after picking up the Sunday decision. "This just shows we are good, but we have to believe in each other and trust our ability to play good."

While acknowledging that playing good in the Southeastern Conference isn't always good enough, the fact is Mississippi State has played enough good baseball to post four very competitive series so far. The reason they are now 5-7 in league play instead of break-even or better is simple: extra-inning losses to LSU, Arkansas, and Vanderbilt. Turn any of those three scores around and State is sitting .500 and, given how the league has seen so many odd series results already, right in the thick of things.

As Cohen said, the team is one pitch—or hit, or catch, or anything—away from another win. This made Sunday celebrating all the more emotional as Norris delivered the game-winning double with two outs in the last regulation inning, avoiding more overtime.

"You just feel all the extra-inning games we've played, all the one-run games we've played, our kids just felt we deserved it," Cohen said.

It wasn't any change in luck, either. Vanderbilt jumped to a 4-0 lead in the rubber game and all seemed set for one more might-have-been weekend. But a Bulldog bunch with every reason to mope didn't. Relief pitching held the line, mostly; the defense stepped up as needed; and in the most absolutely encouraging sign of all, the batting delivered in a game-winning situation.

"The story of the game to me at least is we go down 4-0 early, and our kids just keep battling, stay really positive, and just believing we're going to find a way to get this done," Cohen said.

Naturally one clutch win, and one series, are just that. One. Baseball being the funny game it is, though, Bulldogs were reading more into it than a single success. "We get a series win finally, that was huge for us," said Mitchell. He balked at suggestions it was a must-win series, or else. "But we definitely can't be taking one game out of a weekend any more. We've got to keep pushing and put pressure on the teams ahead of us, and kind of do our own thing."

Immediately ahead is a Tuesday evening match with old non-conference foe South Alabama; then another road weekend with State visiting South Carolina, the two-time defending national champions. The Gamecocks are 23-9, but also just 5-7 SEC. For that matter defending SEC champs and CWS participant Vanderbilt left Starkville 4-8, as a reminder how volatile the league is this season. At 5-7, the Bulldogs are just two different outcomes (re: extra inning games) from standing second in the SEC West. Or East for that matter.

But this is the point of the season, weeks five and six, when such things start shaking out. Meaning, the Bulldogs still have opportunity to get back into the conference chase…but precious little margin at the same time. Cohen saw something good from the squad after Sunday in that regard.

"They feel we can get on a run. Especially if you get guys like Norris, Bradford, Brownlee back in our order, a guy like Taylor on the mound. All these things are going to help us down the stretch."

All those players were the undeniable difference in why weekend-four turned out differently than the first three. Without diminishing the above-and-beyond efforts of healthy players in the interim, there was no doubting what getting most of the opening day lineup back on the field or at least in the batting order and relief roles. No less than eleven of State's 25 base hits in the three games came from Norris, Brent Brownlee, and C.T. Bradford., sidelined for weeks or in Norris' case a whole month-plus by injuries.

Setting aside the obvious ‘what if' regarding all the series played without them, having these bats back in the order bodes better for the rest of the schedule. So does the fact that even as they were hitting Vanderbilt pitching, none of the three are still at 100% health. Bradford is closest yet every time he dives for a ball breaths are held that he doesn't knock the still-tender right shoulder back out of socket. The shoulder had no influence, by the way, on the weekend's biggest ‘what if', when Bradford simply lost a high fly in a high sky that first went off his glove and then was kicked around for a three-base error(s) and set up Vanderbilt's key three-run inning.

Though teammates defended the normally sure defender—and Bradford made two other great plays the same day including a double-off catch and throw in extra innings—few question that a made play there likely meant losing the game and the sweep opportunity. By the same token, without Bradford's other work the series could have been lost. More impressive was Brownlee's work, and not just his hitting including a pinch-swing for the clinching run in Friday's 7-4 win. The senior, playing essentially one-legged, made some amazing defensive gets on deep drives, and initiated one of several relays that banged Commodore runners out at home plate.

In fact, that was a weekend theme. Dog defense made some outstanding bordering on amazing plays at the plate, whether gunning down runners making home-turns or, twice, covering squeeze bunts in time for the out at the plate. This would be easy to overlook given the raw stats, of eight official errors charged and .942 fielding in the series. Yet only two of those gaffes, both charged to Bradford on one play, resulted in Vanderbilt scoring…another example how numbers don't always tell a story.

Where the numbers spoke truly, though, was Norris' 6-of-10 line with four RBI. He tied up Sunday with a two-run single and of course won it on the walk-off double. The sophomore had not swung since March 7, and wasn't even expected to play the series. Yet, "Now he's taking as good or better swings than before it happened," Cohen said.

Norris treated it as no big deal. "I'm still a little slow getting around the bases, but at the plate I'm feeling fine." He wasn't joking about the baserunning; since having his right kneecap re-attached Norris is no threat to steal. In fact State has to hit-and-run with him just to have a chance, and a young batter missing his cut in such a situation meant an easy Saturday out. But Sunday, on a base hit to leftfield, Norris was waved on home. The throw got there first—"I was hosed!" Norris joked—but not caught fortunately.

"He's such an important guy to have in our lineup," Cohen said. "I'm going to get greedy and have him play third base, too." Actually the coach has to tell Norris to stay seated for the moment, as doctors still advise against too much lateral movement on the not-100% knee. And after every outing both he and Brownlee have to cope with serious swelling on their repaired kneecaps. "Brent is a phenomenal defender when he has the use of both his legs," Cohen said.

"It takes a lot of courage to do the things Daryl is doing, that C.T. is doing, that Brent is doing. Taylor Stark is one pitch away from closing this thing out and I really wish that would have happened. But you can't be more proud of a bunch of guys who are playing hurt right now."

Pitching remains the core of this club, and the heart of the staff is obviously Friday starter Chris Stratton. The junior righthander got another win in his 7-0 column, though Stratton wasn't at his sharpest with four runs on six hits. But he continues to strike guys out, battling for the SEC lead with 67 already, just nine fannings behind his 2011 total in 17 games. Even when Stratton is hit, he can generally roll a double-play; something State does as well as any club in the country per NCAA statistics.

Moving Kendall Graveman up to the game-two opportunity didn't produce a W on the record but is a winning move. The junior righthander has made the transition first from a midweek warrior to a SEC starter, and now to Saturday status without much difficulty. Graveman (2-1, 2.68) is even showing strikeout touch with seven against Vanderbilt, though his forte remains rolling ground-outs.

The challenge for pitching coach Butch Thompson is finding a Sunday starter…or maybe not. At this point State is booking two games, then finding who is best available for the third. This weekend it was closer Caleb Reed, which Cohen admitted was probably unfair to the senior stopper after he went 3.0 innings on Friday already. The idea was getting a rubber game going under control, and Reed gave up four runs in three innings this time. As it turned out lefthander Nick Routt and righthander Evan Mitchell were able to settle things down in middle innings, before State simply patched and matched at crunch time.

Cohen didn't think Reed threw badly at all. "I don't think they took phenomenal swings against him, just a lot of ground balls that got through." The fact is Reed is still the best game-ending option; so now who will open Sunday in Columbia? Mitchell would seem to have the best shot now as Routt simply has to rely so much on a changeup when the fastball isn't spotting and batters can just out-wait him.

But, having a lefthanded relief option can be invaluable if Mitchell can get deep into games and set a tone for opposing batters. "He can be such a good pitcher, he just has to find that consistent delivery to be a dominant guy," said Cohen. The coaches hoped that guy would be righthander and opening-day starter Ben Bracewell, but informal Sunday word was the junior's elbow was giving him trouble again. His two-year rehabilitation is ongoing.

Getting him back in the bullpen or even rotation would be one other original piece falling into place, in time for Mississippi State to muster a real run. This ought not overshadow just how much the Bulldogs have battled simply to stay in contention up to now, though. "Brent is walking on one leg and running into the wall, C.T. is going to fight every time, and Daryl hits a walk-off like it's no big deal!" Mitchell said.

"It just takes tremendous courage to do what our kids are doing," Cohen said. "And I think our kids on the bench could sense that there are some guys giving it up every day with injuries."

All that said, neither South Alabama nor South Carolina are cutting State any slack for such struggles. The Bulldogs know it and also know there is a lot of business to take care of just to stay contenders, much less begin gaining ground. But comebacks must begin somewhere, and they hope this was it.

"We're kind of getting comfortable with it and bang, before SEC all those guys go down," said 1B Wes Rea. "So we've been struggling a little bit. Stuff like this hopefully will keep us rolling."

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