Ground or air, Mississippi State (21-12, 5-7 SEC) will report to Carolina Stadium on time for Friday's 6:00 (central) opener to a key conference series for both squads. The Gamecocks are 24-10 but also 5-7 in league play and, like MSU, are fifth in their own Division. So the fifth league weekend sets up as a pivotal point for each club.
Maybe more so for a Bulldog team that just scored its first series success, taking two from Vanderbilt at Dudy Noble Field. "You want to get one on the road, two at home," 1B Wes Rea said. "But it's kind of one of those deals that we think we can take two out of three from them. That's going to be our goal coming in so we're going to play hard and keep fighting, we have some guys back in the lineup and contributing."
Those guys were in fact the most obvious reason State went from the frustration of three lost series, all 1-and-2 outcomes, to a Sunday rubber-game win in the bottom of the ninth. Of the 25 Bulldog hits in the series eleven came from three Dogs who had missed two, three, even four whole weeks with injuries. Among them, 3B-turned-DH for the moment Daryl Norris with a two-out, walk-off double. The contributions of Norris, still the leading batter on the team despite all that downtime, as well as CF C.T. Bradord and RF Brent Brownlee in winning a weekend made entirely clear what State was missing at LSU and Auburn and against Arkansas.
The flip-side to that, Cohen reminded, is all are still less than full-strength. In fact each game played puts all three at risk for the next day. Bradford only played two extra-innings in Tuesday's 12-inning win over South Alabama, and was told to do nothing Wednesday or today while getting a shot in his healing right shoulder for continuing irritation.
Brownlee and Norris also had fluid build-up drained off their knees Wednesday. "A two-for-one thing like at Subway!" Cohen suggested. Both felt better as a result and will be ready for game-one at least. After that?
"If you play them on Friday, can they go on Saturday?" said Cohen. Since Norris is batting only so far (the coach admits great temptation to put him back on third base sooner than medics advise) and running bases albeit slowly, he should be good for the weekend. Brownlee can be subbed-in to pinch bat or defend late…or at least he has been. The injury bug bit again this week and might change that, because alternate rightfielder Demarcus Henderson took a pitch off a hand Tuesday that was found to have cracked a bone. He is now out for two weeks, trimming the already-depleted outfield roster.
So, once again, State coaches are re-shuffling the lineup, something they've gotten quite adept at. The result has been some really interesting, not to say odd, batting orders as well with ‘power' guys hitting early or late and ‘contact' guys swinging in the fourth and fifth slots. Somehow it worked well enough to take two wins and push the loss into extra innings because Hunter Renfroe was hitting ninth!
Big picture, though, patching things together is not ideal. A poor hitting evening against South Alabama reminded just how fragile the offense is until all February starters are back in the April orders. For now? "There are three, four key situation at-bats during a game we didn't do what we were supposed to do, put a ball in-play with runners at second and third base," Cohen said. "We have young guys putting pressure on themselves, and the game will find the weakest link."
That is no insult to players put in such pressure situations, either. Cohen is confident such youngsters as Tyler Fullerton and Philip Casey will be fine in time; for now they are forced into SEC situations beyond their experiences. Even jucos need seasoning, and starting DH Trey Porter suddenly found himself playing third base—for his first time in college—against the defending conference champions so that Norris could bat. Vanderbilt inexplicably did not test the untested cornerman often, something the two-time national champions Gamecocks aren't likely to overlook.
For all the frustrations, Cohen can't hide pride in how these Dogs have sucked it up without complaint and taken their hacks against conference clubs that show no mercy to green teams. Still, "It really changes what you're trying to do. So I'm really thankful our pitching staff has developed. You have to defend, and then have some young guys just survive some at-bats."
Bulldog pitching hasn't just survived, in some areas it has thrived by recording 304 strikeouts and a 2.93 ERA, third-best in the league this week for the season as a whole. What numbers miss though is the real importance of a Chris Stratton, or how superb his SEC season has been. In league-game-only stats the junior righthander's name won't be seen among the top-ten, but every opponent knows his name. For that matter neither is S.C. ace Michael Roth in the top-ten.
And all know just how good this senior lefthander is. "He just flat-out knows how to pitch," Cohen said. "He's one of those over-achieving guys who understand how his body works, has an unbelievable changeup, and has been on the mound in national championships. And he came back for a senior season. There's not a lot he hasn't done in college baseball."
So Friday is one of those classic matchup of aces that used to be the SEC norm. Nowadays coaches might lean towards ‘stacking' their rotations to avoid this and presumably give their best arm a more winnable opportunity. Cohen's mentor Pat McMahon always emphasized game-two as the key contest anyway. It's a good theory but the schedule maker has put Mississippi State in a bind.
The upcoming home series with Tennessee begins on Thursday. Which would mean to keep a Stratton on the full-week routine would mean holding him to game-two next Friday already. Maybe. Either way, Cohen doesn't want to complicate such things more than already necessary. He and pitching coach Butch Thompson already have to figure out a variety of scenarios for Sunday at South Carolina, and the Tuesday night meeting with Ole Miss in the Governors Cup game.
To that end one decision has been made: righthander Ben Bracewell will not travel to Columbia. The third-year soph, still coping with after-effects of elbow surgery in 2010, is being carefully limited to both outings and innings. He did not throw against Vanderbilt with soreness, but did toss bullpen work Tuesday as scheduled.
"He's been fine," Cohen said. "It's just one-and-off, day-to-day. Our plan for right now is to get him ready to pitch against Ole Miss on Tuesday. If he threw this weekend it would be an inning; if we extend (his recovery) he might be able to pitch more next week."
That plan is subject to change, too, depending on how much freshman righthander Brandon Woodruff has to throw, or doesn't, at South Carolina. The rookie had six hitless Tuesday innings before being lifted to save the arm for potential weekend work and even a Sunday start. More likely, it will be righthander Evan Mitchell saved for starting game-three. "But if Evan can help us win Saturday we'll do that and worry about the next game the next day." Mitchell didn't get the decision but essentially ‘won' the Vanderbilt rubber game in late relief.
Overall, "I love where our pitching staff is, especially the talent," Cohen said. "There are some older guys leading, and some younger guys that give a glimpse of something special in the future. Positionally we're just not there yet because we don't have many older guys. Brent and Sam (Frost) are our veterans and they've been part-time guys (through careers) for various reasons."
In fact, Cohen said he expects to start seven and even eight Dogs Friday who have never set foot on South Carolina turf before. "Many of whom will be taking their third SEC road trip, now arguably facing one of our best pitchers in our league."
Saturday's game is 3:00 central, with Sunday starting at 12:30. After which the Bulldogs get back on the bus for the long ride home and shorter than planned turnaround for the Governors Cup contest at Trustmark Park in Pearl. State will be the home team and is bidding for a second-straight win in the series after 6-1 victory last time.