This series is part of Super Bulldog Weekend 2012. How super it is of course depends on the final scores, and at 21-15, 5-10 SEC the Bulldogs need to be at their best. Though a whole 15 (weather permitting) league games remain, State starts the second half in 11th place one game in front of Alabama and one back of Vanderbilt. Tennessee is 22-15, 7-8, and something of a turnaround story this season under new coaching.
"Tennessee is a really improved club," Cohen said. "Like a lot of teams in the SEC they've had their ups and downs this year." Like State, the downs have a pretty direct correlation to scheduling. The Volunteers have lost four of their last six league games due to playing then-#10 ranked South Carolina and #4 Florida. They do have a sweep of Alabama on the ledger though, and a staff ERA of 3.60 in SEC games.
"Looking at the numbers and video, it looks like they have a guy who has stepped forward on the mound and given them a better chance on Friday nights," Cohen said. He referred to junior righty Zack Godley, with his 4-2 record and 3.81 ERA in nine starts. He will get the ball Thursday against MSU ace Chris Stratton. Much like State's case, the Vol rotation has alternated through the season. Sometime starter Drew Steckenrider (3-2, 1.80) now gets most work out of the bullpen while Nick Blount (2-2, 4.15) has nine saves of the team's 21 wins.
Offensively, Tennessee is batting .259 for the season and .240 in SEC play. "It looks like they're running more and playing the short game," Cohen said. "I think they've changed some roles and energized some guys. And they're competitive."
Mississippi State has certainly been competitive over five frustrating weeks that have tried hearts and minds to the snapping points. Those devastating injuries of early March are well-documented but still not always appreciated for how the Bulldog lineups and batting orders have been disrupted. Even the ongoing return of most the wounded has come at a price. Essentially, every game these Dogs play puts them at risk for the next one, and kept the entire club from finding any routine.
Up to Tuesday night, the head coach had tempered any critiques because of those issues. After a 6-3 Governors Cup loss to Ole Miss he struck a different note.
"It goes without saying we're pretty disappointed with the way we played, especially offensively." Cohen was specifically talking of a six-hit, 16-strikout performance against midweek arms. "I don't think we've had 16 punch-outs in the last four games," he said. "It was a real lack of concentration. We'll take full responsibility for it, we just did not evaluate pitches very well."
In the process Bulldog batting has slipped to .270 overall, .246 SEC. Aggravating the Tuesday woes was how often a better read on pitches would have continued something State has done quite well to-date: get walked or plunked. Bulldogs have been reaching base by hook and crook and even straight swinging with surprising efficiency during the struggles. Cohen can hope this was a one-game aberration.
"We've got to evaluate pitches better, got to be a little bit mentally tougher." If that comes across harshly, Cohen is not overlooking what his team has endured in the last month-plus. "We're a beaten-up club," he admitted. "That's not anything against our kids."
Add another name to be beaten-up list. SS Adam Frazier's knee has suddenly become a factor, obviously hampering him in the Ole Miss game as two ‘gettable' grounders the sophomore used to snag in stride evaded his glove. Frazier's bad luck included a tough error call on a grounder he actually overran a bit. No damage came of the play but it served to remind, again, how fragile things have become in a bizarre 2012.
One of those recovering players, OF Brent Brownlee, might have hit his limit now. The senior is playing, mostly pinch-bat or late-game defensive innings. But he has to have knee that needed March surgery for a patella problem drained regularly from swelling and it is just grinding him down. "I don't know if he is going to be able to start a game the rest of the year," Cohen said. "I feel so bad for the kid, he just can't do it because of his knee."
Daryl Norris has found his way back into the third base starting job the last two games. Whether this is best for the sophomore… "He got a hit and ran to first base, the worst I've ever seen him run," said Cohen. "He said its killing me." Norris will remain in the batting order anyway; playing defense is another matter, though changes here can be complicated. Trey Porter has gotten some starts at a corner he never played before so Norris could DH; otherwise Porter has to DH and Norris limp around. Either way is not an ideal defensive situation and SEC opponents know it now.
Getting a discouraging word out of Norris or Porter isn't likely. With CF C.T. Bradford it is impossible as complaining isn't his nature either despite a right shoulder that still hampers every big swing. Such as the home run he was credited with, and another he ought to have been rewarded, at South Carolina. Any time the soph goes to the ground or the wall chasing a fly that shoulder can pop out again, but Bradford has to play.
"He's been outstanding. You're going to get a different C.T. every day depending on how he feels. When he's feeling good and has some mobility it affects his entire outlook, and when he's at his best and full-health he is one of the best in our league. He's trying to find his health and his stroke at the same time."
If big swingers like 1B Wes Rea and Porter can find their best stroke(s) it would do wonders for the offense. But in Pearl the pair combined for six of those 16 strikeouts, and Volunteer pitchers will have scouted the way both missed off-speed or just plain off-plate stuff. They were just the most notable cases, not the only ones, of what Cohen meant by mental toughness at the plate; laying off balls and swinging at strikes.
The State staff has been throwing strikes in bunches. Stratton (7-0, 2.98) has 78 strikeouts in nine games and ought to become the first Bulldog since Paul Maholm to fan 100 batters in a season. Moving Kendall Graveman (2-2, 3.25) first into the SEC rotation, and now to the game-two start slot has also been a big move. Graveman has 34 strikeouts; he and Stratton have just 31 combined walks in 110 innings.
As for the Sund…oops, Saturday starter this week, weather permitting, Cohen has quit worrying about such long-range forecasting. If anyone can help in the first two games he will throw and game-three can take care of itself. Though, "We feel Evan Mitchell (1-1, 4.13) is right on the cusp of becoming a guy, his stuff is really good."
A week ago Cohen thought Ben Bracewell might work the Gov. Cup game. He hasn't pitched since, allowing more time for the still-healing right elbow to strengthen. Now, "I think he's going to be available this weekend," the coach said. This would signal Nick Routt, first lefthander mentioned, remains in a middle-relief and matchup role. Probably all the more so now that lefty Luis Pollorena went 5.1 innings in relief against the Rebels with one run on three hits. "Once Pollo got to a certain point we have to back him up (in scheduling) anyway, so we kept riding him," Cohen said. "And he pitched well in that ballpark." A hint, probably, that Pollorena could get the start next Tuesday when State returns to Trustmark Park to take on Southern Mississippi.
Realistically, "We have options and don't feel the need to limit them by stating who is going to throw when," Cohen said. "But the first two guys have separated themselves, by attacking the zone with stuff."
In fact, the Mississippi State situation practically requires an attack attitude this weekend and the rest of the schedule. There is no getting past the bad breaks of March and the damage done to the record. Even though ten teams make this year's SEC Tournament, here the Bulldogs are outside even that enlarged window at half-way point.
As if injuries aren't enough, the Dogs were sort of insulted last week when airline issues forced a travel-day change in plan for South Carolina and a long bus trip. It left the team just a little bit more tired going to Pearl in midweek, and that with only a day to refocus for the early SEC series! "About everybody is hurting," admitted the coach, who still had to send the team through a Wednesday morning weightlifting session to maintain the strength they still have.
Nor is the coach backing off on expectations and letting the club feel sorry for itself. Thus his getting in faces after the Pearl loss. Interestingly, Cohen left the huddle calmly. Encouraged, even.
"I'm very hopeful we can right the ship and have real at-bats against a very good Tennessee club." Cohen also hopes for a good turnout for a team that needs all the home-field advantages possible.
"I know our players get excited for Super Bulldog Weekend. Is this life or death this weekend, no. But certainly you just increasingly make things difficult down the stretch if you don't play well this weekend."