All fun and games, it was Wednesday. And a welcome relief for a Bulldog ball club dealing with the added intensity that comes with this late April. Besides the pressures of the looming SEC stretch run and need to strengthen their post-season status, Mississippi State is preparing for the annual showdown series with rival Ole Miss. This 2012 edition takes place at Dudy Noble Field beginning 7:00 Friday. That game and Saturday's 2:00 contest are both booked for Sportsouth telecast, and Sunday's 1:30 finale for CSS.
Oh, and all the while these collegians have looming spring semester finals on their minds. With today a designated school reading day, the Bulldogs had a morning practice.
Prior to practice Cohen reported a more excited squad than usual these days; partly with the prospect of classes concluding soon, partly from the rivalry rematch with the Rebels; and of course partly due to a four-game win streak that has put Mississippi State (25-16, 8-10) back in the middle of an extremely muddled SEC pack. The Bulldogs are currently tied for seventh in the overall standings, though that has to be kept in the crammed context. They are equally one game out of fifth place today, and the same distance out of eleventh.
So with ten teams making the SEC Tournament, and a dozen games scheduled for all the competitors, State can take nothing for granted today. Not even the various post-season projections that do include them in the NCAA tournament, siting State literally from coast to coast. The Bulldogs have a lot of winning left to do just to be secure in Hoover, much less in the national tourney. That said, sweeping Tennessee and following with a 5-0 shutout of Southern Mississippi has given a fresh spark.
"Our kids had much more energy and enthusiasm on Tuesday," Cohen said. "Even though we didn't perform the way we wanted to. It was a nice win and I think our kids are feeling good."
It's a good time to be feeling good because so much is at stake this weekend even beyond the rivalry rewards. Ole Miss arrives on a SEC roll of their own, having just taken a home series from Arkansas and earning an edge on the Razorbacks in the Western Division. The Rebels lead the entire league in hitting, both overall and SEC-game at .301; and have three batters among the league-only top ten.
And while Ole Miss still swings for the fences when possible, this UM order is showing more control at the plate. In 18 SEC games they have struck out a league-low 99 times, with 45 walks. So there is nothing cheap about how the Rebels get their runs, home or away.
Offense, of course, has been Mississippi State's weaker link all season, aggravated by all the well-known March injuries that has kept the lineups and batting orders in-flux through six SEC weekends. In league play State has hit just .237 and averaged 4.7 runs with 121 strikeouts.
Now, at times the Dogs have overcome lackluster batting and won. They hit just .196 for the Tennessee series and swept, after all. And a five-hit evening at Trustmark Park worked just fine as a pair of two-run homers keyed the win over Southern Mississippi. Still, Cohen and club make clear the need for more consistent swinging and scoring. With the legal bats, of course.
Fans of fence-ball got their hopes up with the two Tuesday shots, by C Mitch Slauter and OF Hunter Renfroe, as they cleared an AA-sized park to leftfield with ease. While any shows of shots are welcome, Cohen is not concerned his team will start big-swinging all the time. "I don't think so, they know what our ballpark is all about!" The last game ball to depart Dudy Noble Field was a dead-pull bomb by 1B Wes Rea in the 12th inning to beat South Alabama back on April 10.
"They understand the wind is going to have to be blowing out for that to happen," Cohen said. "And Ole Miss has hit a lot more home runs than we have, that's probably their style more than ours." For what it is worth, the week's winds so far have been southerly…meaning out to left at DNF. Regardless, State will stick to the swinging script that best suits the batters of 2012. Cohen has preached the last few weeks about hitting to the middle of the field.
"Good teams really square balls up and hit a lot of balls in the middle of the field." Indeed it was staying up the center that keyed all three wins over the Volunteers. Cohen acknowledges this principal is harder to put into practice with this '12 club. Even three months into the schedule the fact that seven, eight, and at times when injuries struck all nine position players were new starters had its impact. Now that somewhat-seasoned Dogs like OF C.T. Bradford and 3B Daryl Norris are getting back in the daily order, albeit still not 100% physically, the hitting has improved gradually.
"The other thing that happens in the first time in this league you can get a little overwhelmed. I know this group is going to be able to do it, I just want them to do it a little earlier!"
Cohen explained too that ‘hitting to the middle' is a principle, not exactly a direction. "It's getting barrel in the zone a long time." The result being better chances of better contact, and if a ball is pulled this way it ought to travel better. Not surprisingly SEC coaches have watched Bulldog batting practices pre-game and if they were hooking balls the pitching plans adapted to more breaking balls and changeups. Cohen hopes now they see more and better contact in the cage.
Certainly getting a Renfroe making consistent contact, as well as Rea and Slauter and DH/OF Trey Porter, will be a big boost to the batting. State will still have to do lots of bump-and-running, not least because Norris is still a step slower than before after his kneecap injury and Rea isn't a real runner either. "I see little bits and pieces," Cohen said, adding "You just think the law of averages is going to come our way!"
Then again, he hopes no such law applies to the strongest point. As long as Chris Stratton and Kendall Graveman set an impressive pitching pace in the first two games State will contend. The two righthanders have their work cut out against a dangerous Rebel order of course, and Stratton (7-0) will share the Friday spotlight against OM counterpart Bobby Wahl (5-0). It is a classic match of aces, too. Stratton is tied for first in SEC strikeouts at 88, while Wahl is sixth at 60. But the Rebel has the better ERA at 2.15 to Stratton's 2.71, while the respective batting averages-against are only eight-thousandths apart.
Clever folk would suggest Mississippi State ‘stack' its rotation for the weekend and throw Graveman (3-2, 2.92) in the opener. While the sophomore righthander has looked every bit an ace in his own right lately, and has tossed two SEC complete games—with identical 7-1 final scores—expect MSU to stick with the schedule. Both arms have had an extra day's rest, too, since the UT series was played Thursday-to-Saturday. As for game-three, nobody will be held back for a Sunday start if he can contribute in either the prior days.
For SEC season, the Bulldog staff has a 3.69 ERA and better than two-to-one rate of strikeouts against walks. And while team defense is statistically middling by league standards these various lineups still lead in double-plays turned for the whole season. The thing Cohen stresses is that the pitching is not more talented or skilled per se than the batters; these Dogs have been through a SEC schedule or two before. Stratton, Graveman, closer Caleb Reed, and a handful of the middle-men have been seasoned and seen what the league can throw at them.
"Our pitchers are just older and more mature. Everything they do is more productive. I tease our kids all the time, even the way they huddle-up is more confident! It's amazing what age and experience does for you."
Even so, there are several still-learning Dogs who have to accelerate their growth if Mississippi State is to have a strong second-half of SEC season and qualify for both post-season tournaments. Cohen also has to strike the right balance this particular weekend, whether keeping focus on an opponent more than a rival or taking it game-by-game when everyone is updating SEC standings.
Or as the coach summarized the challenge, "It's another Friday in the SEC, but it's the most important Friday in the SEC for us. Because it is the next game."