Bulldogs Take Momentum Into May Stretch

It's understandable if a few hesitate to turn the calendar this week. Because April was good to the Bulldogs. Stressful? Sure. Intense? Of course. But after a month of close calls and, often as not, good bounces Mississippi State heads into May with some much-needed momentum.

Not to mention new motivation. When the Diamond Dogs walked off Dudy Noble Field yesterday having just taken the game, and the series, from rival Ole Miss, they suddenly found themselves looking at greatly improved post-season prospects. "It's probably a game-changer," said outfielder Hunter Renfroe of another winning weekend.

"It puts us in really good position for going into a Regional or the SEC Tournament. This series helped us tremendously."

Renfroe was not exaggerating a bit. A Mississippi State team that not so long ago was staring do-or-die situations in the face has gained control of its own fate. That's what winning three of four April series has done for a Bulldog ball club. One which achieved all this despite all the infamous March injuries (and now a couple of new or re-injuries) and bewildering lack of offense.

In fact the 4-2 Sunday success against Ole Miss epitomized so much of this 2012 SEC season. State scored all four runs in the first inning by ‘batting' around despite just one base hit. None of the four scores came on a safety, either, and there was only one other single the remaining innings. Yet Bulldog pitching and defense made the margin hold up to secure a series.

"If you would say hey, would you prefer to lose this game and get 15 hits or win this game and get two?" Coach John Cohen mused. "I think we'll take what we've got."

Coach and club certainly and gladly took the series. It was Cohen's third series win over the Rebels in his four seasons, something not done by State since 2001-03. He also added another in-state success to the list Tuesday with a 5-0 blanking of Southern Mississippi. But of much more immediate importance, the Bulldogs stayed on a streak with six wins in the last seven games including five SEC victories. Now with three May series remaining, State (27-17, 10-11) is tied for third in the Western Division with Auburn and Ole Miss, and all are a game back of 11-10 Arkansas who also has tiebreaks in their favor.

The West isn't much of a concern any more as 14-7 LSU would have to undergo a major collapse to put the Division in-play. What matters more is the overall standings, from both SEC and NCAA perspectives. Here the Bulldogs have vastly improved their status, currently tied for sixth overall and thus in the ten-team SEC Tournament field. But not safely; Vanderbilt and Georgia are right behind at nine wins each. Even 7-14 Tennessee and 6-15 Alabama cannot be ruled out just yet.

Speaking of Alabama, that is where the Bulldogs open May play this weekend. The midweek slate is clear of games for a change, though not responsibilities. It is spring finals week so players have that duty ahead, with team practices arranged around individual schedules. Then again, a squad on a streak doesn't want to entirely tune-out so plenty of players will find their way to Dudy Noble Field in coming days.

Most often, to the batting cage.

What has made Mississippi State's resurgence so impressive, if that is the word, is how a team has won despite hitting that can only be called dismal. The Dogs opened some eyes by sweeping Tennessee with a .196 weekend average. Well, against Ole Miss the hitting fell even further to .143; that was twelve total base hits in three games. For that matter they had just five hits in beating USM, though two of those left the park and scored a pair each. The week's overall average was just .155.

And still State won three times, with a decent shot at the other game if not for a first-inning shot that put MSU on its heels the rest of the way. This had to especially infuriate a Rebel team that came to campus leading the entire SEC in hitting, both overall and league-only. Then in three games Ole Miss batted .228, though they did have eight extra-base knocks compared to just two by Bulldogs; a home run by C Mitch Slauter on Saturday, and a Brent Brownlee double Sunday that didn't impact anything anyway.

So how did the Dogs do it? The longballs obviously made the difference in midweek but State hit for neither average nor power, much, over the weekend. "It's no secret we're not a great offensive club right now," conceded Cohen. "Our kids are doing whatever it takes." Most obviously drawing free passes vie either walks or plunkings. Those led to three of the four first-inning Sunday runs in fact. Six Dogs were hit by OM pitches in the series and eleven walked.

Plunkings are something Cohen's Kentucky clubs earned a reputation for, annoying peers…including his own old MSU coach for that matter. It has not been quite so pronounced a practice at State until this season, though as the coach reminds this is partly due to how changing bats in 2011 has changed many more things. College pitchers are much, much more likely to come hard inside now that they need not fear cheap home runs as in the past.

So now Cohen instructs his batters that they must not surrender the inner-half, even if it means getting nicked our outright struck. "There are things we do, for sure," he said, but nothing that ought to endanger a player more than normal pitching does already. Because, "If a pitcher can move you off the plate, he wins the battle."

This is one battle Bulldogs have been winning at the plate lately. If they can't hit they can get hit…and in the lower-powered game of 2012 it doesn't matter how one makes base. "Our kids are good at it, thank goodness," Cohen said. "Because if we didn't have that club in our bag right now we wouldn't be able to put four runs on the board."

It needs noting that the pitch which smacked DH Trey Porter in the hand Sunday was by no means a case of leaning-in or not getting out of the way. Porter was checking a swing. He had the hand checked at first base, then sat the rest of the day. The bones on his left hand, small-finger side, were to be x-rayed Monday to check for damage.

All the above said, none deny that the Dogs must swing the sticks more effectively in May to stay in the SEC and NCAA tourneys forecast. Fans and foes alike notice State now ranks 10th in SEC all-game hitting, and dead-last in league-only play at .226. Those aren't numbers to win with in post-season, or for that matter in upcoming series in offense-oriented ballparks like Alabama and Florida.

Or, maybe it is when the other, stronger points factor in. State is second-best in league pitching ERA overall, third in SEC-only play, and that includes some March struggles. For April, MSU moundsmen were outstanding and even dominating. Game-one guy Chris Stratton (8-0) was the first SEC pitcher to eight wins and is earning in-advance a lot of draft money with his recent outings. He also, finally, got an official complete game in '12 when he shut Ole Miss out Friday 4-0.

So intent was Stratton on staying that he was blunt to the boss in a ninth-inning talk. Cohen wasn't offended, just amused; but the junior righthander was dead-serious. "I hate coming out of the game! I'd love to pitch until my arm fell off, I love competing."

Stratton still hasn't caught up with cohort Kendall Graveman (3-3) in complete games, as the soph righty has two route-wins on his record this season. Though there was something of a role-reversal this weekend as Stratton was a ground ball machine in his win. Graveman, uncharacteristically, left some first-inning stuff up in game-two and paid the price. But he settled in and worked into the seventh by rolling grounders again.

That is what Stratton and Graveman must do, maybe more so than ever this year, in the coming two weekends. Because the fences in Tuscaloosa and Gainesville invite fly balls, and right now State can't get into a scoring contest with anyone.

One thing Cohen does not stress over is setting a third starter, since he often repeats any arm that can help finish the first two games is in-play. Fortunately the past two weekends Stratton and Graveman have eaten innings and left good Sunday choices to both start and relieve. State has even been able to make matchups, such as using Luis Pollorena against the Rebels. Already noted for his successes these two years against Southern Mississippi, the junior lefty now has put in over ten total innings in two appearances against Ole Miss with one run on seven hits.

Pollorena said he doesn't notice the name on the other jerseys, but he has made his mark on in-state opposition. And now, after minimal March use, the popular Pollo is reemerging as a late-season stalwart either starting or subbing. Cohen won't fix the lefty as his game-three guy just yet, as righthander Evan Mitchell has the coach's full faith too.

And another encouraging sign is the resurgence of closer Caleb Reed. The senior had some rough appearances and just plain bad breaks in March and absorbed relief losses for it. Now he has closed out wins over Vanderbilt and old foe Ole Miss and looks like the reliable Reed of 2011. At the same time State has no hesitation using younger arms like Ross Mitchell and Jonathan Holder in such pressure situations, with Taylor Stark available late as well. In fact one regret Cohen has had is not getting freshman lefty Jacob Lindgren in a game to hone his stuff. The rookie has had plenty of work warming up, though, so there is no rust.

With no midweek game, Brandon Woodruff will also be rested and ready for the weekend. State has also set a double-header makeup date a week from Tuesday with Mississippi Valley State but that won't impact how they pitch Alabama.

But all is not well, literally, with State still. Porter wasn't the only Dog going out, as centerfielder C.T. Bradford hurt the same right shoulder injured in early March on Saturday. It was in an unavoidable collision with rightfielder Brent Brownlee, himself an oft-injured Dog who somehow and happily came out unscathed this time. Brownlee also showed his grit by taking a pitch off the same knee that was surgically fixed back in March, with no ill effects.

Bradford missed a couple of March weeks and realistically has been playing at less than 100% health since return. Now he seems to have done a little more damage to the labrum area that wasn't entirely healed in his non-throwing shoulder. Some suggest having the taller Renfroe in centerfield was good luck as he stole a home run Sunday. But none deny the need to have a brilliant fielder like Bradford in the lineup, not least because without him and with Stark's hamstring not 100% either State is down to just three true outfielders.

Bradford's status was to be updated Monday afternoon after swelling subsided and a further check. Cohen will be surprised if the sophomore doesn't return ASAP. "He's already dealt with a lot of pain."

Injury rust likely contributed to a couple of uncharacteristic errors by 3B Daryl Norris Saturday. That repaired kneecap still shows in the sophomore's running, which he has to do because Norris is one batter who can reach by batting. 1B Wes Rea has been in a miserable swinging slump, though four games against Ole Miss hurt him more than most as the Rebels have a good book on him. It turns out the redshirt frosh has a shoulder issue affecting his swinging. Even then, he darned nearly slugged one out Sunday that would have cleared either of the upcoming yards.

And while hurt, Rea is a priceless big target for infielders and in many ways key to the whole infield's confidence. Which, Cohen said, this club has already. "I think we're pitching it and we're defending it at a very high level."

If the offense could come anywhere close to that level, this would be exactly the kind of club able to do some real May and June damage. Because the Bulldogs begin the new month with their own fate in their own hands. Or, on their own bats.

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