State Tests Momentum In Weekend Road Series

Never mind it looks like a later-season matchup of clubs headed in opposite directions. Appearances deceive. Which means Mississippi State is putting all that April momentum at risk as they open May play at Alabama. "They're a very dangerous club for us to be playing," Coach John Cohen said.

This sets up as a risky trip indeed for a Bulldog team that has just strung together their best stretch of SEC play, and put themselves in much better post-season position. Much better is still far from safe, though. Mississippi State (27-17, 10-11 SEC) has more work in store before Cohen and club can make tournament-time plans. "A lot of work," the coach said.

"This is going to be the most important weekend of the year for us."

Now coaches say that about any next-game or –series. In the MSU case it is accurate as ever based on the absurdly-close conference standings. While three clubs have eased into ‘safe' status, essentially, with 14 wins each, there are seven other programs in a pack of from 12 to nine SEC wins. Or put another way, separated by a single series' worth of scores. State has worked that far back up by winning five of the last six conference games, and three of the four April SEC series.

For that matter seven-win Tennessee and six-win Alabama are not eliminated from the expanded ten-team conference tournament at all. No wonder Cohen is cautious about the Crimson Tide (17-27, 6-15) at this point of the season, and on their home field.

"Because they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. They're a talented club that hasn't found their way yet this year. But they have some talented players that can beat you." Alabama's record deceives, the scores don't. Last weekend the Tide ought to have taken two at South Carolina, for an eye-opening example State will be shown in scouting.

"They've had their moments that they've scored a bunch," Cohen said, of well-fought series with Vanderbilt and Auburn. In fact Alabama swept their cross-state rival, a team that took two from State back in March. Cohen compares the Crimson Tide to his own team in one respect, that they are a young squad just figuring some items out in the season's second half.

Such as a new series-starter in Spencer Turnbull. His 2-3 record and 4.54 ERA are easy to overlook, but SEC fans who watched him no-hit the Gamecocks, in Columbia, last Thursday saw why Alabama can be so dangerous down the stretch. Turnbull did not get the win or even a decision as lightning halted things in the eighth inning; when play resumed Saturday a leadoff home run in the bottom of the eighth was the margin of 1-0 victory.

But it offered Bulldog batters a heads-up on what to expect now. "Turnbull has pitched really well for them," Cohen said. "He has great stuff. He hasn't located consistently but when he does that he's pretty good." The same can be said of Alabama's entire staff this year. They have struggled with a 5.23 ERA overall and 5.98 in SEC season, and are last in strikeouts.

There is not much to choose between these respective offenses if going by the stat sheets. State and Alabama check in 10th and 11th in SEC overall batting, just two-thousandths of a point apart, and are one home run different for that matter. Alabama does have a top-five league hitter though in Ben Moore with his .366 average, while no Dogs are found among the top 15. Interestingly though the Tide offense has been much better in league play at .251, where MSU is rock-bottom at .226.

This is a real reason for coach concern in the matchup, since the series is set in Sewell-Thomas Field. "It's a very offensive ball park," Cohen said. Not, he added, a small park per se; STF is 325 feet down the lines, 365 in the alleys and 411 to straight-center with a wide wall waiting there. For whatever reasons that parks play the way they do, though, Tuscaloosa is a venue inviting high-scoring finals. Always has been, always will be.

"You can make great pitches and still have them leave the ballpark," said Cohen, who made his share of appearance in his home-town park back in the day. "Even though it doesn't seem to have played that way this year." He referred to just 19 home runs for the home team so far.

Then again Bulldog batters have just 18 longballs themselves. The interesting aspect there is how State has been able to knock more out in road venues; not just a, say, South Carolina where fences look friendly. A week ago MSU scored four of the five runs in a shutout of Southern Mississippi on two big swings, by C Mitch Slauter and OF Hunter Renfroe. And they did it in a professional park.

This only emphasized the power outage that is Dudy Noble Field these days, for all teams of course. Ironically the one MSU home run in the series win over Ole Miss came in the lost game-two, by Slauter. Cohen tells his club not to think about the home-field fences any more. Road games? That can be another matter, and not just because the yards are smaller or play smaller.

There is still untapped power potential in MSU's lineups. "At any point in time a Wes Rea, a Slauter, a Hunter, a Daryl Norris, these guys' power can pay off better. Certainly they're capable of erupting and creating some offense." It just hasn't shown yet in more than a few flashes, particularly from big guys Rea and Renfroe. Both have the muscle, it is putting it into play that has been a struggle all season.

First baseman Rea has one extenuating circumstance as he is playing with a shoulder nerve problem. It doesn't keep him out of the lineup because his big mitt is a priceless defensive confidence builder. And even with a numb shoulder when Rea connects the ball can go; he had a Sunday drive die on the leftfield warning track that would have left any other SEC yard with ease. Cohen said the trick for Rea is coping with pitchers who just don't want to serve him anything too tasty.

"Pitch selection is an area Wes needs to improve in, because you're not going to challenge somebody like that in the fat part of the strike zone! And his shoulder along with inexperience has prohibited him from showing what he can do." Ole Miss was keeping everything well off the dish or down in the zone, and a frustrated Rea swung at some stuff as a result. Or got hit, again, with ten plunkings to-date. Slauter has the same, and DH Trey Porter has been hit a dozen times.

Meanwhile Renfroe has showed his own frustrations as the average has slid to .240 and the on-base rate to .316. State isn't losing faith at all. "Hunter has got huge talent," Cohen reminded. "His pitch selection skills aren't there, but when that happens you're going to see a special player."

"They are two kids that I tell at times they believe one swing is going to change everything. And it doesn't, it's a lot of good swings. Several solid swings, or several takes of marginal pitches, are the things that really change your fortunes. Just a little bit of consistency."

Mississippi State already has a very special player. A couple of them in fact, as the one-two punch of Chris Stratton (8-0, 2.39) and Kendall Graveman (3-3, 3.04) is as good as any in the SEC. And small park or not, these righthanders should be up to the challenge. Or, "I think Chris Stratton can pitch in any environment," Cohen said. "Chris and Caleb Reed and Kendall have pitched in Alabama before." But in case fans wonder if MSU moundsmen get too comfortable throwing at home, in fall ball temporary ‘fences' are put around DNF and fly balls reaching the ribbons are charted as homers.

The Bulldogs certainly build their plans, even their hopes, upon winning pitching. Through seven series the State staff is second in SEC overall ERA and strikeouts, and the 3.41 staff ERA in league-only play isn't so far off the overall 2.87.

Besides, these guys have gotten very used to close games and minimal support. Or as Cohen said, "When we scored four runs Sunday (in the first inning of a 4-2 win) our club felt, OK, we're going to win. That's not a good attitude to have! But there is a confidence that if we can score some runs we're going to win the game. That's a work in progress but we're very advanced in some of the other areas."

What has stayed the same though is State's issues with that injury bug. It is not a new injury, but a re-injury to outfielder C.T. Bradford's right shoulder last Saturday has him out this weekend. And maybe for the rest of 2012. "I think there are some decisions to be made," Cohen said. "Does he have surgery, go ahead and rehab it?" The Bradford family has the final call in this. C.T. could still play again in a week or two but would risk more serious and long-term damage to the shoulder labrum if he did. "We don't want to take a chance on him getting hurt worse."

Rea will play with the shoulder, while 3B Daryl Norris will play or at least swing as he continues a long comeback from March kneecap repair. OF Brent Brownlee also keeps playing on his own fixed-but-still-sore kneecap. IF/OF Demarcus Henderson ought to be close to a return from a broken finger in mid-April, which would offer needed defensive depth.

And State might finally have two more right arms available. Pitcher Ben Bracewell loosened a time or two the last few weeks and could see relief action again soon. And pitcher/outfielder Taylor Stark has resumed batting practice and might be available to pinch-swing too. Finals week meant no non-conference games to tune-up for Alabama, but on the whole Cohen likes the down-time.

"We've had a chance to heal. A week of rest has been good."

Rest is over now, as the serious series starts at 6:35 Friday with a 2:00 Saturday gametime and 1:00 Sunday finale. This is graduation weekend in Tuscaloosa, too, so traffic and parking will be challenging for fans the first two days.

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