SEC Stretch Will Settle State's Tourney Fate

Not that they should need reminding. But just in case the Diamond Dogs were beginning to get all confident, Sunday's controversial and frustrating finish to an otherwise-successful series showed it again. Mississippi State must keep playing with that chip on their shoulders. "I mean, that's good," said Trey Porter.

Good, the designated hitter meant, that the Bulldogs left Tuscaloosa angry about both how the game concluded…and that they let a sweep escape. Keeping their emotional edge is a very good thing as Mississippi State grinds down their SEC stretch.

"That shows how competitive this team is," expounded Porter. "If it wasn't like that I would be upset. I like it being that competitive."

Being competitive, even playing with some attitude, is exactly how the Bulldogs (29-18, 12-12) have survived a 2012 which would have broken a softer squad long ago. Through injuries, lineup changes for both health and struggles, and just plain bad bounces, and not least playing in "the toughest conference in the country" as Coach John Cohen reminds, this team somehow sits in pretty May position. They have won four of the last five SEC series including three-straight, and seven of the last nine league games.

The result is with two weekends left the Bulldogs are in a three-way tie with Arkansas and Georgia for fifth overall in the conference; and even with the Razorbacks for third in the Western Division. "I don't even know if we can fathom that at this point," Cohen said of State's surge back from the league depths. No wonder he and team were that much more angry about a shaky two-out, ninth-inning Sunday call on a ground ball that ought to have ended the day with a sweep. Given a fresh chance by the umpires, Alabama cashed it in big-time with a two-run double to win 8-7.

That, and a post-game punctuation involving a campus security guard and MSU assistant coach, had Bulldog tempers spiking when the club ought to have been enjoying a series success. "We just have to get over this, we're one out away and those things do happen," Cohen said. "But we'll move forward."

Forward into a midweek game on the home field, as State hosts Mississippi Valley State in a 6:30 Tuesday contest. It originally was to be a double-header to make up for a March rainout. But as much as MSU coaches would like to get a bunch of guys on the field for late-year innings and at-bats in two seven inning games, playing the Delta Devils twice would do more harm to the RPI than the wins would help the record.

In fact, State lost some RPI points even in beating Alabama. The Crimson Tide lost more as at 7-17 they are verging on elimination from the ten-team SEC Tournament. Tennessee sits 11th at 8-16. There is probably some fiscal fear in official circles this week over probability the local team and its fans won't be at Hoover. At 10-14 Auburn is not in the clear either.

For that matter, neither is anyone with 12 wins this week since there are six games (weather permitting) for everyone still to play. And Mississippi State has the most daunting finishing-stretch of any as they travel to Florida this weekend, then host Kentucky the next. So that emotional shoulder-chip will be helpful for a while longer.

"Our kids take everything personally," Cohen said watching a still-angry squad heading to the gates. "If you want everybody to hang their heads and walk back to the bus, you've got the wrong group of coaches and the wrong group of payers. We're going to fight, fight, fight you every minute before, after, during the game."

It's certainly a feisty bunch of Bulldog pitchers still setting the pace. State's staff posted a 2.03 ERA at Alabama and save for one crucial Sunday swing were in control all weekend. That three-run double for a 4-1 Tide lead was at least as decisive to the ultimate outcome as any ninth-inning calls. It also showed the one semi-weak link in MSU pitching, a lack of sure left-handed relief three days into a series when southpaws are used for in-the-moment matchup situations. Even this is still hardly a fatal flaw in most cases, just something the coaches have to script more carefully than the right-side setups.

In fact, Sunday allowed veteran lefty Nick Routt to show he could handle deficit-pressure over a four-plus inning relief haul, in a small park, until the offense took the lead. He even got two outs into the last inning before, after 4.2 frames and facing the top of the order, getting hit and taking a tough-luck loss. "When we're down like that you just want to come in and get quick innings and get us to the plate, get some runs," Routt said.

"I thought he did a really good job," Cohen said. Lefty starter Luis Pollorena did not do a bad job either with one un-earned run in 2.2 innings before a quick hook. Results were more problematic for other southpaws; but in prior outings Ross Mitchell and Jacob Lindgren have produced under pressure.

The key of course to any MSU weekend is righthanded starters Chris Stratton and Kendall Graveman. It wasn't Stratton's sharpest Friday of late; yet that only reinforced just how good the junior has been. On a OK night he threw 7.0 shutout innings with six strikeouts and no walks!

"I really don't feel I had my best stuff. But for the most part we competed and got through the game." And, got Stratton his ninth winning decision of 2012, tops in the SEC. So are his 101 strikeouts overall and 74 strikeouts in SEC play. The next-most Ks by a league pitcher is 48 for comparison. And, Stratton has walked only nine SEC batters in eight weekends.

"When I'm out in the field I have as much confidence as the world with him on the mound," said SS Adam Frazier. "It gives us a chance every time, and Kendall the same thing." Graveman (3-3) is an ace in his own right too. In fact this week he is 9th-best in SEC game ERA at 3.04, where Stratton is #2. Not surprisingly the State staff as a whole is second in SEC ERA at 3.24 and tied for first with Ole Miss at 195 strikeouts. For the whole season it is 414 fannings, where last season had just 481 in 63 games.

The contrast is diamond-sharp between pitching and defense (State is chasing the NCAA lead in double-plays) and the offense. Or better said, lack of offense which continues to dog the Dogs. Or does it? MSU won seven of eight SEC games in a stretch with hitting to make a Little League order blush. Then, in a wonderful irony, the one time State swung the bats productively…they lost. The Dogs out-hit Alabama eleven to nine with four doubles and didn't win.

Whereas, in Saturday's 3-2 victory there were just three Bulldog base hits. Each drove in a run. Even Cohen joked about a seven-hit night in Friday's 3-1 victory. "I thought we got too many hits!" That is the dugout humor-approach Bulldogs have taken to their batting, or lack thereof, during a winning streak. Then again, watching more balls fall Sunday does offer some offensive encouragement for the coming two weeks.

"It's good to see that we're finally starting to swing it," said Philip Casey. "And hopefully it continues into this next week."

Porter would obviously love to continue his .455 pace of the weekend. He'd also love seeing more straight stuff to swing at. "They gave me some fastballs to hit. Mostly they've been mixing me up, today I finally got fastballs to hit. So it kind of fell into place." Besides Casey the other offensive surprise was OF Tyler Fullerton, 3-of-10 but with a lot of quality contact too. Frazier is the only Dog in the SEC's top-15 batters with a .337 season average.

Casey offered another ironic angle on the Sunday offense as in a substitute role. Not only did he go 2-for-3 with three RBI in the last two innings, the middle-infield signee played outfield. "The offensive part is not what is keeping him off the field," Cohen said. "We've got to find a spot for him to be able to play defensively, he has a real feel as a hitter and made the most of some opportunities."

Casey was swinging in place of starting CF Hunter Renfroe, a big-time batting talent who has struggled badly for weeks. Renfroe was 1-of-10 at Alabama and is down to .232 for the season, though that is far from last on this stat sheet. His defensive range in center has been needed anyway, though Renfroe also seemed a bit uncertain reading balls off bats in Tuscaloosa for some reason. The sophomore will have to be back on his defensive game this weekend given how Florida's fences take a sharp angle and create a deep centerfield compared to narrow corners.

Of course normally it would be C.T. Bradford covering there but the sophomore re-injured his right (non throwing) shoulder a weekend ago and is out of commission. How long, depends on whether he chooses to go ahead with the repair option now or waits until summer. Outfield depth is, according to the roster positions, non-existent now until Demarcus Henderson returns from a broken finger and late reliever Taylor Stark can run all-out. Casey is not at all the oddest outfield option; Pollorena is a late-game substitute there and even hauled in the tough sinking fly ball to end game-two with a win and the tying run unscored. Pitcher Brandon Woodruff can also play leftfield.

For that matter starting pitcher Graveman was the pinch-runner scoring from second base with MSU's briefly-leading run. "I guess we used almost everybody on our entire roster," Cohen mused.

It was Stark not getting the fair-ball call that would have ended game-three; then tagged for the final hit. The righthander might have just a bit of rust left after the March hamstring injury but the velocity is all the way back. Nor are he and old Dog Caleb Reed the only late-game options now as freshman Jonathan Holder was given two save opportunities at Alabama. He finished both with a hit and a walk and two strikeouts in 2.2 innings.

"That's what I was recruited for," said Holder. "I'm learning after Caleb because he's taught me so much stuff." Holder gave up batting to become a regular righthander in long or short relief. He hopefully allows the coaches more flexibility, not to mention more support to Stratton/Graveman, when game-three arrives and a starter needs picking. Evan Mitchell is the usual Sunday right-side choice but State was so intent on locking up the series first that he was called in mid-relief Saturday. It worked and the Bulldogs won another weekend.

Now with six games left before tournament time, the priorities expand. Yes, winning series are the best way to strengthen SEC and NCAA seeding. But the ultimate order of business is simply securing berths in both and that means winning games…or at least having nearest rivals lose theirs. So, look for State to play it game by game by game from now on. Just as they would in a tournament.

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