State Returns To Gator Country For Key Series

He knows several of the opposing players. Is even "pretty good friends with a couple of them" claims Adam Frazier. Just don't look for many handshakes and giggles once the Bulldog leadoff batter steps in for Friday first pitch in Mississippi State's series at Florida.

Because as the Diamond Dogs and Gators square off for a 2012 regular season series a few memories of that 2011 post-season weekend still resonate. How Florida rallied from a startling late-inning deficit to take the super regional as expected. And how an upstart State squad saw their bold upset bid fade. Though what Frazier most recalls seeing was the home team dog—ahem—piling after earning their College World Series berth.

"That kind of sticks with you," said Mississippi State's sophomore shortstop. "We remember Nick's (Vickerson) walk-off. Everybody does! And Sunday we had the game, then we walked a couple of guys and a couple of hits for them."

Now State (30-18, 12-12 SEC) returns to Perry Field to take on many of those same Gators. Much as in '11 this Florida squad (36-13, 14-10) ranks with the national elite and is expected to appear again in Omaha. They have not been quite as sharp as pre-season projections that had Florida the consensus SEC favorite, and head into the last two league weekends third in the Eastern Division. South Carolina, their arch-nemesis on that side of the SEC, has a two-game edge while Kentucky is one win up. The Gamecocks also hold the direct tiebreaker; as does West leader LSU for that matter, in the overall standings.

But however the top conference clubs stack up in May, nobody doubts Florida again has the most top-to-bottom talent. "Everybody knows how good a club Florida is," Coach John Cohen said. "They pitch it as well as anybody in the league. Their record reflects a little bit of injuries they've had with their staff, but no question they're on a roll right now. They went up to Kentucky and played very well, and won an extra-inning game (Tuesday, North Florida) against a solid club."

This is a very solid club State plays, most of all on the mound beginning with Hudson Randall. "Just one of the best college guys out there," Cohen said. "The stuff part is not phenomenal, what is is what is between his ears. He just knows how to pitch." To either side, too, whether sinking the ball against lefthanders or cutting it past righthanders. Getting on base is a feat, getting farther more so as Randall controls the running game nicely.

There is no drop-off day to day with such arms as southpaw Brian Johnson and righty Karsten Whitson in the rotation. "And they're really good through the middle and to the end of the game with matchups," said Cohen. It's fact, as Florida doesn't delay yanking one of those top-notch starters for a ridiculously deep bullpen full of different looks. "They have a guy for whatever situation comes up."

Florida also has a top-heavy batting order as well, as four Gators hit over .300 including the .333 average of Daniel Pigott. Interestingly, the SEC-only average drops to .261, eighth in the league standings this week. Of course to a Bulldog order hitting .225 in league play that looks outstanding. And while the Gators have hammered non-conference foes for most of their 58 home runs, the 23 shots in SEC action is still first in the conference. State has just nine by contrast.

Bulldogs are painfully familiar with Florida longball prowess anyway, recalling the game-changing grand slam in the SEC Tournament. By the same token, Gator veterans saw Vickerson's stunning game-two walk-off shot to their leftfield bleachers. But Cohen knows better than count on knocking anything out in gameplanning this series, against Florida's 3.04 staff ERA. If this weekend were merely a match of moundsmen it would be splendid fun as State's league ERA is right behind at 3.24 in second-place.

"We have to do what we do. We have to score enough," Cohen said. "We have to take advantage of what we do well, which is get on base. It's a college version of ‘moneyball', we have to get all the pieces in place to score runs." It won't be simple as Florida pitching has issued only 47 SEC walks, by-far best in the league, and up to now State has relied heavily on walks or plunkings to offset weak sticks.

Interestingly, though, there might—might—be some signs of late life from Bulldog bats. In their last two games MSU has tallied double-digit base hits, eleven at Alabama on Sunday and a dozen against Mississippi Valley State. Now, banging SWAC pitching around is expected. And there was no small irony in getting hotter at the plate in a game-three but losing. Where, State beat the Crimson Tide the previous two games on just seven and three hits. In fact all three safeties in game-two drove in a run in the 3-2 victory. All the scored runners had reached on something other than a base knock.

That day typified how State has gone from 5-10 and 11th in the league standings to break-even now, tied for second in the Western Division and fifth overall. They are also a couple of wins, and just as likely a couple of losses by Alabama and Tennessee, from locking up a SEC Tournament berth. The Dogs won four of five SEC series and nine of the last eleven games with bare-minimum batting. State players and pitchers might have gotten almost too comfortable getting by on a RBI here and unearned run there, but then there has been no realistic option otherwise.

Until maybe, now? Frazier, the lone Dog in the SEC top-fifteen batters at .337, sees signs of life. "As a team we came around and built off Sunday. Hopefully we can carry that into this weekend." Exactly how are they coming around? "The last couple of weeks we've been striking out a lot and watching balls with runners on. So we've worked on that in practice and I guess that's carried over in the game."

Of course a lot of this was done against lesser SEC pitching, too. But confidence counts regardless how gained and if Bulldog batters think they can hit in Gainesville it is certainly better than going in scared. Frazier and DH Trey Porter count as the hot Dogs at the moment, while guys forced into lineup and order roles lately such as Tyler Fullerton and Philip Casey are making quality contact as well. What would really boost the batting is getting 1B Wes Rea and OF Hunter Renfroe into the swing. The former will be hampered by a shoulder nerve that has contributed to a 0-of-28 stretch. And the latter's tantalizing talents make his own slump more frustrating.

But Rea and Renfroe make winning defensive plays already and must stay in the lineup. If they should suddenly start slugging, so much the better for everyone. Cohen also gets all available offense out of gimpy guys like 3B Daryl Norris and OF Brent Brownlee, both playing on sore knees as many innings as possible. Getting RHP/OF Tyler Stark back in the order promises stretch-help, too.

One player not making the trip is Florida native C.T. Bradford, who went ahead with shoulder surgery Wednesday to clean-up a right (non throwing) shoulder labrum tear. He will have the summer to heal and, Cohen, hopes, prepare for a full-health and full-schedule 2013. But Bradford will be missed as one of the two Dogs who started in the super regional last year. Brownlee was the other.

Another irony is neither of State's first two starters opened a NCAA game last year. A year later righthanders Chris Stratton (9-0, 2.19) and Kendall Graveman (3-3, 2.97) are as solid a one/two pair as any anywhere. Stratton leads the league with his nine winning decisions, and is tied with LSU's Kevin Gausman with 101 strikeouts. Talk about a close race, Gausman has thrown one-third of an inning more than Stratton's 82.1 frames.

Last June, Stratton threw twice in right-relief with 1.2 total innings, two hits and a run. Graveman threw in the very same games as well with 3.1 combined innings, three hits and two runs. Neither got a decision, as closer Caleb Reed was on the record when Vickerson hit his walk-off. The righthander was also charged with Sunday's loss as a perfect down-and-away pitch was hit anyway to change the game and regional.

The contrast is almost total as lots of Bulldogs pitchers worked at Perry Field while almost none of batters and fielders have that experience. But then these teams met seven times in '11 so there is sufficient knowledge still to work with, not to mention volumes of scouting material the team has for study tonight. State had a noon practice at Dudy Noble Field today before departure.

They did not have the head coach present for the campus workout though. Cohen was serving one part of multiple NCAA and SEC penalties this week for a Sunday post-game ejection at Alabama. He missed the Tuesday win for NCAA rules; then was notified later he will have to stay away from Friday's 6:00 game-one to satisfy conference regulations. No fines were involved.

Players being players, the Dogs made light of his absence in today's drills overseen by the rest of the staff. Practice was not only energetic but even entertaining with high spirits all around…including use by a lot of the squad of the ‘lucky' green caps. Reed also wore a #10 practice shirt, Bradford's number instead of his usual #37.

They don't downplay the challenge in store. But having dealt with so many setbacks so far, and battling their way into the top half of the league, these guys are enjoying themselves again. And, thinking of what there is still to be won in the remaining two SEC series as well as the league tournament. A strong finish will give Mississippi State a strong NCAA Tournament seeding and, with lots of luck, perhaps even a home-field siting.

"They completely know what is at stake," Cohen said. "It makes me feel really old, we just knew what Coach Polk told us. Now what can we tell them they can't get on-line? They know everybody's RPI, five minutes a game the know what our RPI is! It's fun for them. But the point is they are so uber-aware of everything going on in the ramifications of every game."

He might not be ‘uber' aware but one underclassman Bulldog absolutely knows what the next three weeks can win. State last hosted in 2007 and it's time to bring it back to Dudy Noble Field. "We really want to do that," said Frazier. "We know we have a chance to do that, if we play our best ball and win both series I think we do have a chance to do that. We want to do that for us, for the fans, and for everybody."

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