Cohen's current club is 13-14 SEC, and by winning once in an intense series at #5-ranked Florida the Bulldogs were able to clinch a place in next week's SEC Tournament. In fact, the ten-team field is already known with Tennessee and Alabama eliminated. This week is all about securing seedings in Hoover, as well as the best ratings for the NCAA's selection-and-siting committee.
Mississippi State is tied for seventh overall, in a three-way mix with Vanderbilt and Arkansas. Georgia also is a 13-win team but they and South Carolina agreed not to finish their series so the UG Dogs are 13-13 and thus alone in sixth on percentage. Kentucky was naturally pleased that the Gamecocks did not play for a 18th win of their own, though they already own the tie-break in that event anyway.
For that matter all sorts of tie-breakers spice up the week's breakdown. An example: MSU has the edge on Vanderbilt, Arkansas on State, and the other two teams didn't play at all. And by not playing one game, Georgia can't end up tied with any of the above. Then there is 14-13 Ole Miss alone in fifth place, going to play a Commodore club which just took two at LSU to aid Kentucky's cause. Vanderbilt is still in fragile NCAA position though at 26-25 overall. They don't need merely to take a game from the Rebels this weekend, they could really use two because that would provide cushion for an early exit from the SEC tournament and keep them eligible for NCAA selection.
And of course should the Rebels stumble late, State has the chance to catch-up and hold a tie-break thanks to winning the regular season series. As optimistic as the Bulldogs now are regarding NCAA selection—just by playing Kentucky this week the RPI will keep climbing—every extra step up the SEC ladder improves the odds, the seeding, and thus where State would be sent for post-season.
All of which means the pressure remains high for a Bulldog bunch that has endured plenty already this season. They are coming off another intense series, having played fifth-ranked Florida down to the wire three times. The Gators came out on top with a 4-1 Friday win and Sunday's 2-1 final, the margin scored on a solo home run in the eighth inning. In-between State took a 2-0 Saturday decision, their first shutout of a Gator bunch in 13 seasons.
The Dogs have had plenty other series swung on a single swing this year, so there was nothing unusual how weekend #9 played out in that regard. The odd and maybe encouraging twist was State actually, and very unusually, came out of a SEC series with more base hits. Not a lot; the final tally was 16 safeties to 13. And a .186 average for the weekend is not a pride point.
Yet on a hostile field, and against perhaps the deepest and most versatile pitching staff in the conference and maybe even country, the Bulldogs eked out a few more hits than the hosts. Who, for their part, batted .148. Florida was able to offset the average with two key big hits, a two-run shot Friday to turn a 2-1 nailbiter into the final margin; and of course Sunday's one-out bomb to break the 1-1 tie.
Still, that Bulldog batters were able to make much contact at all on the Gator staff, and MSU moundsmen keep the home side mostly in check, showed just how close State is to standing with the best clubs in the country's best league. Close is never enough for Cohen of course. But considering all other circumstances that have threatened to derail the Dogs this season, to be this close to locking up NCAA invitation with a week left is remarkable. Beyond that, State has its chance to finish .500 in league play for the first time since 2007 and only second time since 2003.
Doing so, though, could still hinge on somehow, some way, finding a little more offense. Perhaps the biggest SEC story of the second half was how a State squad managed to win four of five series with so little batting and scoring. It is a story Bulldog batters would gladly revise by tournament time anyway. Through nine SEC weekends State remains dead-last in league-only batting, .218 in 27 games. Having the most walks (113) has eased a little of the strain, not to mention making a lot of SEC pitchers feel foolish for issuing free passes to a club that can't hit consistently.
In fact, scouting State has to be a real headache for opponents trying to figure out how this team scores at all. There is simply no week-to-week trend to be tracked any more. The one constant, SS Adam Frazier, went to Florida among the league's top-15 batters, but a 3-of-10 weekend dropped him just outside the list. He still hits .347 for the overall season. DH Trey Porter cooled off seriously going 1-of-10. Yet after weeks in a serious SEC slump, OF Hunter Renfroe belied numbers with 7-of-13 swinging including a home run, two of the team's four RBI, and a run.
Again the State constants were earning free passes with 15 walked Dogs…then leaving most unscored with a total of 31 strandings. Nothing new here, from an offense that has lived on the one-hit-away cusp for nine stressful weekends. They have not let the letdowns break them after all the frustrations, figuring at some point somebody will deliver a single swing to change everything.
Of course that approach only applies for a strong pitching squad, and this is what State brings to the ballpark. It was asking too much that Chris Stratton's season remain unblemished. The junior finally took a loss on Friday, leaving Stratton 9-1 in 13 appearances. This did not prevent him receiving the expected honor Monday with awarding of the Boo Ferris Trophy given to Mississippi's top college ballplayer. Stratton is the first Dog to win the trophy named for the MSU great since 2007.
Up to that two-run blast in the eighth Stratton was still in position to stay perfect, with two runs on five hits and six strikeouts. He now boasts 107 strikeouts on the season, one outside a top-ten year; and with 259 in three seasons is ninth on the all-time list. Stratton will go again for win #10 on the year, #20 career, this week.
Then again, lately junior Kendall Graveman (4-3) has looked like an ace in his own right. He went the first 7.2 innings at Florida with three hits and as many strikeouts, a remarkable outing in a small park. Jonathan Holder (1-0) completed the shutout for his fourth save, three in the last two weekends, and in the process maintained a 0.00 earned run rate in late relief. With rookie righty Holder emerging as a sure slammer, senior Caleb Reed can be used in right-hand matchup if wanted while lefty Jacob Lindgren is the alternate. Lindgren (1-2) served up the Sunday solo to take the loss, but struck out two and walked none by challenging some big swingers without fear.
That sort of late-game prowess combined with Stratton and Graveman's starting steadiness are what makes Mississippi State a threat in any best-of-three or double-elimination setting. Even the third game/day pitching is less a concern than it might seem. Cohen won't save anyone because there are a lot of other arms available. Such as both Mitchells, righthander Evan (2-1) and lefty Ross (1-0), along with lefthander Luis Pollorena (3-0) who works really well against certain types of offenses.
None should have been surprised by a low-scoring weekend in Gainesville as the opponents ranked first and second in SEC-game ERA. And the Dog defense just keeps turning twins, with 56 double-plays in 51 games. That is nine more than the next-best SEC squad.
The Bulldogs have one remaining item of non-conference business, as they host Central Arkansas (23-26) Tuesday at 6:30 in the first-ever meeting of the programs. Then all attention can turn to Kentucky, in a series beginning Thursday as do all league matchups. With the new ten-team SEC Tournament beginning next Tuesday, a day earlier, the expedited final week is that much more helpful to everyone involved.
Game times are 6:30, 7:00, and 2:00. The second game, Friday, will serve as Senior Day. Reed and OF Brent Brownlee are the lone upperclassmen players to be recognized with manager G.T. McCullough and pitcher-turned-manager Tim Statz.