"We've got a really solid Kentucky team coming in here. And we need to win two out of three games, at least. We need to do that."
A blunt comment by the coach, of course. And many college baseball analysts give Mississippi State 31-21, 13-14 SEC) more margin in the NCAA selection picture, what with the club's regular-season RPI and the opportunity to win more games next week. Still Cohen is presenting State's situation starkly because he wants to eliminate any selection anxieties right now.
"It's all in front of us. We control our own destiny in a lot of ways and we're excited about that opportunity."
Opportunity, and challenge. Kentucky (41-12, 18-9 SEC) comes to Dudy Noble Field leading not just their Eastern Division but the entire SEC. The Wildcats are a win ahead of South Carolina and West leader LSU, and even better have the tie-break edge on both. They also seem to have snapped out of a mini-slump with series losses to Vanderbilt and Florida by sweeping Alabama to stay ahead of the conference curve.
Mississippi State was on a streak of its own until recently, winning four of five series and briefly topping .500 in league play for only the second time since 2003. But since a controversial Sunday loss at Alabama the Bulldogs have dropped four of six games, including two nailbiters at #5-ranked Florida this past weekend. That is no shame of course as in most ways the Dogs gave as good as they got in Gainesville and the home team came out on top with a late-game-three home run.
"I was really pleased with the way our kids competed," said Cohen. "I felt for the most part we had a pretty good approach at Florida, all three games could have gone either way. Especially the Sunday game. Again I thought we pitched in an elite manner and we defended well for the most part. We didn't get the big hit when we needed it, which seems to be the situation right now."
Not only right now. Mississippi State has been missing all sorts of hits for weeks, for months, for most of the 2012 season. Going into the final series, this offense ranks dead-last in league swinging at .218 for 27 SEC games. The all-season average of .249 is nothing to cheer either, and at this pace these Bulldogs will finish with the worst batting average since metal bats came to campus in the 1970s.
This news is not at all new to club and coaches, fans and foes. While few anticipated a powerhouse offense in 2012 anyway due to near-total replacement of the June 2011 order, this has been far more frustrating than any expected. Tuesday night may well serve as low-water point too, as Central Arkansas took a 2-0 decision at Dudy Noble Field. It was the first State shutout in a non-conference game since 2006, by Ole Miss in the old Mayor's Trophy Game.
"Last night was really disappointing," agreed Cohen, though he added the game might still be going had State played one routine fly ball correctly in leftfield, and a classic ‘Dudy Hop' not eaten up a freshman infielder. Those irregular plays led to both Bear scores. But Cohen's comment also included the harsher fact that the game would likely still be underway because his team showed no signs of scoring on their own either.
As an aside, State was not the only SEC squad to take a surprising loss prior to the concluding series. Kentucky went to Murray State and left with a 7-3 defeat. Florida was knocked around at Samford, Ole Miss at Arkansas State, and so on. Cohen, who once coached a small-conference school that took advantage of mid-week matchups like these, said it is easy for a SEC squad putting all their energies into the weekend to get bitten this way.
Still, being blanked on the home field did nothing to encourage Bulldog confidence in advance of a must-win weekend. State did get seven base hits Tuesday but three came from SS Adam Frazier alone, the one Dog who has kept some season consistency. Otherwise, the frustrations continued and have to be handled carefully in Wednesday's practice.
In fact, "We did discuss last night not doing anything offensive today," Cohen said. "Just letting them clear their heads." But as fragile as club clubbing confidence is right now taking a day off might do more harm than good. Besides, being ballplayers, most Bulldogs would be knocking on coach's doors asking admission to and help in the batting cage anyway. "The more you work on something, the more confident you are," Cohen said.
Explanations for the batting woes are numerous and well-known, not least injuries which threw four Dogs off their stride in March and from which none have really ever recovered. But that actually is just an addition to the core issue: that State was trying to develop a nearly-entire-new order this season. Everybody knew this of course. Still it was an uncomfortable feeling last Friday when Cohen made out an order which included only one player/batter, OF Brent Brownlee, who had started a game at Gainesville in 2011. And the senior outfielder is one of those who has been hampered by surgery and recovery this year.
This, above all, is why the '12 offense has sputtered. They can't really be called slumps either as few Dogs have hit consistently for any stretches since February. It is, said Cohen, just "a lot of guys who have never played Division I baseball. If you're creating a recipe for not being successful, you're going to play a bunch of guys who haven't played before. At Florida we put a team on the field that hadn't played in 65% of our games last year. Brent was the only one who played in 30% of our games last year. C.T. Bradford was the only every-day player we had coming back and of course is not available." The sophomore outfielder is done for this season after shoulder surgery last week.
The current lineup isn't just bruised emotionally but playing pained in a few positions. 1B Wes Rea has a shoulder nerve problem that only summer will settle. Until then the big freshman must stay in the lineup and endure a hitless stretch of now three weeks. "Every time he gets a pitch down in the zone, he has pain in the shoulder," Cohen said. Opponents have scouted this of course. So why not spare Rea the pain and frustration?
"He is so far beyond our best defender at first base. He's almost a defensive specialist, and any offense you get from him is great. You have to admire the fact he wants to play and is playing in some pain." Rea's pure presence on that corner eases strain on the infield defense and pitchers, too, something State simply can't give away. Not that the coaches haven't sought options.
"Daryl can play a little bit, but he has a bad knee," Cohen said. "Trey Porter has worked to become an adequate first baseman but it's not a Wes' level yet." Instead Porter, the usual DH, was put in leftfield last night and miss-read that second-inning drive that became a double. The runner didn't score or drive in anyone, but the play did extend the inning long enough for another Bear to come home.
"But those are the risks you're running." And while Porter has had his own slump lately, his 4-of-5 day at Alabama shows his potential to change a game…something State desperately now needs. "He hit two balls very well last night," Cohen said. And, "Hunter is a guy starting to evolve, because he got a taste of it last year."
That being sophomore outfielder Hunter Renfroe, who might at last be tapping his pure offensive potential. He was a bright spot in Gainesville with seven hits and a home run, and had two safeties Tuesday. He is up to .262 on the season, and while SEC breaking balls continue to cause problems—as with most y still-learning swingers—any progress by any Dog is welcomed by the whole roster.
Renfroe, while he has had a few shaky moments seeing ball off bat lately, also is tied for the SEC lead in outfielder assists. He has taken over in centerfield for Bradford and shown that rifle arm well. Frazier leads the whole league in total assists from shortstop, and the defense as a whole tops the SEC and is 5th-best nationally in double-plays at 58.
Simply stated, defense and pitching have carried the club, mostly, through all their ongoing offensive struggles. Cohen is counting on more of the same against a Kentucky team that hits .302 overall, and has eight batters averaging from .285 to .341. State has only Frazier (.357) in that range.
What MSU does have is as steady a one/two pitching punch as anyone in the league. Juniors Chris Stratton (9-1, 2.22) and Kendall Graveman (4-3, 2.69) will take their turns and, hopefully, limit opposing offense for six or more innings on Thursday and Friday. In Tuesday's loss State had to call on the bullpen four times but only RHP Ben Bracewell went more than an inning in relief and he wasn't likely to get called on soon this weekend anyway.
The others will be ready to pitch any time, Cohen said. One other sliver of silver lining in the loss was how senior Caleb Reed seemed over some recent sputters with a sharp inning. "That was good to see." Lefthanders Nick Routt and Luis Pollorena got a short tune-up as well, and emerging closer Jonathan Holder got to rest entirely.
Stratton, just named the state's top ballplayer as winner of the Boo Ferris Award, is one of eleven pitchers nationally with 100 strikeouts. He is tied for 5th-best at 107, and goes for his 20th career victory tomorrow night.
"Because of Chris' past you love to think he's going to stretch you deep into a game anyway," Cohen said. "So you might have until Friday, and with the way Kendall is pitching now those two guys are allowing you to stretch your bullpen more."
Speaking of bullpens, that is as key to Kentucky's remarkable turnaround season as any other area. Wildcat relievers have 18 total saves, with Trevor Gott's nine topping the SEC and Alex Phillips notching six so far. Kentucky also tends to ‘reverse' their rotation, saving the best starting arms for games two and three as SEC series scores show. The trick for this offense has been hitting as well in larger road venues than the cozier confines of home. That will be one key matchup; Kentucky has hit 54 home runs for the season, while Mississippi State pitching has allowed just seven longballs on the home field total.
The side-angle of this series of course is how Cohen restored the Kentucky program to competiveness from 2004-08 with a SEC Championship in 2004. He often notes how tough a call it was for him to come back to Mississippi State seeing how his last year Kentucky signed five of the country's top sixty prospects. "And that was due in large part to the assistants who are still there," he added. "They've done a great job of continuing to believe in the process, and the process at Kentucky is different from the rest of the league." He meant the weather challenge and facilities that, while improved over the past decade, lag behind some of the SEC's elite.
This hasn't kept the Wildcats from their complete turnaround, from a eight SEC win 2011 to top of the standings this week. Kentucky hasn't had some of the injuries that set them back the past three years, and the current club has blossomed with offensive balance and a variety of pitchers able to move and sink and locate in an offensive park. "They've just done a great job."
Now Kentucky is playing to win the SEC crown and lock up a NCAA top-eight seeding. Mississippi State is playing to make the national tournament, period. One win might do it, but two could assure post-season status as well as give the Bulldogs a much-needed boost at tournament time. And, assure a break-even SEC season, one of those ‘next steps' in an ongoing program process.
The Diamond Dogs can do that…if they can just score.
"We've got a bunch of kids who have to be warriors this weekend, forget everything that has happened offensively and do what we've done," Cohen said. "That is, create things when we can."