That out of the way, the fact remains this is not anything close to a league-standard sort of offense in 2012, in or out of conference. Know what? At this post-season point the Bulldogs really could not care less if they hit for any sort of normal numbers. Seriously.
"That's right. By now it's you're over averages, you just want to win," DH Trey Porter said. "Whatever we can do to win, that's the main thing."
The Dog designated hitter is an excellent example of how Mississippi State manages to keep winning games, and infuriating opponents, without piling up hits or for that matter runs. Through the first four games and three wins Porter was 1-for-14 hitting in a prime order slot. Not a lot of hitting was being designated, it seemed.
But after Kentucky's big sole home run tied Saturday's elimination game in the second stanza, guess who came up the next turn with two outs and SS Adam Frazier 90 feet from giving his team the lead back? And Porter was ready, beating UK ace Corey Littrell with a drive to centerfield just missing a glove. Base hit, 2-1 score, and a Bulldog advantage they would keep all afternoon.
The key, Porter said, was stay calm and stick to the plan that let him hit .265, third-best of the regulars, in the scheduled season. "Have a good approach every time up. Me and Coach have been talking it over every at-bat, just have a good approach and not try to do too much, just try to put a good approach on everything."
Kentucky ought not have taken Porter for granted anyway after he was 5-of-15 during the final SEC weekend sweeping by State. They fed him a lot more off-speed and breaking balls the two meetings in Hoover and it worked, right up to when it didn't. And that, Porter reminds, is exactly what everyone in State's order knows. If you can't hit consistently, then hit the other team when it hurts most.
"Not getting down is the main thing. It's keeping your head up."
ON A TEAR: There is of course one Dog none of the above applies to. If teammate's bats are a bit warmer these days, Frazier's must be radioactive. The sophomore shortstop is now 11-of-20 in five Hoover games, and has a eleven-game streak going into Sunday. Over this stretch he is 22-of-41.
Sooooo….why in the top of Saturday's seventh inning with 3B Daryl Norris on first base after his own base hit was State's scorching swinger bunting? System is system and all that, but taking the proverbial bat out the hot hand begged some questioning.
Frazier had the surprising answer. "I told him I wanted to bunt."
No, this is not a kid taking up for his coach. In a sense Frazier actually became a coach at that point. "I told him I was going to bunt before he even told me. He tried to tell me to hit-and-run, I said well, we'll just bunt here."
Which Frazier did and just as efficiently as anything else he does. Norris went un-scored on a couple of strikeouts, but Frazier didn't second-guess himself at all. Much less even think a moment about his own statistics and streaks. "You can't afford to get greedy, that's when the game comes back and gets you," he said.
"That's how we've got to play. We play for one run with our pitching staff." Fortunately said staff already had the run they needed to run out the win.
Something player nor coach can control beyond the lineup card is when Frazier comes up to hit in an inning. Oddly, twelve times this week he has led off an inning. Five of those are automatic of course as he is first in the daily order…but coming up first in so many frames?
"I guess it's good!" was all Frazier had to offer. One result of this opening innings, and getting on base so consistently, is #2 Bulldog batters have gotten a lot, a whole lot, of work this week on their own bunting. One wonders if Brent Brownlee or Tyler Fullerton ever secretly hope their cohort gets out so they can swing away for a change?
"I don't think Brent minds it much," Frazier said. "That's how we play, that's how our offense is structured. Just station by station and play one run at a time."
HOME AWAY FROM HOME: Having arrived Monday evening, by now the Wynfrey Hotel and Regions Park seem like a second Mississippi State home. Some routines have even developed, along with some ballplayer superstitions. Porter says a good-luck link has been drawn between Chinese buffet food and winning, which has he and others going back daily. Which likely horrifies the training staff given those ingredients, and might have contributed to some Saturday shakiness by RHP Evan Mitchell.
There is one familiarity that Bulldog pitchers find welcoming for sure—the size of Regions Park. "Yeah, pitching here is almost a home-field advantage," said LHP Nick Routt. "Dudy Noble is so big and this park is huge. So that really plays out for our pitching staff and our offense." Well, more so the former than latter, but the point remains true.
Routt did take advantage of the park today with his selections. Though Kentucky did crush one ball over the fence on a pull-shot, the junior pitcher was not as worried as would be at several cozier SEC venues about letting hits get up in the air. Plus, Routt had read Wildcat batters both in two previous appearances and during bullpen warming.
Yet he also showed nerve, showing a changeup on 2-1 count that got big UK stick Thomas McCarthy to go fishing. "It's a good pitch because you'll get a lot of swings and a lot of guys will pop up," Routt explained. "The think ‘oh, he's going to throw me a cookie right here and hang one down the middle'. But we had the approach we were not going to let him beat us. And it worked."
Thanks to McCarthy lifting an easy fly ball for Brownlee to get under. It was the sort of out Routt did well with a year ago at this time, too, when he found a different changeup that worked beautifully in a nine-inning win over Georgia Tech to clinch that regional. Still he has gone back-and-forth this season with the changeup and now comes with a ‘circle' style. When he likes how it is leaving the hand, and his curveball is working Routt is that sort of June threat again.
"It guess it was just getting back to the comfort level I used to have with it. I'm throwing it well right now."
HOLDER-ING ON PART II: But nobody is throwing as well out of the Bulldog bullpen than Jonathan Holder. All afternoon various relievers were warming or stretching…until Routt got through the eighth unscathed. At that point everybody else sat down and the big freshman righty got serious.
The ninth-inning results? A leadoff grounder that was fielded but thrown high for an error, which rattled the rookie not at all. Holder handled the bunt himself for one out, grounded out the nine-hole batter, then got order-topper Austin Cousino to hit it a mile high and about 100 feet downwind where Frazier was waiting.
Notch save #9 nine of the season, just one shy of the ten Jay Powell scored as a 1991 rookie and only three behind Caleb Reed's 2011 total of a dozen. But he was a junior at the time; Holder is a true frosh shooting down the best batters the SEC has to order without giving up a run so far in 27.1 innings.
"Yeah, he's unreal," Routt said. "I've never seen anyone go this long without giving up a run. Let along a freshman doing it. Especially, he's throwing three, four days in a row almost? Yeah, he's good."
"Jon wanted the ball in the ninth inning," Cohen said. "And he got it."
Besides the ball and nine saves, Holder has got himself a title. "His nickname going around is the Truth," reported Frazier, based on the scoreless-streak. "So as long as he keeps doing that we'll keep that name."
AWAITING WORD: Now Mississippi State gets the championship game opportunity Sunday, facing Vanderbilt in the 2:30 game. The Commodores trailed going into the ninth inning 4-3 but used a big outburst to take the lead and held on to win 8-6.
While MSU players did not care who they faced in the title tilt, observers were calculating whether facing Florida might do State's power rating more good…with a win of course…and boost the Bulldogs into NCAA hosting status. Realistically, though, there is nothing left State can do to make its case as the top eight national seeds will be picked tonight and the other eight hosting sites named Sunday afternoon. Right at about first-pitch time in fact.
Cohen probably welcomes this lack of outside distraction as it will let his team focus on what is right in front of them: winning State's sixth SEC Tournament championship since it became that sort of event in 1977. Between 1948 and '71 Bulldog teams won six SEC playoff championships. The difference is nominal and formats have fluctuated all over the place.
But the first league tourney played in Hoover netted State a championship, albeit one also earned by LSU as the second title game was weathered-out. Bulldog teams took other SECT trophies from Hoover in 2001 and '05.
Now that they are on the brink of completing a tourney-title run remarkable by any measure, some Dogs are getting a little too caught-up in the thrill. Told that Routt had said he would rather win Sunday than get to the College World Series, Cohen could only shake his head. But in amusement.
"Well, the mind of an 18-to-22-year old, you get excited about something! And we want them to be excited about it." After all, Cohen was on that 1990 State team…and also played in Omaha that year. It's a history he would love to see repeated by these gritty guys whatever their NCAA siting-and-seeding is when announced late Monday morning.
DRINK UP: Or maybe Routt was just crazy from the heat. It was a typical May afternoon at Regions, cloudless sky with no real breeze, sun beating down or worse reflected by all the aluminum seating, and humidity of course.
Athletes are not supposed to ever think ‘tired' but after five games in as many days even these college boys admit the grind is showing. In post-game interviews Porter got frustrated when a nearby water cooler didn't have enough pressure for a decent trickle. A teammate pointed out he'd overlooked the row of sports drinks he'd walked right past on the press conference table.
"It's tough, especially coming back out and playing a day game today," Frazier said. "We just had to grind through it." Though, he added, "That win yesterday (over LSU in ten innings) was a pretty good second wind!"
Cohen naturally told the team to get back to the hotel, get off their feet, slurp down all sorts of fluids, and eat on schedule. Sunday morning will have some "light stuff" he said as far as normal pre-game drills. He doesn't want to break the game-day cycle, especially not now that it working so well. But, "We have to be smart with them.
"The preparation part right before game time is becoming as crucial as making sure they have some kind of energy. Because if they don't it is going to affect them mentally." Then again, with all this 2012 team has endured over a roller-coaster season, Cohen is confident the mind will be right with rest. "They show great focus and energy."
And it is easier to focus when a trophy is at stake, said Frazier. "We're pretty tired right now but hopefully we win one more and get that championship."