"We're not 100% with Chris yet," said Cohen prior to the practice. "I'd say we're 90%. We're going to talk about it a little bit more." And then a lot more through the evening and just about up to when Mississippi State boards the busses for the airport ride.
"We won't make that decision until we absolutely have to," Cohen said. "But obviously we have some good options."
The most obvious other option to the SEC's Pitcher of the Year would presumably be the other junior righthander who has opened a season's worth of SEC games. Were it not for a groin problem that first showed during Kendall Graveman's game-two start against Kentucky in the regular season, then again versus the Wildcats during the SEC Tournament, he would make an excellent choice to toss against the Birmingham-based Bulldogs.
And he still might. But the percentages remain slim due to the grind pitching puts on the groin. Graveman went just 3.2 and 2.1 innings in those last two appearances, against a fly-ball batting team, with four runs on 11 hits and just three strikeouts. Not that Graveman is a strikeout type of guy normally, but the numbers showed just how much he was impacted by the injury.
Yet there is good news as of Wednesday.
"I thought Kendal threw a really good bullpen yesterday," Cohen said. "He had tremendous sink and looked really sharp. It's funny, I think he's really aware of the fact there is a lot on the line and he wanted to show us he's healthy. And he looked very healthy to me, so that is comforting. Although, with these kinds of injuries they go back-and-forth, it's day to day."
It is that day-to-day unknown, and how Graveman looks today and tomorrow after throwing in the pen, which holds up final decision. Even if, as the head coach's tone indicates, he and Thompson know what they would rather do. In NCAA Tournament play rotations are largely irrelevant as long as the best openers are rested. Graveman certainly is after just five-plus innings in two weekends and not throwing since last Thursday.
Stratton has had longer off, even allowing for the five pitches he tossed to close out Mississippi State's 3-0 victory over Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament title game. His first career save came on a bullpen day anyway so it wasn't much extra burden on the right arm. Stratton had an efficient 92 pitches in last Wednesday's win over LSU and now is back on a normal sort of schedule.
"The only reason Chris did not pitch on day-one of the SEC Tournament is it was a short rest and we didn't want to do that for a variety of reasons," Cohen said. "But this would not be the case."
What seems to be deciding the starter more is who State faces. Samford (39-21) has just as many victories as State this year. While they obviously don't compete in the same league, the other Bulldogs have SEC scalps from the regular season over Florida and Auburn as well as a win over NCAA participant Oklahoma. So Samford won't be impressed by any opponent this weekend.
It ought to be the other way around in fact. "Their Friday night guy who I'm sure we're going to face can definitely throw the fastball to both sides, and he's got a good-looking slurve-type pitch," Cohen said. "He's won a lot, has a lot of strikeouts, and it's going to be a real challenge for us." This isn't the only reason State is leaning towards tossing their own ace, of course.
"They can hit the ball out of the ballpark, they have some guys who can run. They're a very good club who has played in a ballpark in some ways similar to Florida State. They're a little bit more right-handed nature in their lineup. They're a little more fly-ball, they've hit a bunch of home runs which is a concern in this ballpark. All those considerations take you more towards Stratton the more you talk about it."
What Cohen and Thompson are really saying is, Mississippi State can't approach Samford with less than their best matchup man. A ground-ball expert like Graveman would be a fine choice, if he's able to get up-and-down inning after inning after inning. And Bulldog fans have bitter memories of past regionals where, in the safety of rear-view, going with a #2 or 3 man in the opener would—theory goes—have assured a better chance of taking the pivotal second day's match of winners.
All true, Cohen can confirm based on his own playing days at Dudy Noble Field from 1988-90. But equally true is the necessity to stay in a four-team regional winner's bracket to the third day at least. Or as he said this week, there is no game-two without winning game-one to stay on the top track.
More to the immediate point, once the decision is made for Friday…that is the only game which counts.
"There is nobody else in the field as far as we're concerned. We're going to talk about that as a club, there is nobody else in the field but Samford at this point. I know that's cliché but that is how you have to approach such things."
Graveman is just the most recent Diamond Dog to need training room attention. It's well-known by now how injuries have disrupted the season practically since opening weekend. One Dog who has been out for a month now, OF C.T. Bradford, will surely be missed. He went on a tear last year at this exact time to win Most Valuable Player at the Atlanta Regional. Now he is sidelined by surgery to clean up a right shoulder condition. The Florida native has been getting follow-up treatment at the local Andrew Clinic and is expected to attend the regional.
Running through other health updates, "I think Wes Rea's shoulder is doing better," Cohen said. "Brent Brownlee is bouncing around on his knee OK, though we haven't done a whole lot with him the last two days. And we'll be light with him today. Demarcus Henderson (broken finger) is doing well. Mitch Slauter was a concern but he's done some light stuff the last couple of days. I think he's bounced back pretty well.
"Ross Mitchell threw a lot of pitches in the tournament and we were concerned about him. But he's bounced back well, he threw yesterday. Daryl Norris was moving around fine yesterday when we did our hitting stuff." Then there is a Bulldog who was on the SEC Tourney roster and jogged to the bullpen a couple of days but never pitched or played. Cohen believes OF/RHP Taylor Stark can figure into the regional substitution patterns now, depending on how the hamstring is day to day.
"The issue with him is offensively you just don't know if he can run full-speed, and you don't know if he can run full-speed to a ball in the outfield. But he threw a spectacular bullpen yesterday and if we need him in some right-on-right situations he's certainly somebody available."
Taking all the above into account, then, "I feel as good as we can feel at this time with the injuries that we've had."
That injury list is long enough. But even the unscathed Dogs are still just getting their legs back after the amazing six-day grind through Hoover's expanded tournament schedule. Winning a trophy makes everyone feel better of course, yet nature won't be denied. So Monday and Tuesday saw minimal workouts and some regular weight training just to flush the systems. Wednesday began the real regional preparations.
"We'll push them a little bit more today, then tomorrow will be a lot more situational with bunt defenses, first-and-third, all that stuff." The Bulldogs will also practice late morning to noon Thursday before bussing in shifts to the airport for the Tallahassee flight. By then the Friday starter will have his assignment.
So will State coaches then start scheduling the next starter or two? "No. We really have to focus on Samford. When the next challenge is presented to us that's when we'll focus on them. That is how we responded in the SEC Tournament."