The coach and fan base ought to be proud of what the Diamond Dog accomplished in 2012. Not only down that ‘stretch' the skipper referred to, too, though it was certainly the most successful and exciting portion. A complete context reminds why Cohen's fourth year ought—ought—to be seen as the next and necessary stage in restoring Mississippi State to the prominence once expected.
And, is beginning to be justifiably expected again. Not that there aren't areas in need of addressing between now and February 2013, most obviously on the offense. That aspect of Mississippi State's game could most kindly be described as frustrating this season; less kindly, as infuriating. But the Bulldogs, coaches and club alike, do now know what pieces remain to be placed before making a serious bid next spring.
Count Cohen foremost among those seeing opportunity for a real full-season run in 2013.
"I do," he said. "The year that we had, along with the people we have coming in, has a nice balance to it."
By balance, the Bulldog coach refers to almost every aspect of a squad, but primarily the mix of positional players and pitching, then the matching of aged experience with more young talent. His first three clubs were pretty badly unbalanced and out of necessity. As his State football counterpart Dan Mullen found out upon arrival at about the same time, it takes years to get a roster rightly (and leftly) weighted to consistently compete in this conference.
This did not preclude some initial and even surprising successes by both in the shorter term. Mullen's second year saw nine victories, and Cohen's third year a surprising two-weekend June run to a super regional game-three. While it all raised hopes the respective rebuilds were ahead of schedules, and set some up for disappointments the next year(s), the fact is a longer process is much closer to completion today.
In Sunday's disappointment it wasn't easy to recall exactly what were 2012's objectives to begin with. Or, how radically those changed less than a month-in when the opening day lineup was ravaged by either new injuries or older nagging conditions. For that matter, there were so many un- or not-yet-knowns going into this year already. A list of lineups shows just how much changed year-to-year and then in-year.
Feb. 18, 2011 opening day: 1B Collins, 2B Frost, 3B Parks, SS Ogden, LF Bradford, CF Shepherd, RF Brownlee, C Thigpen, DH Vickerson.
June 12, 2011 Super Regional game-three: 1B Collins, 2B Vickerson, 3B Parks, SS Ogden, LF Brownlee, CF Bradford, RF Shepherd, C Thigpen, DH Freeman.
Feb. 17, 2012 opening day: 1B Rea, 2B Frazier, 3B Norris, SS Britton, LF Stark, CF Bradford, RF Brownlee, C Slauter, DH Porter.
June 3, 2012 regional game-three: 1B Rea, 2B Britton, 3B Frost, SS Frazier, LF Henderson, CF Renfroe, RF Pollorena, C Slauter, DH Porter.
What should leap out is how complete the difference from the last game of one season to the '12 finale was. There was not a single common starter between the two. Given the graduation of seven starters in the '11 final-day order this wasn't a total surprise. But comparing 2012's alterations from first to last games opens eyes, and reflects just how turbulent the season could be. Whether it was injuries, which ironically took the only two returning '11 super regional starters out much of the season, or struggles leading to lineup shifts, the Diamond Dogs had to deal with day-to-day uncertainty that ought to have crippled the campaign.
It did not.
Presented all sorts of excuses and justifications to write-off the year, the Bulldogs pulled off a two-month stretch that should allow them to stand proudly alongside the legendary State squads. If a sense, what the '12 team did was more remarkable than winning a regional or advancing to Omaha…not that they wanted to hear it so soon.
"I say this every game, but I'm really proud of our kids," Cohen said. "I thought they competed well. They had a lot of things not go their way the first half, and we're really pleased with the way they competed."
More than compete, the team won; and did so in the land's best league. After sputtering and stuttering to a 5-10 first half of conference season, they rode some pretty amazing pitching and big-play defense through the second half. En route they won four of five SEC series to finish 16-14, the best league regular-season record since 2007 and only second above-.500 year since 2003. But the true triumph was in the SEC Tournament, expanded to ten teams and six days this year.
The Bulldogs hung around for the whole show, winning five of six games and claiming their first conference tourney crown since 2005. This also gave them 21 total victories against SEC clubs, best of anyone in the entire league this year. In the process Cohen scored a piece of personal history as the first SEC skipper to win the tournament as both a player and coach.
This unprecedented run likely came with a cost. Deny it as competitors should, and taking nothing away from a strong-swinging Samford squad expecting strikes to hit, State just did not look close to 100% body or mind in Tallahassee. Whether they could have been is an issue only SEC coaches can address with regard to a long league tournament and potential damage in NCAA terms. The fact remains that the Bulldogs just were not quite as sharp five days later in either of their strong points, pitching and defense.
Offense never was strong point in the first place, though the .232 average in Tallahassee wasn't that far off the .247 batted in Hoover. Or the all-season .250 average. None of those numbers offer much reason for excitement of course, and even allowing for how the NCAA's change in bats begun in 2011 has impacted every program, everywhere this was not a State squad that swung it well for long. Or at all.
The flip-side to deep deficits in both average and production is just how much more impressive it makes the pitching and defending. Again, even with lower-powered bats factored in, 2012 was an incredible season for MSU's men on mound and with gloves. The final 2.58 ERA is the best since the 1970s when nobody much hit anyway. And the 2011 staff, with those same downgraded bats, only had a 4.59 ERA.
Typically such strength springs from strong starters, and once both found rotation jobs in time for SEC season Chris Stratton (11-2) and Kendall Graveman (4-4) gave it. A regular third man was never settled on nor was it necessary. The true core of the club was an outstanding relief staff that could mix and match and fit into any situation as needed. Saves jumped from 16 to 21, the overall average-against plummeted from .269 to .240. State threw 536 strikeouts to 181 walks, as opposed to 481-to-227 the year before.
This actually was according to a general plan Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson went with upon summer 2008 arrival. Rebuild first with pitching, pitching, and more pitching. The arms signed in 2009 and '10 were ready for prime-time this season, aided and abetted in no small way by a freshman class (signed November 2010; remember how long the recruiting cycle is for baseball compared to football) that this spring accelerated the process dramatically. Brandon Woodruff, Jonathan Holder, Jacob Lindgren, and redshirt Ross Mitchell might in time prove themselves an even better group than the Stratton-Graveman-Ben Bracewell bunch signed in 2009-10.
It also needs noting that coming into this season junior righthanders Stratton and Graveman were not even sure-fire SEC starters. They proved it in pre-league play. Bracewell, coming off a 2010 recovery year, did try to take the Friday role for three weeks before showing the elbow still needed more strengthening. His continued restoration could pay off handsomely next season, as should the maturity of all those '12 first-timers.
Stratton worked himself into first-round draft status and the #20 overall selection. Meanwhile senior reliever Caleb Reed went from closer to set-up man for the new fireman Holder, and each ended up with nine saves in the process. That exemplified just how far Bulldog pitching has come already and what should be in store next season.
Though far from error-free, Diamond Dog defense was radically improved in all areas. The key was where stats don't show; junior transfer Mitch Slauter stepped right into starting backstop and opened all 64 games there. Others won awards and had better statistics, but Slauter was far-and-away the most important player on the entire roster, especially with his instant empathy for the pitching staff. His clever pitch-calling contributed to all the fieldable fly balls and grounders gobbled by the defense.
What the way State's regional ended, with a throwing error from the alternate third baseman for the go-ahead run, obscured was something else remarkable. Unlike 2010 and '11 when any sort of error seemed to kick open gates on a flood of opposing runs, the '12 defense just had a knack for negating their own mistakes. It made no logical sense nor show up on a stat sheet, yet errors rarely did damage to the Dogs this year. The only explanation seems to be Cohen's competitiveness comment.
So those strong points made up two legs of the State stool. "But you can't put as much pressure on our pitching staff and our defense as we do every day, because we're not executing some things offensively," said Cohen after the knock-out loss. "That's my responsibility, I‘ll wear all that that we're not a great offensive club."
Not-great is an understatement to be sure. The .250 season average was lowest since the mid-70s as well, and even allowing—again—for the modern bat reality this was poor batting. Although, in an irony the SEC's top swinging squad, Auburn, didn't make the NCAAs. The league as whole was barely represented in NCAA offensive categories in fact, while dominating in pitching. So State was not all that far outside the SEC mainstream after all.
Probably because all the injuries came so early in the season—the night of March 7 when both OF C.T. Bradford (shoulder) and 3B Daryl Norris (kneecap) went down was the darkest day of the year—their impact was almost overlooked by May. It shouldn't have been so because not only did two sophomore standouts go out for varying stretches, but their injuries were compounded by other existing conditions. Brownlee, one of two seniors on the entire squad, was day-to-day all spring with his own in-season-repaired knee. OF/RHP Taylor Stark hurt a hamstring in March and was able to pitch a little by May but not play the field as he did on opening day.
1B Wes Rea struggled for months with a shoulder nerve condition never entirely fixed, costing one piece of potential punch in the order. And OF Demarcus Henderson missed a month with a broken finger; he returned in time to make All-SEC Tournament, a hint of all that State missed during the schedule. For that matter when Bradford did return, only to be knocked back out again, and Norris too, their issues were quickly scouted and attacked by SEC opposition as would be expected.
What also was not appreciated was how these swinging-struggles by some Dogs rippled through the entire order. Pitchers could literally pick who and how they came at State. Guys who at times heated, or at least warmed, up at the plate had no protection in the order. Only SS Adam Frazier, MVP of the tournament title run, was immune as a .371 average and .482 on-base rate showed. No teammate got close to .300, as—ironically—Norris finished second in squad swinging at .273 even with his setbacks.
Again, with so many new parts in the lineup and order offense was already suspect heading into the season. Disruptions and the other weaknesses exposed by them meant worst-case results. Except for this: much like the defense's ability to shake off errors most times, and offense with no consistency had an inexplicable knack for getting someone on base somehow—walking, plunking, error, whatever—and the next batter knocking him home.
It didn't happen often enough for comfort much less big production, yet it sufficed to win forty baseball games. For, it needs often noting, the first time since 2005. As 40 is something of a magic number in today's game this feat can't be emphasized enough. And since half those victories were against SEC peers the achievements stand out that much more.>p> Cohen did offer another perspective on the offensive struggles: it too harked back to original recruiting plans. Not that the coaches didn't care if their team could hit or not, of course, but the first couple of seasons tough roster-rebuild choices were necessary. After investing in pitching at first, junior college talent was signed to fill defensive and order gaps. That did pay off in '11 with the June surge when jucos like Nick Vickerson got hot and then rookie Bradford played beyond his years.
But this meant 2012 was to be a second sort of transition year. If not for the aforementioned injuries to Bradford and Norris, they along with classmate Frazier would surely have secured a few more wins this year. Even so it was always seen as the next stage setting up for 2013. And after injuries, as Cohen noted with just a bit of exaggeration, Samford had seniors in their lineup with more D-I experience than State's whole order.
"That's why experienced guys usually win. It's not an excuse, it is just a fact."
In that light then, there should be no excuses in 2013. Especially if another Cohen comment holds about how the roster has changed from 2011. "I'm really proud of those guys because they kind of bridged the gap for us and gave us a chance to get to Omaha last year. I've said many times I feel the group replacing them is probably more talented, more athletic, more speed, more arm strength."
More depth, too, with only seniors Reed and Brownlee and drafted Stratton gone from the '12 regulars. The pitching and defense ought to be just as strong and maybe even better all around with roles better-defined and talents developed. The key, obviously, is hitting baseballs better. The juniors-to-be like Frazier, Norris, Bradford, Stark, and uber-talented Hunter Renfroe have all the offensive ability needed to win SEC games. Third-year sophs Rea and Henderson also can be such factors. They simply and absolutely must just do it. And stay healthy.
State did not stand-pat with this junior-and-sophomore loaded roster either, but signed a dozen Dogs last fall. Some naturally are the first sorts of ‘conveyor belt' recruits that a consistent program has and once upon a time was normal at Mississippi State. There is still a need for instant offensive aid though, and Cohen is counting on a couple of newcomers to battle for batting roles in fall ball.
The coaches are watching this week's draft results, of course. "Obviously we have some signees we're concerned about, and a couple of underclassmen we're going to keep an eye on. We had our individual meetings today, we have more tomorrow and we go through it case for case. But for now we feel pretty good about the position we're in with all the kids."
Though he calls them kids, the fact is the roster reporting in August is closer to grown-up. Cohen harps on the need for experience, and now the Bulldogs have some. Winning experiences, too, after a 2011 regional title and '12 SEC Tournament trophy. So, what is the next stage?
"When those guys get experience we're going to have a great club. We're already there pitching, for the most part we're really close defensively. We just not a good offensive club yet, when that happens I think we have a chance to be among the elite programs in this country," said Cohen.
"So I feel we're finally where we want to be in terms of our roster. You're never satisfied, you always want the best of the best for Mississippi State. But I finally feel like we have the roster balanced the way we want to. And I think we can be very, very good in the future."