Fall Ball Begins With Big Bulldog Goals

John Cohen is intrigued by the morning message sent by first baseman Wes Rea to the Diamond Dog nation. How they should think about making reservations for Omaha already. Intrigued, but not at all bothered. "That's where we want to be," the coach said. "That's our goal, that's our focus. Of course on a daily basis your deal is getting better every day."

The getting-better begins its next phase of this semester as Mississippi State opens fall baseball practices Friday. And while the daily focus is the combination of practices and scrimmages—with a heavy emphasis on the latter—Bulldog thought are indeed already leaning towards spring 2013. With good reasons.

Such as, 29 lettermen and most of the regular starting lineups and rotations from a team which won forty games, including five in a historic six-day stretch to take the SEC Tournament title. Pitchers who accounted for 24 victories and ten saves return. They are joined by position players who compiled 485 of the team's 524 base hits, and 231 of the 255 runs batted in. Even better, just about everyone is either full-strength for fall ball or expected to be before winter break.

"We're really pleased with the group we have back. It's one of the unique falls I've ever been a part of," Cohen said. "Simply because we don't have a ton of new players. The majority of our guys are returning and we feel very good about those guys."

Fans can judge for themselves in scrimmages, scheduled (weather permitting) all three days of each weekend and if any arms are left possibly on Tuesday, too. Those who like to keep a scorebook will have to watch carefully though because batting orders are subject to change each inning. The goal is getting players in as many specific situations as possible, whether by outs, runners-on, and pitch counts.

"But we try to practice an hour-and-thirty minutes before intrasquads. And we'd love for all our arms to get 18-to-20 innings and our position players 60-to-80 at-bats. And we pushed our fall back a week, our Canadian kids got to school late and we had some arms that pitched a lot in summer."

So given the degree of combined experience and proven production, and the energy these Diamond Dogs have coming off a breakout 2011 season that brought State the first winning SEC record (16-14) since 2007, no wonder players are thinking really big already.

Their coach is too, given how his 2013 roster is at long last in the sort of shape he has worked for since Cohen's first signing class in 2008-09. Yes, there are sizable holes to re-fill, particularly in the pitching staff. Ace Chris Stratton and rubber-arm reliever Caleb Reed have taken 11 wins and 9 saves, respectively, off the staff total. Also gone pro is lefthander Nick Routt. The order and lineup didn't take as much damage losing alternate outfielders Brent Brownlee and Taylor Stark.

But all those departures, whether graduations or to the draft, were planned for. And now the results of relentless recruiting in 2009-11 is showing in a roster loaded with underclassmen either at or coming into their prime playing seasons. And, Cohen, pointed out, into roles of intangible responsibility.

"Having coaches on the field extremely important to the success of your club. We have tremendous leadership on the mound, we have great leader from a positional player standpoint. And we've seen it in the weightroom and the skill instruction."

Cohen has also seen a number of Bulldogs getting back into playing shape after injuries. Two juniors dogged by repeated setbacks last season are almost up to 100% health going into October. Cohen reported 3B Daryl Norris's kneecap injury is healed to the point there is no need to wear a brace at practice. "And we're excited about that." OF C.T. Bradford is "very, very close to going full speed" the coach said, after the centerfielder's shoulder separation of last March. "We feel in two, three weeks he can go full-speed swinging the bat, he's already doing a lot of the defensive stuff. Having CT healthy is almost like having another guy in our recruiting class."

Rea's shoulder gave the big guy trouble all season, requiring shots at times. But a MRI finally turned up a cyst had developed inside the nagging shoulder and was causing major discomfort. That has been addressed and "Wes is healthier than he's ever been at Mississippi State. I really feel Wes has not started to scratch the surface of what he can do for us as a defender and as a hitter as well."

C Mitch Slauter had a knee procedure at the end of the season which kept him out of summer play. This means the iron man backstop is fully rested and ready for fall and spring alike. 3B Nick Flair missed his freshman season with a shoulder injury; a whole year to heal has him ready to resume work this fall. 1B/DH Trey Porter will need October surgery to fix a sports hernia and will miss the fall.

There is good health on the pitching front as well. The groin issue that RHP Kendall Graveman just worked through the second half of the season has been taken care of. "And he's throwing extremely well right now." And perhaps best news of all pre-fall, RHP Ben Bracewell has had 15 scheduled sessions to throw either long-toss or bullpens. "He's 15-of-15 in being able to go so far," Cohen reported. "We're excited about that because Ben can be a real difference-maker for us."

Rookie RHP John Marc Shelly can pitch but a minor hand injury will keep him from swinging a bat for a while.

Cohen stresses fall competition so he is not locking down any positions, at least publicly. But there is no doubt which Dog will wear the mask most. The only question is will Mitch Slater have to (though he would call it ‘get to') catch every day. "Mitch is one of the warriors of college baseball with all the games he caught, especially consecutively in post-season," Cohen said. Senior Nick Ammirati is an excellent receiver and came back to compete for spelling Slauter with touted freshman Daniel Garner. The rookie will be a factor.

"He is a professional-looking hitter with power, and I think he can hit for average," Cohen said. The freshman's challenge is polishing up how he handles the main job of working with pitchers, but anyone who can mash is a welcomed addition.

Norris is the veteran third baseman and when healthy is a superb defender with the strong arm. Though he, like a lot of Bulldog right-handed hitters, still finds breaking balls coming from the right side of the mound baffling. "If he proves he can do a better job handling that he can be our guy," Cohen said. "But we do have options." Such as Flair, a touted high school hitter who missed almost all fall '11 with that jammed shoulder. And new freshman Kyle Hann might only stand 5-6, 174 pounds, but the Canadian packs a wallop; Cohen calls it ‘Kirby Puckett like'.

Hann is also in the mix for second base or even shortstop down the road. For now soph Matthew Britton opens fall in the four-hole. "He has come back a very confident young man and I think he's going to be a much-improved player," Cohen said. Britton's key is becoming a college hitter after a .177 rookie average. But then it was his solid shot off a LSU glove that won State's SEC tourney semifinal game in extra innings so the potential is there.

Junior Adam Frazier ought to top most preseason all-conference ballots at shortstop, after ranking third in SEC hitting last season as well as second in on-base percentage from the leadoff spot. That was enough to earn Frazier a place on Team USA this summer. "Obviously he didn't play as much as he wanted to," Cohen said as Frazier served backup duty with the national team. But the experience of traveling with the best underclassmen in the country will aid his development. And not playing much actually should help Frazier's real season as it rested a somewhat-tender shoulder.

Sam Frost is one of the few position seniors on this roster, and has proven he can glove the ball consistently at second base, shortstop, or third base. Of course folk recall his decisive throwing error in the Tallahassee Regional too, when he skipped the ball past big Rea to bring in the go-ahead run. Frost worked on shortening the arm motion from corner-to-corner this summer. "And Sam has found his short game and can help," Cohen said. Freshman Brett Pirtle upgrades middle-infield depth as well. "He's a switch-hitter who can play defense."

Getting Bradford back is the good centerfield news…but then State found a perfectly fine alternative last season on defense. And now Hunter Renfroe ought to be coming into his own in all other aspects as a junior. "He had a pretty good summer," Cohen deadpanned, after Renfroe set slugging and RBI records and was his summer league's MVP.

"I've said many times, but there aren't ten Hunter Renfroes in all the country when you add the speed, the arm strength, the power. He is a special guy with special abilities, and he is such a more confident young man," Cohen said. "When they retire your number in the Cal Ripken League that will do wonders for you confidence." Allowing for a healthy Bradford, now Renfroe will take his rocket arm to one corner, most presumably rightfield where he can hold a whole lot of hitters to singles.

Some special and one all-out spectacular fielding plays in Hoover showed what Demarcus Henderson can do with his glove in leftfield. Cohen said the junior, a converted infielder, is now becoming what the coaches hoped for when the move was made a year ago both fielding and hitting. Last year was Tyler Fullerton's turn to make the same transition to outfield; he had a strong summer defensively and showed base-running speed.

But the fastest Dog on the entire team is Canadian outfielder Jacob Robson, who like Hann played on their national team. As a result both got to campus later than most and are still adjusting to both the schedule and the South. Cohen is impressed with walk-on outfielder Cody Brown too, a left-handed hitting option.

Pitching coach Butch Thompson does not try to set any rotations in fall. But Stratton's absence creates the most high-profile pitching hole possible. "Everybody on our staff wants to pitch on Friday night!" Cohen said. A healthy Bracewell immediately comes to mind. So does Graveman after his 4-4, 2.81 ERA junior season. "He's taken the reins," Cohen said of the senior righthander's leadership so far. But he also likes how Graveman operates when sandwiched between different ‘looks', too. And Cohen is a student of Pat McMahon's philosophy that Saturday is the key game.

The next Stratton-type on this team though could well be sophomore Brandon Woodruff. "He can take a huge step forward," Cohen said. "He made a splash in the Cape this summer. He had a great freshman year (1-2, 2.65 in 34 innings) but he can emerge as one of those 80, 90 100 inning guys as a starter." Of course Woodruff is no slouch with the stick either and can fill in a corner-outfield job if needed.

Maybe the best right-arm on the staff is one reserved for closing games. Not that Jonathan Holder would mind starting, it's just that he was such a sure thing as a freshman fireman with nine saves and a 0.31 ERA in 24 stints. He has also reported 20 pounds lighter than his rookie weight, after playing for Cape Cod League champs Wareham. So he stays at that end of the string, having taken the closing jog from Reed. Now a new set-up man is needed and freshman John Marc Shelly has already impressed with potential. "He has the best arm of the new guys," Cohen said. "He's not a big guy but throws 93-95 with a slider." Meaning Shelly can be a Reed but one with velocity.

The coaches also are again high on junior righty Evan Mitchell. "He didn't pitch often this summer, but when he did I got calls," Cohen said, projecting a professional future if Mitchell can gain full command of the live stuff. Also on the right side, "Trevor Fitts made a huge step in terms of velocity and condition. He can go get 90, 92 but he has great spin and can get to the bottom of the strike zone."

Cohen said righty Will Cox adjusted his delivery over the summer and will be more effective as a sophomore. So should Tanner Gaines who the coaches expect to make a jump.

On the left side, "Jacob Lindgren (2-2, 3.18) is light-years ahead of last fall. He's healthy," Cohen said. That opens all sorts of south-sider opportunities, too. Cohen likes Lindgren's ability to ‘anchor' the bullpen in terms of long relief. "The left-on-left guy, or who can get us one time through the order. It might end up better than that, he might be a starter."

So can fan-favorite Luis Pollorena. "He can do anything," Cohen said, whether weekend left-relieving or weeknight starting (Pollorena has a remarkable record against in-state opponents in mid-week play). Or playing outfield and pinch-running for that matter. "He helps you win games in so many ways its hard to explain."

State certainly found another through-the-order lefty last year in Ross Mitchell (3-0, 1.18) who blossomed as his second freshman season developed. He offers a sure-thing in most any situation from long relief to setting it up against stacked orders. And Cohen cautions against writing-off the hard luck lefty of last year.

"Chad Girodo's numbers were spectacular," the coach said of summer results. "He's really developed his breaking ball." This after his coaches forced, Cohen admitted, a slider on the lefty that just was not comfortable. Or effective. "He's convinced us that is not what he wants to be." Instead Girodo worked changeups and a curve in this summer with a low-90s fastball and got big results.

So for all the proven pitchers back this fall there remains genuine competition for specific roles, especially starting said Cohen. "Certainly everything is on the table now. We'll know more at the end of fall."

Of course what frustrated fans really want to know is, will the Bulldogs bat any better than their .251 average of last season? Or get more than 21 home runs? The latter is not a big issue with this staff by the way. In fall ball, Dudy Noble Field is portioned into seven lanes with points scored for where batted balls go. Up-the-middle shots, or opposite field drives earn the most. More even than a pulled home run, because trying for the fences is just not the percentage play here.

No, not even after the ballyhoo'd adjustment of the walls, a straightening of left field that results in ten fewer feet from home. Maybe scrimmages will be different, but so far? "In our BP sessions our guys have been amazed how much of a non-factor it is," Cohen said. "I kind of felt it was going to be that way, because it's not the distance it's how the ball flies." Another by-the-way, the bats are the same as this past year…though Cohen notes manufacturing variables mean nobody really knows how they'll hit until 2013 sticks arrive in February.

So the offensive objective this fall is clear; Cohen wants contact first, dropping balls in centerfield or driving them to alleys so everybody can run. And the absolute priority is for righthanded hitters, all of them, to lay off breaking balls off the outer half. Such wasted swings accounted for more '11 strikeouts than any other factor, by a few multiples probably. This holds particularly true for Rea and Renfroe, two big Dogs with power potential if they make pitchers stay in the strike zone. The left-handed changeup is something else to practice against.

The difference this time-around though is all those veterans know what they did wrong and can address it for-real instead of just in practice theory. Such as Renfroe, who had 25 SEC game strikeouts against just six walks. "We can be a great club if Hunter is right in the middle of things," Cohen said. "The key is how he handles the off-speed and commands the strike zone." Especially as Renfroe, Norris, Slauter, etc., ought to have teammates on bases to drive in with Frazier and Bradford topping the order.

"I do think offensively we're poised to make a huge jump," Cohen said.

Cohen had a specific power-point presentation ready for every individual Bulldog when they reported this semester, of where they are now and what they need to achieve by Thanksgiving. He does not rule out dual-position duty as in the past with Bradford, Norris, even Renfroe throwing an inning here or there; but he also wants to preserve everyone's health for spring.

He also wants to minimize any distractions or detours, because he sees the expansive opportunity of 2013 simply because the Bulldogs have grown up. "This is a different club. Because experience is everything at this level."

Is there enough experience and everything else to back up Rea's bold tweet? "That's what they ought to be thinking," Cohen said. "I'll remind Wes of his comment. But your job today is to stay on the breaking ball better!"

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