Diamond Dogs Preseason Gets Underway

Most preseason baseball polls are useful for entertainment purposes only. In Mississippi State's case though a single-digit rating received this week offers added incentive. "Oh, we see it as opportunity," C.T. Bradford said of a #5 ranking by Baseball America. "We do have four more spots to go up! That's our goal."

The Diamond Dogs are making their first steps towards improving their ranking, as well as preparing the 2013 team, with Friday's start to full-team preseason practices. Some mid-afternoon sprinkles delayed the scrimmage game but as of 4:20 the tarp was pulled and the first pitch thrown. Besides, junior outfielder Bradford said, a damp Dudy Noble Field was no obstacle by now.

"The weather is better than last week!" he reminded, of all the hard rain and even snow that kept players indoors for small-group and individual workouts in advance of real preseason play. "We wanted last week to get over with so we could get out here now."

Coach John Cohen benefitted a bit by the delay. He barely had time to fly in from a speaking engagement in the Philadelphia, PA, area and join his '13 squad for scrimmaging. A close-cut Friday schedule, true.

"But any time you get a chance to talk to 1,500 high school coaches you do it," Cohen said.

Still on the flight back the Bulldog boss was thinking through this first weekend of scrimmaging, with more games scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. The basic plan is for six-inning contests with scripted pitching as well as defensive rotations. That way the games aren't too long for the roster but still sufficient to work all who need to.

Though, "If those starters can zip through some early innings you might be able to get seven innings," Cohen said. "But just getting our kids used to playing three days in a row is important. It's hard with one staff to create enough pitching for two sides on three-straight days but we're very fortunate." Not just because State has a well-stocked staff, but easily the most overall experienced roster of his five years in charge.

Preseason begins with a 39-man roster that lists 23 lettermen total. Of these veterans, eleven Dogs started over 20 games in the field. The pitching staff is almost as overall experienced with eleven regular pitchers returning, eight of whom started a game last year. Then there are the incoming pitchers and redshirts, or Dogs who just didn't get to toss a lot in 2012. This will create some challenges in terms of picking pitching when the real schedule begins.

For now, though, the more the merrier in terms of scrimmaging. There ought not be any trouble finding fresh arms to scrimmage entire weekends. "We have some guys in some roles where they can do short relief stuff and left-on-left, right-on-right stuff," Cohen said. "It's a great opportunity and it doesn't come too soon because right around the corner we need to be able to do this."

An interesting aspect is that while there indeed are lots of familiar faces from last year's 40-win team that earned a historic SEC Tournament championship…there is still plenty of preseason competition in store. Put another way, even well-established starters have to step up their individual games to stay a step in front of competitive peers. Bradford says it isn't exaggerating to claim this is a two-deep team.

"Everywhere," he said. "It's a good problem to have."

Even better, this appears to be the overall healthiest preseason squad of Cohen's tenure to-date. "And we definitely need it to stay that way." Nobody is sidelined at the start of camp for a major change. There are a few cases to be watched, Cohen said.

"Certainly (RHP) Kendall Graveman, he had off-season surgery he's coming off of with a sports hernia. And (RHP/OF) Brandon Woodruff just had some soreness in his elbow he's trying to work out. But outside that I feel we're very healthy. hopefully it will stay that way. (DH/1B) Trey Porter is moving around great and looks better than I've seen him in agility and strength." This general health has been maintained during four-man and individual drills since everyone returned for the spring semester.

Keeping it that way is still key, although Mississippi State is much better-equipped to handle the sorts of injury setbacks that almost sent 2012 off the rails. The difference now is having shown what they could do short-handed, the '13 Bulldogs have had the expectations raised greatly now that everyone is presumably healthy. Such as Bradford, who lost a lot of his sophomore season to an early-March shoulder issue that ultimately needed June surgery.

"I'm perfect, 100%" he said today. And it isn't just the Bulldog bodies that are full-strength now, Bradford added. The MSU mindset is in pre-season prime. "We've been doing a lot of team speeches and stuff. We had a good one today by Luis (Pollorena), and it got us ready."

So a little drizzle wasn't going to throw anyone off their stride. "Our kids are excited about playing," Cohen said. "We had I guess a two-week span where we couldn't get on the field because of the weather, and to be able to intrasquad and have live pitching the guys are really excited. Getting live-reacts is something you can't do inside. Hopefully we're going to have some good weather and can get some things done."

Because, he agreed, there still is a lot to do before February 15, Opening Day, and the first of 19-straight home games to begin Mississippi State's run to…yes, to the postseason. Not all polls are quite as high on the Diamond Dogs as is Baseball America but they are a consensus top-twenty everywhere else. It has been literally decades since such expectations were placed on a State squad.

Cohen doesn't see it as pressure. "It's an opinion." True, he said, the Bulldogs have drawn what right now looks like the toughest ten-weekend SEC schedule by luck of the draw. "And you have to be ready. The only thing for sure I do know is that somebody who is not ranked right now will have an unbelievable year in our league; and somebody who is ranked won't. And maybe more than a couple. So you have to keep focused on the here-and-now and the ability to get better today."

Or put another way, not time like the present to play preseason ball. "We've got a whole group of guys ready to get after it and have fun," Bradford said.

A report on Friday's scrimmage will be filed later.

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