Week's Scrimmaging Key To Pitching Plans

Everybody connected with Bulldog baseball wishes these next nine days would race by. Well, everybody but maybe one. Because sometime before February 15 and Opening Day, Coach Butch Thompson has to set up that first series' worth of pitching.

The Diamond Dog pitching coach does have an intense week in store beginning with Tuesday's afternoon scrimmage. Weather permitting it will be the eighth game-type session of Mississippi State preseason, meaning Thompson already has seven scrimmages for evaluating. Some years that might be enough already. This season?

"Not yet!" Thompson smiled. "But that is the plan you're at right now. When you head down to this last week now you're shifting, you've got something behind you now. With one more week, one more round (of scrimmages) you'll kind of try matching up to that first weekend."

It has been an interesting first two scrimmage weekends for Bulldog pitching. For the larger part MSU moundsmen have lived up to their preseason billing, and a number of them have been outstanding in scheduled innings.

Yet this is not to say pitching has dominated to the extent expected. Partly this should be taken as an encouraging sign from Bulldog batting, the real question mark for 2013. And as Thompson joked, he'd gladly have his guys working with seven-run leads all the time. More seriously, he came away from Sunday's scrimmage #7 concerned after a 13-3 final score. "This was a good challenge for us today, we got kind of beat up with a lot of hard contact. I loved it for our offense but there were 12 runs scored I believe on Kendall Graveman, Ross Mitchell, and Luis Pollorena. Hopefully that gives us good energy to have a good week coming back."

Thompson has also been unable, or unwilling, to put recovering righthander Brandon Woodruff on the mound after off-season elbow repair. The soph has been scratched from two scheduled starts, but Thompson has committed to getting Woodruff in action today. How he and Graveman perform will impact plans for the opening Portland series.

Which, as Thompson reminded, is four games in three days. So is the following weekend Diamond Classic at Dudy Noble Field. After that things settled down to more normal three-game rotations. "So it's kind of phase-one, phase-two," he said during the following Sunday interview.

"Those first two weekends we're going to have to announce six starters, to get through the first two weeks. That becomes a challenge for anybody in college baseball. But the positive is it forces you to lay every one of your cards on the table to see your depth in every manner that you can. Then you pick up the pieces from there. Nobody will be able to be protected or left alone, that's why we just keep on throwing guys twice in a (scrimmage) weekend. Because it's going to be required in those first two weeks."

"Then you'll enter a phase where it will start shaking down, and once you get to SEC play you have a max of four games per week and a lot of times three. But it lets the players make the lineup out, instead of the coaches trying to act like they know everything! When you lay all your cards out there I think guys feel they get a fair shake and they get a chance to make out the lineup somewhat by how they go out and pitch."

How have you scripted scrimmages so far? "I think I've already told some guys this is what we need from you. I need three outs; or you're going to come in with a runner on first and trying to get ground ball contact. Then you've got guys coming in with runners in scoring position, where you're trying to get swing-and-miss. So you've got an inkling or feeling of what each guy's strengths or weaknesses are. And you're just trying to play to every strength and bring a guy into every role."

"An example might be Myles Gentry, a freshman threw 25-to-30 passes Saturday; he was asked to get just one batter Sunday. He came in and faced Daryl Norris with a runner on first and got a big strikeout…while he was trying to get a ground ball! But that's him, so his growth hopefully is coming back on no rest. Because that slot you're trying to get more out of that guy and facing one hitter on back-to-back days can be different than the role he was asked in high school. I'm sure it was because all the guys come to us as starters."

You had three or four guys Sunday that got ground balls and were working down, like C.T. Bradford? "C.T., I just keep trying to get him a feel. Adam Frazier is mad at me because that's twice he comes up I'm bringing C.T.! But I'm thinking left-on-left some with C.T. and he got another opportunity there with two outings this week, even though we spaced them out. Because being a position player every day requires it."

How are you handling Bradford and Norris? "Just checking with them every day and when they say they can go. I think C.T. threw five (pitches). The neat thing was all three days they would have been available for us so that's a positive. Daryl did not get down the mound near as well today as he did Tuesday and left some balls up. Alex Detz took a great swing against him, he didn't get down the mound the same way. Hopefully in two weeks I'll know how to use Daryl. It's not like if I make it short for him and he's getting down the mound one time and not the next I can avoid the ‘next' one and not put him in a bad situation."

Ben Bracewell has been sharp every time out? "He has. You know, the whole charge in fall for him was health, he really got nothing done in fall but health. But he had 19 opportunities to pick up a ball in fall and he was 19-for-19, that's the first time he's done that in his career. They hit him around a good bit in the fall."

"But there's been a good transformation of stuff. He's starting to get more electric. I just told Ben keep trying to win every day, every time we've gotten to a point he's met with some challenges so we'll take each chance and call that a success. So far he's been really strong and put a bunch of days together. So I'm optimistically excited."

And you threw him on a warmer day too? "Yeah, we didn't throw him under the bus! We went ahead and would up shortening that game Friday and tried to get a little more yesterday. But we've tried to keep him Friday and Sunday."

Are there any concerns about Kendall Graveman, we hear his bullpens are awesome and he's been tentative in scrimmages? "Nobody swings a bat in the bullpen. And, with just the mound time you miss coming off any procedure."

"I think Kendall will be who he is. This is actually the same kind of appearance he was giving us toward the end of the season, he just couldn't get down that mound as good. I think there is a little bit of frustration with him because he's competing with the same thing he does when he is getting down the mound, and not getting those results. It might be two weeks, three weeks. He's got one more shot at it and this was a four-day shortening. We went all the way back to the season and ‘backed it up'. If we're ever going to shorten him we did it now the furthest-out from the season. We didn't want to throw him Tuesday and shorten it to next week, we went ahead and shorted these outings."

"And we'll probably move him back to a Saturday slot for next week so he's got a six-day deal now to contend with. Hopefully he responds better, but 35 pitching in an inning (Sunday)? That concerns me more than somebody throwing 120 that isn't under stress. After that second inning getting to 50 pitches I said we'll kind of punt to next Saturday and see if he can't produce. I'm seeing a good pitch, I'm seeing a bad swing; everybody gets caught-up in a lot of hard contact in these two first innings. What I'm starting to see is one good pitch, one bad pitch, one bad pitch, seeing the arm jockey around and he hasn't stuck his landing repetitively yet. The health is great, all that is good to report, but he's got to start locking into two out of three, three out of four quality pitches that he's capable of making."

Brandon Woodruff has been delayed three times, to Tuesday now. Are you just being careful? "Yeah, I'm not getting enough bullpens at 60 feet. 50 feet, that's not a game. We threw one more flag-round session. He will start on Tuesday unless something different changes, we are going to get him out there. Maybe one inning, but this is the first time I've felt he's ready to take the mound. And he wants to take the mound, I've kind of been waiting for that too."

Are Jacob Lindgren and Evan Mitchell ready to make the jump? "Yeah, we need somebody. What's cool is this time last year who would think Chris Stratton was going to be the Perfect Game national pitcher of the year, of the SEC, or get what he got in the draft? So I'm all for it every year if someone wants to step up and explode like that!"

"But we do have a cast of a few characters that do have physical ability to take off. Not every one of them, but we do have a small group and I think Mitchell is in that group, Jacob is in that group. Don't take Woodruff out of that group yet, that is able to go out and have one of those seasons. That's what a ball club needs when you think about the two things we lost. It was 38% of the strikeouts, which strikeouts aren't everything but you want to be able to put guys away. This staff has had more trouble as a group putting guys away, and I know our hitters see our pitchers all the time but we're having trouble putting guys away. Chris Stratton put us at ease on a Friday night and when you feel you have a great chance to win Friday it sets you up for the weekend. Then Caleb Reed could come in and play all the time, not against lefties but against righties there was some putaway swing-and-miss that he presented. Who is that going to be? Because you want Ben and Holder maybe to set up the back of that bullpen. And if you need that same out in the fifth inning who is that going to be? So we've got some things to piece together."

How would you evaluate Will Cox and Trevor Fitts after their scrimmages? "Cox really puts some sink on the ball, he had six ground ball outs Saturday in four innings. He keeps getting to four innings with low pitch count, and he doesn't get beat-up. He got six starts last year which he's like a recruit because we didn't use him so much down the stretch. You'd hope he would be better than anybody you could sign because he's been out there in games for us! He just needs to keep that ball in the bottom, he did a good job of that."

"Fitts did Sunday for two innings, in the third inning I started seeing some of that (arm up). He struck out the most guys in the fall, I thought he's grown a lot. The third inning he got up a little bit today. I hope we have to practice the skill of having to pitch with a seven-run lead more! We haven't been in that position much. Some of my line of questioning Sunday was you can't let-down and just throw fastballs for these boys to hit, they're too good, that's level-one stuff. You stay as a level-two pitcher and keep making good sequences. We've got to be better at that."

How much does it help with Nick Ammirati to give Mitch Slauter a day-off if need be? "I think everybody in our program including Mitch would say Ammo out-caught him in the fall. Mitch, what he did last year was as good a job as I've had done. What Mitch did last year was special. I think they're back neck-and-neck competition but I don't see that as a negative. I see Mississippi State baseball can be better if you've got two guys you can trust a ball game to. Especially when we start talking about six games in a week! They're neck-and-neck and fighting each other, I keep reminding them they're on the same team and their goal is to make these pitches better."

Besides Woodruff who will start Tuesday? "I don't know. we're caught short there. Preston Brown got one (last weekend) when Fitts had the flu, he might slide in there. But I'm going to look at it."

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