Slauter, Dogs Counting Down Days To Debut

All those faces in the other lineup are familiar. Yet to Mitch Slauter this weekend's intrasquad scrimmaging has a real ‘game' feel. "Now we're seven days away and every time I walk out of the bullpen it's so much more real," the Diamond Dog catcher said. "The adrenalin is there because it's so close."

It, being Opening Day. When Slauter and squad walked off Dudy Noble Field this evening, the 2013 countdown officially ticked over to seven days before Mississippi State hosts Portland. Ask the coaches and of course they will talk about how much remains to be done, taught, practiced, corrected, etc. and so on. That's why they are coaches.

The Bulldogs? Given their druthers they would have played for-real today as games are more exciting than practices. Then again this preseason's scrimmages have shown the highest entertainment quotient of Coach John Cohen's tenure so keeping the club focused hasn't been any issue from the senior backstop's vantage point.

"I think we look really good right now," said Slauter. "Everyone is getting ready for the season."

When Slauter talks about looking good, he refers first not to those areas where excellence is expected of the 2013 Diamond Dogs. Oh, to be sure the defense ought again be outstanding; and while they've had some rocky scrimmage stints confidence in pitching is secure. What has increased the buzz these past two weeks is in the third aspect.

"I think the biggest sign everybody can see is offense looks good. Guys are putting good swings on balls. It's not just a few guys, it's one-through-nine really."

Now that is a report guaranteed to fall on eager ears in Bulldog country. What the 2012 team achieved, winning forty games and finishing on the plus-side of the SEC record, with an erratic at best offense ought be honored for a long, long time. Still Cohen makes clear his goal of improved batting and scoring this year, especially so to give a revamped rotation time to settle in and everyone on the pitching staff to find their roles. Or, just for the pressure an upgraded offense puts on opposing teams.

So watching more consistent contact all through the order, with a welcome mix of average and extra-base punch is rewarding. "It's definitely a confidence boost," Slauter said. "After the year we had offensively obviously a lot of us were disappointed, we know we're better than that. And we're here grinding through everything and here to prove how good we really are."

Naturally the flip-side concern is whether this signals a drop-off in pitching prowess. Slauter doesn't see it that way. While no one has stepped forward and established themself as, say, the 2013 version of Chris Stratton, the potential is here in several veterans. The larger point Slauter makes is State now has swingers able to beat guys who have SEC wins and saves on their resumes.

"You can't give enough credit to this pitching staff. These guys come in and do their job. But you get guys like your starters who are out there for innings at a time, and we've seen them multiple times throughout the fall and the spring; when you put a group of good offensive guys like we have now things are bound to click and work for you."

Speaking of work, no Dog labored longer last season than Slauter. As a juco transfer he started 62 games behind the dish and saw duty in the other two. No days off, in other words. His easy efficiency as a receiver with a wide variety of pitchers new to him, and vice-versa, as well as just plain grit over the long grind made him in many minds the unofficial MVP of the season. It came at a price too, in the form of off-season knee surgery to correct a nagging problem Slauter had just played through without complaint.

Now with a week to go before starting the new grind, "I feel good," Slauter said, though he still sees a few rough edges from rust. "It's been different because I really struggled in the fall coming back from the surgery and all that. I had to reprove myself, especially with all the new guys. It's been eye-opening for me and just makes me not want to take everything for granted."

Last season it was easy taking Slauter for granted. Or better said maybe, it was too hard to pull him off the field. Cohen and Coach Jake Wells will find it easier here in 2013, for the best reason. Senior Nick Ammirati had an excellent fall and has picked right up here in preseason. Nobody is forecasting what sort of split this season might see…yet all acknowledge there is no need for Slauter to try an iron-man act again. Even if he wanted to.

"You can say playing every game is awesome. But it only makes the team better when you've got another guy you can split time with. And you can keep both of us healthy instead of wearing down one or the other. And it makes the team better when you have two catchers you can trust."

What is making Slauter better in fact is the push from Ammirati, an outstanding stopper with the mitt and a quick-trigger against the running game. Slauter said it has forced him to improve a few spots in his own game.

"And that's what it takes for everyone in this program. It's not just me, it's everybody that has that mentality." Where Slauter hopes to make the biggest jump as an upperclassman is with the club, after batting .232 with three homers and 23 RBI. True, a steady receiver and cool head in the mask is worth a lot of average points. But it's always great to carry one's weight at the plate.

"Coach Cohen and I worked on some things over the winter and I really bought into what he had to say. That's helped me out, and I think you're seeing it with a lot of the guys. I'm not the only one." That's a fact, as all veterans are showing sharper swings and more importantly better eyes at the plate this preseason. Carry this over into the real season and State hopes for an order with few soft spots. Or none even, as Slauter claims.

"We've got different aspects of our game that can help us out tremendously," he said. "Everybody wants to be the best we can be and win a national title." Bold words but then that is what February is for.

The Diamond Dogs continue their last scrimmage weekend with games Saturday and Sunday, weather permitting. Not that a cold front nor forecasts are cooling the collective fever for Opening Day.

"We're ready to get things going," said Slauter. "When we've got something this special, knowing what we can do this year, it's hard to be down about anything."

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