It was also the sort of opening-weekend Bulldog fans have waited for. Despite a mid-February starting date, shared by everyone in the SEC this year, and cold conditions turnouts were strong enough to bring back memories of great old days. In fact there was a coincidental piece of history in game-two, with the 1,000th Bulldog victory on Dudy Noble Field since it opened 47 seasons ago. Fittingly it fell to a former State player-turned-current coach to oversee the moment.
"It's just a credit to a lot of people who have been through this program; all the players, all the coaches," said Cohen, who has been both now. "It's another milestone that makes you proud to say you're a part of this program."
These Dogs are rightly more proud of wins 999-through-1,002 and implications for the immediate future. "I really was so impressed with the team effort," said freshman OF Jacob Robson, who got his first taste of college ball in the victories. "This team is really good at that this year and I think that will take us a long way."
Portland came a very long way to suffer an oh-fer. Though, Cohen said, the Pilots were not your typical opening-weekend fodder for SEC squads. "They're a solid club. They won more than they lost last year in a very good league. And they can pitch, they know what they're doing and do a good job defensively. And their top four or five guys can take good swings."
Just not good enough against a State pitching staff that in general lived up to advance billing. Allowing only three runs was one good thing; a 0.75 staff ERA? That was even better. Only three of the MSU moundsmen working even had their ERA marred.
"Everyone did a good job getting down in the zone, the off-speed stuff was sharp and we got sink on the fastballs," said Slauter. Also, "We turned a lot of double-plays and that's a big part of our game. I feel like we picked up where we left off." That's a fact; after leading the NCAA with 71 double-plays last season, these Bulldogs rolled seven of them on opening weekend including three in just the first four innings of game-one.
And with 156 chances in the four contests, only one error was charged to a Dog. Consistent pitching was key of course but the gloves made it look even better. There were outstanding, even brilliant saves in both in- and out-fields. No wonder Cohen was particularly proud of the 3-6-3 doublet to end the series. There was another behind-the-scenes reason too, regarding the presence of 1B Wes Rea subbed-into the late game after not starting either Sunday contest on a minor quadriceps strain.
Rea in fact had made base in the bottom of the eighth in a 2-0 game and was standing on second with two outs. "A lot of folks will say hey you've got big Wes Rea on second , he's got a little bit of a quad issue, why aren't you running for him?" Cohen said. "It's because you know defensively the game is going to come to first base; and there it is in the ninth inning." Fortunately Rea scored easily on a RF Hunter Renfroe double and didn't stress the leg further.
Maybe as big a story though was how so early in this season State put non-veterans on the field to start games. Juco Alex Detz started at first base both Sunday games; Robson once in leftfield, and provided the first RBI of the game-three too. Classmate Kyle Hann opened two games, at second and third respectively. And while he was expected to challenge for starting status at second, juco Brett Pirtle has essentially won that with three starts ahead of two '12 veterans.
"Definitely, I was obviously a little nervous coming in," said Robson. "But it was good to get it out of the way, for sure." All first-timers responded to the pressure by doing their jobs and showing the sort of defensive depth State has to work with now.
Pitching depth was a given, and all but a couple of likely '13 throwers toed the rubber. One of them made a single appearance but expected a second, at least until Sunday's second game was blown-open and closer Jonathan Holder's services weren't needed. "I think he's probably the most upset person in the ballpark," Cohen quipped. "He could just smell it when we had the two-run lead and he went into his process in the bullpen. Then it's a six-run lead and we're giving a freshman an opportunity. He's probably punching holes in the bullpen wall!"
The soph stopper did get to close Saturday and earn his first save of '13 and tenth career. No other reliever got a save, but Luis Pollorena did earn the game-four win in his second appearance of the day. His stats were expected after the past two seasons, but Pollorena seems to have put more pop on his pitches for the senior year. He also eased any preseason concerns after a rough scrimmage stretch.
"I had the bad outing, I came in and threw to the square on the nets we had. And videotaped it and looked at it over and over. Me getting roughed-up right before season was exactly what I needed, to know to get down in the zone and do what Coach Thompson preaches every day."
As most figured based on three scrimmage weekends, pitching coach Butch Thompson gave soph lefty Jacob Lindgren the Opening Day start. He did get hit five times with a run allowed, and admitted leaving the fastball up at times to be hit. "But Slauter helped me get it back down." His six innings were a fine starting point if Lindgren is to remain first in future rotations. Righty Evan Mitchell allowed some contact too but at the same time showed sharp stuff and better velocity.
"The exciting thing for us with Evan is a lack of big misses," Cohen said. "When he's not missing big he's going to be successful." Meanwhile there was a collective relief-sigh by the starting stint from Kendall Graveman. Coming off his December sports hernia procedure and after erratic scrimmaging, the senior righty put in 6.1 Sunday innings--the longest outing since the 2011 Atlanta Regional—with just two hits and no runs. Cohen showed great faith in the old hand by using his game to start all those newcomers on defense, too.
Whether Graveman is pushed for first-game duty or, as more likely, settles into Saturday cycles for the series security he provides, is not something Cohen and Thompson worry about much today. There are three weekends left to worry about a SEC rotation after all. For now they want to test and evaluate everyone available; and, Cohen said, address a few things from an opening series that could have been even better.
"I thought we pitched well, I don't think we're as sharp as we're going to be. We didn't throw as many strikes as we wanted to." While 36 strikeouts was good, 17 walks was not. Another aspect to the pitching/defense formula is State's ability to mix up the catching. Slauter is the sure thing but now senior Nick Ammirati is worthy of regular starts too.
"I thought Ammirati was outstanding behind the plate," Cohen said. "And that's going to make a big difference if we're able to spell Mitch."
But if Slauter keeps swinging as he did in the two games he played, he won't rest much. He was 6-of-9 with four runs, four RBI, and knocked both a home run and double. 3B Daryl Norris hit .444 and CF C.T. Bradford .357, with a home run of his own. Those two are coming off varying injuries of last season and to combine for ten base hits the first weekend was surely encouraging.
And while Rea hit just .200, his first at-bat of the season, in fact the first pitch he saw, left the yard for a two-run homer Friday. DH Trey Porter was snake-bit much of Sunday with excellent contact and few hits to show for it until late in game-four, and he still batted .353.
"Everyone was seeing it well and finding barrel. And the hits happened to fall," said Slauter.
But it was SS Adam Frazier putting on the four-game show, going 8-of-16 and scoring four times. He also had a RBI-triple. "Every time Frazier steps up there you expect him to get a hit," Cohen said. That was certainly true in 2012 when often only Frazier came through with the bat. This year the early indications are better, at least based on one weekend.
"It's so important for guys to get off to a good start, confidence in baseball is a huge thing," Cohen said. "Getting hits early is a huge thing and that happened for us."
This sort of support only eases demands on the pitching and defense, though those two should be able to carry this team as well. More good news was how after so many career setbacks RHP Ben Bracewell threw in two brief stints. Adding him to the middle- and late-relief group with Ross Mitchell, Chad Girodo, newcomers Myles Gentry, and once again even Bradford for left-handed matchups will keep the bullpen gate unlocked all season no matter how strong the starters become.
A lot of arms will be used again in this busy week, including RHP Brandon Woodruff in his first appearance since fall elbow issues. He is booked for Tuesday's 4:00 start against Grambling State. Oddly, this is a first-ever meeting of the programs from neighboring states.
The weekend brings another four-game set in the Diamond Classic sponsored by Polk's Meat Products. The host Bulldogs play Purdue at 6:00 Friday; then a twinbill Saturday with Samford at 3:00 and Purdue again at 6:00. The event ends with a 2:30 Sunday game against Samford. Both Bulldog teams remember each other well from the 2012 Tallahassee Regional when Samford ended State's season.