Hot Dogs Ready For Chilly St. Joseph's Series

An unblemished record, a strong start by the offense, a bullpen bordering on brilliant…there's a whole lot to like heading into this third weekend of the season. "The only thing that's not positive, is you're concerned about six or seven hours' worth of Saturday in not very warm weather," Coach John Cohen said.

'Not very warm' is under-stating the case. Morning updates are forecasting frigid conditions at Dudy Noble Field for the Saturday twinbill during Mississippi State's four-game series with St. Joseph's. In fact, adjustments to the three-day schedule has already been made. Friday's opening matchup is moved up to 4:00 so the Diamond Dogs and Hawks can, hopefully, beat the oncoming evening weather.

Saturday's doubleheader is now a single game, still starting at noon. Presumably any Friday snowflakes will have evaporated by first pitch. "But at the same time it's going to be cooler temperatures," Cohen said. "That means we need a lot of grills fired-up in the outfield to keep people warm!" Sunday is now a doubleheader beginning at 1:00.

Mississippi State's skipper can quip about such conditions; his years at Kentucky allow Cohen to appreciate the advantages of playing further South in February. In the larger picture, watching a team that has played and won all eleven games so-far is keeping Diamond Dog fans warm at the ballpark. State is coming off dominating midweek wins over Rhode Island by scores of 13-2 and 17-5.

Cold-weather worries for this weekend are something of an inside-joke of course. It's still February after all and these Bulldogs have yet to see springlike conditions on the home field. A field on which State hasn't just been successful, with the best start so-far since the 2006 team began with 18 wins. They've been there a lot already, with eleven games in 13 days. The pace isn't slowing soon either. By the time this extended home-stretch concludes, the Dogs will have played 19 times in 24 days.

This crammed schedule might be stressing some fans. But players aren't showing any strains, beyond a couple of early injuries not related to any grind. 1B Wes Rea has been taking it easy on the quadriceps he tweaked running-out (successfully, too) a strikeout/wild pitch on opening weekend. RF Hunter Renfroe's situation was a bit more bothersome as a high-and-inside pitch last Saturday left his right hand with a slight fracture on the little-finger side.

Neither got on the field against Rhode Island. "Wes felt he could have played today but as cold as it was we didn't want to risk it," Cohen said. "Hunter felt he could have given us a pinch-hit performance but we didn't want to do it. So we'll wait and see Friday what it is like for those guys. But I think they're progressing a little every day."

The absence of those big bats in the middle of the order hasn't shown much if at all. The Bulldog are batting .336 in this winning streak, and have scored double-digit runs three times already. A better gauge of offensive progress is the average 8.1 runs per-game for the season, and 11.0 in the last five wins. This is not SEC opposition, much less pitching that the Dogs have faced of course.

But it is certainly a promising start. "I feel like we're hitting pretty good," SS Adam Frazier said. Then again he would; the junior shortstop has been nothing short of brilliant with his .465 average and .628 on-base rate. Frazier has hit safely in every game save one (oddly enough, it was Grambling State) and had seven contests of two or more safeties.

His hitting is no surprise. Nor are numbers such as .366 from CF C.T. Bradford, or .360 by 3B Daryl Norris. They are supposed to hit for average. For that matter everyone expected once Renfroe found his comfort zone at the plate the hits would come, and now they have with a .393 rate in eight games. Despite sitting three games Renfroe is still second in squad RBI.

The surprise is in who leads that list, as well as the .423 average 1B Alex Detz is posting. His unexpected—unproven is a better word for a juco transfer—efficiency is why Rea could be on the bench six games now and the team not miss a beat. All from an infielder who'd never played varsity first base until January this year.

"I'm starting to feel pretty comfortable over there," said Detz. He should, having played errorless defense in 94 chances. It is his hitting though that has coaches-in-the-seats and press box wondering how he can stay in the lineup when Rea returns. Detz has 12 RBI total, eight in the last three games where he has hit 8-of-10.

"He should be back pretty soon, and it will be really good to have him back in the lineup," Detz said of Rea. Meanwhile, "I'm thankful to get some extra Abs. I'll play wherever as long as I'm in the lineup!"

Detz is the obvious example, but not the only Dog who has delivered as a substitute starter or backup. Renfroe's absence allowed a variety of outfield combinations, Bradford being the constant in centerfield. Veteran Demarcus Henderson has eight starts in left mostly but also in right now, and rewards the choice with his .318 average. That's barely ahead of freshman Jacob Robson (.316), and now both have to watch for junior Derrick Armstrong (.300). There's been no defensive drop-off with any trio either, though Henderson whiffed a Rhode Island single into two more bases as a reminder to stay focused.

Wednesday's win reminded not only new Dogs are swinging well. Senior 2B Sam Frost was run out to the position early after a rookie missed a squeeze bunt signal, not something forgiven quickly here. He responded with a four-RBI and two-run performance, including a two-run double.

"Just waiting for an opportunity," the old Dog said. "Things worked out for me." More to the point, Frost said, things have been working out for almost anyone State gives the chance to play. "We've got a lot of talent out here. Coach Mingione is always talking about how we've got 18 position players and only nine get to play, so everybody is eager and waiting for the opportunity to get in."

With so many games in such short spans, there have been no lack of opportunities for pitchers. No less than fifteen have worked so far, including spot-lefthanded matchup man Bradford. He gets quick bullpen sessions in during offensive innings so Bradford can jog in from centerfield, get an out or two, and return to defense. This has reduced the early use of southpaw relievers Luis Pollorena and Ross Mitchell.

They still throw though, as have every other reliever that is likely to be used in 2013. Throw very well, too, as the stat sheet shows. Their combined effectiveness is such that the staff is almost taken for granted, and that's fine with everyone. "And one of the positives is we didn't have to use Johnathan Holder in either one of these games," the coach said. Meaning, the ace stopper (1-0, 3 saves, 0.00era) is full-strength for a long weekend. But Cohen sees some limits and has said, repeatedly of late, he wants more good innings out of the starting guys.

Speaking of which, the plan for a second four-game weekend is like the last with LH Jacob Lindgren getting Friday's start; righthanders Evan Mitchell Saturday; and Kendall Graveman and RH Will Cox for Sunday. Having thrown last night, still-strengthening RH Brandon Woodruff remains in midweek mode a little longer. And there is just one of those games next week, followed by a more routine three-game weekend.

Meaning, it is about time for a real rotation to start—no pun meant—taking shape. "What's neat about this weekend, we've got to put four guys out there," said Cohen. "We still have guys who are competing for the weekend spots, and then you have a Tuesday game that allows someone to compete for a weekend spot also. And quite frankly we need some guys to have a better start than they had last weekend. And I think those guys are chomping at the bit."

Or doing anything else it takes to stay warm and keep winning in the weekend ahead.

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