Week's Games Key To Setting SEC Pitching Plan

Obviously this is a midweek game. Or is it? To Coach John Cohen and staff Tuesday's contest with Mississippi Valley State is a continuation of the last weekend…and a transition point as the Diamond Dogs already look ahead to SEC season.

That season is still eleven days away of course and Mississippi State faces five non-conference games before Louisiana State arrives. For that matter the pending weekend series with Central Arkansas will present the unbeaten Bulldogs (15-0) as serious a challenge as many SEC squads would. The fact remains that the process of picking pitching and settling a few remaining positional pecking-orders has reached crunch time. Such as the test Brandon Woodruff has against the Delta Devils tonight.

"Woody is going to throw Tuesday," Cohen said Sunday, after the Bulldogs completed their sweep of Saint Joseph's. "Then we've really got to make a decision about the following week."

Specifically the coach was talking about how sophomore righthander Woodruff stands regarding the March 12 matchup with Southern Mississippi in Pearl. More generally? It is part-and-parcel of the SJU series in terms of SEC rotation selections. As Cohen said last week, the series was key for several starters if they wanted to stay in the league weekend picture.

None of the four really hurt their case. One likely cemented his status as LHP Jacob Lindgren was, in Cohen's words, "spectacular" against the Hawks on Friday. "I think he could have beaten almost anybody with the stuff he had, the location he had." Lindgren (2-0, 0.98) threw the first pitch of his season and now seems sure to throw the first of SEC season. He's struck out 22 in 18.1 innings.

If tracked like a market, the stock of righthanders Will Cox (2-0, 0.60) and Kendall Graveman (1-0, 1.80) is also on the uptick. Cox has had consecutive excellent Sundays and boasts a 15 to 4 ratio of strikeouts to walks. He's worked the fourth games of such series so far; a promotion might be forthcoming at this rate.

"Cox has made a really strong bid for that opportunity," Cohen said Sunday. "And certainly Kendall coming back and being stronger this weekend helps also." Stronger is a relative term; Graveman went 5.1 innings with two runs on Sunday. And after a solid stretch of trademark ground-ball pitching he gave up the kind of contact reminding that the senior is still working up to 100% strength after late-fall surgery.

This leaves gifted junior Evan Mitchell in an interesting position. At least that's the word his coach used to describe the righthander's 5.0 Saturday innings. Mitchell was by turns dominating, as nine strikeouts showed; and then frustrating with loss of control and free passes. "Five walks can get you beat," Cohen said. But somehow he worked his way out of it." The coach also allowed some margin for miserable cold and windy conditions that day.

The fact remains, only three can start on SEC weekends, and after tonight Coach Butch Thompson will know if he does have five front-rank contenders. If Woodruff puts on a real show against Valley he can win his way into the first SEC weekend rotation, too. "When he's at his best he is one of our best three or four," Cohen said. Meaning this is an audition of sorts for the soph…though he also could be kept on cycle for next Tuesday in Trustmark Park just as well. How many pitches he throws against Valley will be a good indicator.

‘Good' isn't good enough a word for those Bulldogs backing up the starters. As strong as the bullpen was expected to be, they might even have over-achieved already. It's not so much the six saves they've provided; or that relievers have allowed a total of eight earned runs in 63.2 innings. Or even striking out 72 against just 18 walks.

Those numbers really reflect the sheer peace of pitching mind offered to coaches and starters provided by the bullpen Bulldogs. "It's awesome getting out there," said RHP Myles Gentry, the newest rising star of the relief staff after two excellent Sunday appearances. Barely known before the season, suddenly Gentry is very familiar having made the most trips to the hill of any State pitcher.

Gentry isn't the only face-card Thompson can draw from his relief deck. The innings leaders are the lefthanders Ross Mitchell and Luis Pollorena, not all that surprising since the starting group is right-side heavy. In fact this Mitchell (4-0, 0.77) has essentially emerged as a ‘tag team' with his namesake in a winning pair. Ross might even want to share some of his team-best four victories with Evan. "It's like complete opposites, so we complement each other very well," Ross said. And speaking of complementary presence, the lefty Mitchell doesn't take all credit.

"I get put in good spots. But my defense keeps playing good behind me and we've been keeping the lead." Ditto for Pollorena (2-0, 2.45) though he has been hit a little harder than in previous seasons. It hasn't hurt yet though, nor need State over-work these southpaws. Chad Girodo (2-0, 0.00) has emerged as a really reliable force in mid-games. He like Mitchell has benefitted from excellent support and even better timing, being ‘on the hook' when the offense went ahead or just working the right stage to be scored with the decision.

The roll-call doesn't stop there either. Preston Brown has fit the need in matchup situation on the right side, and as he gains old strength Ben Bracewell can become an ideal set-up man twice in a weekend. And centerfielder C.T. Bradford has been slam-dunk sure jogging in to pitch to specific lefthanders, then returning to field. And, stay in the order of course.

"We have to remind ourselves talking to Gentry and Brown, they've never done this before and we treat them like Holder or the other guys," Cohen admitted. "They're really making some big steps, and we're going to need those guys to win."

Everyone's favorite sight is Johnathan Holder emerging from the bullpen gate. He certainly was about to break it down himself before getting the Saturday call after an extended down-time. ""I was joking with Coach Thompson, that I forgot what it was like to pitch in a real game!" Holder said. Except he wasn't entirely joking. The soph slammer lives for late games and strike throwing as his 16 strikeouts (vs. two walks) and perfect ERA with five saves shows. Only a season and three weekends into his college career, Holder ranks eighth in career saves with 14. In perspective, he just passed guys named ‘Papelbon' and ‘Weatherford'. It won't be long before his own name is held in similar regard, if not already so.

Yet he is one cog in the bigger Bulldog pitching machine that has been key to success so far. "We've pitched 15 guys," Cohen said. "And I don't know if there is a school in the country that has as many little tiny pieces coming out of the bullpen as we do." Or great big pieces statistically. Besides, as R.Mitchell reminded, the machine functions only because there are great gloves backing everything up.

"My job is to get ground balls, and I give all the credit to my defense making the plays and getting it done," Gentry said. This efficiency is why the pitchers don't crack when runners to reach; the defense has notched 19 double-plays in 15 games, eight of them in the past six games. The 2012 team led the NCAA in twin-killings and the '13 defense is on a comparable pace.

So while Cohen wasn't entirely happy with last week's hitting and scoring—there were some double-digit run games but also a couple of nailbiters—there is nothing to truly complain about. "We didn't put up the type of offense we would have liked to," Cohen said. "But I think the story of the weekend is our bullpen and what those guys did for us."

Now it is time for starters to write their own stories as Mississippi State takes on a final stretch of pre-conference competitors. Tuesday's game is 6:30, with local radio broadcast only.

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