State's Perfect Start On Line Against Bears

Some will be looking at the chance to make history. Others, at taking the next steps towards conference play. Either way, Mississippi State faces the best test of this pre-league schedule by hosting a weekend series with Central Arkansas. A true three-game series, too, first on the schedule and last before SEC season opens next weekend.

The name might not resonate outside the region, but Diamond Dogs know what to expect when the Bears from Conway arrive. "They have a really good club," RF Hunter Renfroe said. "They beat us last year."

Central Arkansas did indeed, taking a 2-0 victory at Dudy Noble Field in mid-May. Fortunately that setback didn't disrupt the rest of Mississippi State's season; then bounced back immediately to sweep Kentucky and storm through the SEC Tournament. Still veterans remember, as Renfroe reminded.

"And you can't take anybody lightly in baseball. They put us to the wolves last year and we won a SEC championship. So you have to go one game at a time and that's what we're going to do."

The Bulldogs wouldn't mind maintaining the one-at-a-time approach as long as it continues to bring a new win every time. State is off to a 16-0 start, two wins away from tying the 2006 record of eighteen consecutive victories. That too came at the start of the schedule. It is purely coincidence that 19-straight home games were booked at the front end of 2013's slate.

But getting through this series unscathed might be as impressive as most of the first 16 wins. "We're going to find out a lot about ourselves this weekend," Coach John Cohen said. Central Arkansas is 12-1 themselves, with eleven home wins, and has only lost to Eastern Division power Vanderbilt. The Southland Conference favorite isn't going to be intimidated against other SEC squads, certainly not after last year's win in Starkville.

The current Bear rotation is a combined 7-0 with ERAs of 1.64, 2.38, and 1.89. Those are numbers even the Mississippi State, with its collective ERA of 1.25 which happens to be second-best in the NCAA. Cohen figures to stay with the same first-three moundsmen used in the first three weekends. LHP Jacob Lindgren (2-0, 0.98) has the ball for Friday, with righthanders Evan Mitchell (0-0. 2.08) and Kendall Graveman (1-0, 1.80) the next two days. RHP Will Cox as a result gives up his weekend starting turn as the #4 man so far. But of course that makes the sophomore available in relief duties if needed, or to be saved for next Tuesday's start against Southern Mississippi in Pearl.

While Cohen has said he wants to get longer stints from his starters, there is complete confidence in the Bulldog bullpen to put out fires and close out games. The question that now looms larger for State is the offense's development. The numbers look good enough so far; a .330 batting average and .426 on-base rate are vast progress over 2012. Even the slugging is showing signs of new life, though that .450 percentage is skewed. Not by home runs, but triples; this roster has eight three-baggers already compared to seven yardballs, along with 26 doubles.

Count SS Adam Frazier as not-surprised. In fact, "We told y'all all off-season everybody can do a little more this year than you saw last year," Frazier said. "So hopefully it continues."

Frazier certainly has continued into '13 where he left off his soph season, with a .435 average and SEC-best four triples. He has hit safely in 14 games and in most of them has two or more safeties. It's a great start to an anticipated all-American season. Yet, Frazier isn't leading the stat sheet; the order yes, as he swings first. But 1B Alex Detz has shown his fine first weekend as a starter was no offensive fluke.

The juco first baseman has gotten better, batting .475 and making base 60.7% of his chances. Moving him up in the order has also let Detz score Frazier and C.T. Bradford consistently for a team-best 17 RBI. Detz has made the absence of 1B Wes Rea (quadriceps) almost academic, and has played superb defense as well as hit brilliantly.

"It's a good experience," Detz said. "I'm starting to feel pretty comfortable over there." Cohen is obviously comfortable too as Rea isn't being rushed back. Warmer weather should help the strained muscle loosen in time for SEC play, is the hope. At that point Detz is a viable candidate for DHing as a lefthander, or moving to third base where he originally practiced upon arrival at State. Righthander Daryl Norris though is hitting .333 himself and while not as consistent as hoped the junior does have a knack for the timely knock. His defense speaks for itself.

Second base suddenly is a much more interesting area. Not for lack of defense; of the four Dogs who have worked the four-hole all can cover ground and make plays. But where in off-season coaches talked of settling for the best glove there, now the quartet collectively are hitting too. Not that their averages are great; senior Sam Frost and soph Matthew Britton are tied at .267, and are both lefthanders. Brett Pirtle (.179) is a switch guy and Kyle Hann (.160) hits right.

What those all-season stats don't show is how some of these have heated up in recent games. "Britton all of a sudden has put together some good swings," Cohen said. "Sammy has come in and played well defensively and taken some god swings. We have some great competition going on at some spots." And it got tighter this week as Pirtle was 2-of-4 Tuesday night with a double and his first home run.

He's still under .200, but Cohen saw what he'd been hoping for from the juco transfer. "There's no doubt in my mind he's going to hit. He had a great fall and he's not swing-and-miss. He can get to the middle of the field. Nights like tonight can give you a little confidence and boost you forward."

Renfroe has made some steps forward himself after an interruption for a cracked right hand. He too was kept sidelined a little longer than absolutely necessary, if for no other reasons than teammates were picking up the batting slack and the coaches used opportunities to put other outfielders and hitters in starting or early-game situations. That has paid off in a better-established depth by March, something all teams want but few truly achieve before conference play.

That said…Renfroe carries the biggest stick on the squad. He's hit .395 in 11 games with three homers and a triple. And, stolen three bases in as many tries. True, Cohen would rather Renfroe work a few more walks, but the strikeouts are way-down and the on-base rate way-up.

"The hand is feeling good and the swing is good," Renfroe said. "I'm feeling really good at the plate and Coach Cohen is seeing that and putting me in the lineup everyday, that's all you can ask for."

At the same time Demarcus Henderson has been able to get used to starting in rightfield as well as his usual left. And his batting is the better for it with a .324 average. Yet Derrick Armstrong has produced in his chances too and is a real alternative to Henderson or Jacob Robson in leftfield. For that matter Tyler Fullerton (.313) is doing his part at the plate. Whether all these alternates can hit as well come conference games must be seen of course, but there are choices. And outfield depth as well, something that nearly bit the Bulldogs badly in 2012.

As Cohen said, State has gotten a lot of people involved already. "But there are still some things we need to improve on before we get to conference play." The defense has been by no means bad, and obviously the errors so-far haven't cost any losses. Yet, Cohen has also observed a few lapses in the field which signaled some loss of focus. Maybe natural when winning big but not accepted in post-game review.

There were some squeeze-plays not executed well, or at all, in the St. Joseph's series. All three errors in beating Mississippi Valley this week were not by glovemen but the pitchers, with two bad pick tries and a throwaway on fielding against a squeeze. Also, what didn't show in the box but did on tape was missing signs by pitchers, young and old alike, and some communications issues. Even if Cohen weren't a perfectionist on such things, he would have made them a big deal anyway in the remaining days before Louisiana State comes to town.

"There's some things we have to get better with," Cohen said. "But our kids are pretty resilient." Renfroe agrees.

"You've got to learn from it," he said. Such as Tuesday's 14-2 romp against a SWAC team where the Dogs early on played down to the guest's level. Or lackadaisical as Renfroe said bluntly. That won't work against Central Arkansas, much less a LSU. "We got it pumping after a while, but we can't do that in SEC play. We'll be even more jacked for that but we have to take every game seriously."

The weekend series times are 6:30 Friday, 2:00 Saturday, and 1:30 Sunday. The first and third games will air on the full MSU Baseball Network (consult station listing on Dawgs' Bite message boards). Saturday's game is local-broadcast only due to the basketball game at 4:30.

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