This premium portion of the schedule opens tomorrow as State (18-2) hosts Louisiana State. Intentionally or not, the SEC's slate-makers are beginning league play with a showdown which will impact how the rest of this conference season plays out.
"LSU is a great team is coming in, and they always have been," said Renfroe, who has played in his share of Bulldog-Tiger thrillers already. Last year featured five meetings that could have summarized the rivalry's history nicely. The regular-season series in Baton Rouge, which also kicked off SEC play, saw LSU win 3-2 in ten innings and 4-3 before State salvaged a split behind Kendall Graveman's pitching with a 7-0 Sunday win.
Thrown back together twice in the SEC Tournament, it was the Bulldogs who thrived in a larger field with a 3-2 winner's bracket game and then a 4-3 victory in ten innings again, in the elimination round. Now the rivalry returns to Dudy Noble Field with gametimes of 6:30, 6:00, and 1:30. The MSU campus is empty this week for spring break but this first matchup of top-ten teams at DNF in seven years will bring some students and lots of seat-holders to town over the weekend. Each day forecasts 70-degree conditions as well.
"I've heard about the SEC crowds," freshman 2B Kyle Hann said. "It's supposed to be fun and I'm looking forward to it."
There's also sense the Bulldogs look forward to another home-series chance to get back on the fast-track. Their 17-win streak was snapped by Central Arkansas last weekend, and while there is no shame in losing to a quality club like the Bears it still stung the squad. After so much success, with games won all sorts of ways, being reminded of reality was rude indeed. Or as C Mitch Slauter reminded, anyone expecting to be undefeated in baseball is playing the wrong game.
Still Coach John Cohen saw the squad just a little shaken after two setbacks, which the Dogs recognized were due as much to their own missteps as anything. Two nights later, the coach saw something better. "I think our kids bounced back well," Cohen said after thrashing Southern Mississippi. "As a general rule they were very loose, relaxed."
As proven by Mitchell's uncharacteristic cap, purchased at the outdoorsman's store adjacent to the ballpark. "Our players make fun of me because I'm constantly talking about dangers of sun exposure!" Cohen said…though the coach turned down the impromptu gift. Watching the Dogs batter USM pitches was present enough. "But I felt we were going to go have better at-bats and our kids play more loose. We needed that, obviously."
The obvious fact is that for all State's commitments to the pitching-and-defense formula, and the success it is providing, nothing carries a club's confidence like hitting and scoring. Not, it needs noting, that the Dogs swung badly against Central Arkansas. The .265 series average was, well, average but good contact was made without many strikeouts. In losses it was just the classic case of hard-hit balls producing fast outs.
And it will surprise some to hear Mississippi State currently leads the SEC with a .324 season average; has the most hits, doubles, triples, and runs scored. Cohen is particularly proud of all those extra-base knocks as they are his priority at the plate, especially playing on the home field. But not all doubles are done alike, as Tuesday's rout reminded.
While there were well-driven gappers involved, the first two two-baggers were short, low slaps that got behind corner-infielders and rolled. They came from Renfroe and Slauter and produced the night's first three runs. The contrast was clearer in pre-game; where Eagle batters teed-off and drove for the distant fences, State had a shorter cage-session and worked for simple singles. Though this clearly played to the AA-sized ballpark, it also is the home-field plan.
"We don't want batting practice to be the be-all and end-all," Cohen said. So early-arriving fans ought not look for a BP show by the Bulldogs. The visitors likely are another matter entirely as Tigers always look to go long as their own, cozier park plays. Not surprisingly LSU leads the league in slugging and is right behind State in average at .321.
This isn't to say the Dogs can't put a charge in fat pitches. Renfroe cleared Pearl's fence for his fifth homer of the season, over half the team's total nine. And depending on winds, which have consistently blown across more than out so far, DNF's corners are very reachable with pulled shots. Still Renfroe understands what works best for the Bulldogs. Home or away.
"If we think we're going to come out swinging and hitting balls everywhere, that's not going to happen. You have to put the ball in play, line-drives, and work the counts."
Several State starters had 2012 success against LSU pitching, most notably SS Adam Frazier who was 9-of-21 in the five games. Slauter was 5-of-19 with a hit in all five games. And while DH Trey Porter went 0-for-Hoover, in the regular series he was 5-of-12 with big shots. The early-2013 averages are certainly to slip over the course of SEC season yet there are Dogs with honest confidence at the plate now.
And, one who must get it back. CF C.T. Bradford is mired in a slump begun in the St. Joseph's series. It's not lack of contact really, but too much of it in the wrong direction as the junior his hitting routine flies rather than dropping base hits in front of fielders. He's gone from batting behind lead Dog Frazier to the second half of the order, and that just is not the player all know Bradford is.
Cohen said getting Bradford back on pace is critical. "Because we can't envision being as good as we need to be without C.T. He's aware of that, maybe too much. But nobody is working harder than C.T. to remedy that, I know he'll come out of that because he's too smart a player." Ironically last March a shoulder injury kept Bradford from playing at LSU, and he also missed the SEC Tournament.
The week's big question was whether LHP Jacob Lindgren would recover from the shot to his knee suffered early last Friday in time to throw the first pitch of SEC season. He will, Cohen now expects. Lindgren (2-0, 0.96) will square off with Tiger righthanded ace Aaron Nola (2-0, 2.77). Lindgren might have something else to prove as in Hoover he got a start and lasted 4.2 innings for a no-decision with three runs, two walks, and three strikeouts.
State will stick to righties for the other games, though RHP Evan Mitchell 0-0, 2.30) is essentially and effectively paired with lefty Ross Mitchell in a tag-team approach. That game-two will be under the lights for telecast rather than Mitchell's usual daylight outing. Senior Graveman, who saved the split with full-route outing allowing a lone LSU run off ten hits, will go again Sunday. Graveman is 1-1 with a 2.61 era so far, and is coming off a tough loss where he offset seven strikeouts with five hits and three plunkings of UCA batters. The coaching staff will be happier seeing their steady senior get back to being the ground-ball machine who has rolled a larger share of State's 28 double-plays.
"I believe we're ready in all aspects," Renfroe said. "We've got stuff to work on in defense, and as pitchers getting ground balls and not trying to strike everybody out. Same thing as hitters."
That reflects something else the coaching staff is stressing this week. Just as games are rarely won by the first pitch or swing, the SEC will not be decided this first series. A tone will be set, true. But Cohen cautions against the too-high, too-early attitude because this is just the start of a ten-week grind. Of course the very fact he even has to discuss it reflects something very positive about State's state in 2013.
"Three or four years ago I just never sense the confidence you see from a group like this. Now, you can have all the confidence in the world and if you don't play well you're not going to win games. But I do like the fact that our kids have a grasp of what we're trying to accomplish."
Even the new kids understand. "Confidence is a big thing to have, especially when you get into the SEC," rookie Hann said. "We've got a big set with LSU. It's basically the same deal, stay with the team identity and do everything the same way."
Though if anyone needs a different cap, Ross Mitchell can help. Rally.