The split, along with last Tuesday's also-encouraging 13-5 rout of Southern Mississippi in neutral-site Pearl, makes Mississippi State 19-4 overall and off to a 1-2 start in SEC play. Not ideal, to be sure, as winning home series is the first step in conference contention, and the Dogs are already a step-behind half of the pack. This made avoiding a sweeping by a consensus top-five foe an absolute, which State did.
Now how they did so was why Bulldogs looked like weekend winners Sunday. "It was big," 1B Wes Rea said. "But both those games were decided by three or four pitches here or there. We know we're still a good ballclub, we're still playing good. Just when two quality teams play each other something happens like this. We're going to keep on playing with confidence, that didn't hurt us any."
Rea was right about the ‘three or four pitches' that determined everything about LSU's hard-fought wins. All were pitched by Bulldogs, and all left the ballpark; to leftfield at that, though only one of the shots apparently was aided by the slightly-shorter fence there this year. The four home runs accounted for eight Tiger scores and were the margins of victories.
The first and most critical one, a comeback win after State held a three-run lead midway Friday. In a real sense the ‘rubber' game was the first contest and was still on Coach John Cohen's mind after the series.
"You win this one and you feel good about it. But immediately your mind wants to go back to Friday and say we're 4-1 and make one pitch that changes everything. But that' the nature of this league, you make one mistake and it's going to punish you."
What hopefully matters more is that the Dogs didn't take the punishment quietly. Much was made, here included, of the presumably intentional and now known to have been completely an individual choice, of RHP Kendall Graveman to throw safely but surely over the helmet of a LSU batter in Sunday's second inning. It did not sit well with his coaches given a 2-0 lead, putting a tying runner with fence-punch at the plate. And a repeat performance is highly unlikely.
Still, co-captain Graveman saw a situation and an opportunity to, as he put it later, make a statement as much to his own team as any opponent. Rea agreed. "That's kind of who we are. When you lose two games like that you feel maybe awww, they're scared. But I think Kendall just set the tone right there. He came out and said we're not scared and we played like that."
In fact the Bulldogs played better in most respects than the series scores showed, though those are what matter. These were the SEC's two leading offensive teams coming in and State actually out-hit the Tigers .305 to .265. The on-base rates were similarly disparate. Where LSU had the obvious edge was in slugging, yet only by 20 points. State had two home runs, each two-run shots, too. Timing was what made the difference, all agreed.
"We're a good team," said DH Trey Porter. "We know that. And they're a great team. It is one or two mistakes we made that separates us from a win, and when great teams battle each other its one or two plays, you can go back and look."
Certainly a 4.50 staff ERA for the first SEC weekend wasn't expected, especially on the home field. Yet the visitors left with a .5.67 ERA and the margins in strikeouts and walks were truly marginal. Again, it came down to timing as in the losses it was usually a Bulldog batter going down, where a Tiger hitter went downtown. Not often either way, just enough to tip a whole series the wrong way.
Otherwise only the most distraught fan could complain about the offense overall. The averages are sure to slip over the next nine weekends of course but going into the week three Dogs are .400 or better. RF Hunter Renfroe is on a true tear, having batted 15-of-32 in the last eight games with 18 RBI. Six of those came in whipping the Eagles as Renfroe unloaded a home run and two doubles; then Renfroe hit a two-run Friday shot to center-leftfield off the LSU ace.
He goes into the week with a .418 season average and six homers, over half the team's 11 total longballs. Neither 1B/3B Alex Detz (.406) or SS Adam Frazier (.400) have hit anything out yet, though this weekend's trip to Kentucky certainly gives these lefthanded batters a reachable rightfield. Not that Cohen wants these or anyone save maybe Renfroe or Porter thinking this way at the plate.
"We're hitting balls on the ground, and we want to hit line-drives," said CF C.T. Bradford, who is suddenly one of the hottest Dogs. The junior bounced back from a tough stretch to hit .600 over the weekend and raise his average to .341. This offset a slump, by his high standards, from Frazier who hit ‘only' .385 in the first SEC series. They are getting on for Renfroe and Detz to drive in.
The offensive challenge has come at the other end of the order. At one point in the losses the bottom-three spots, which were different each game it needs noting, were 0-of-20. It also needs noting these slots had four Tuesday hits, showing the potential. The larger point is finding who can and will achieve at that end and ‘set up' Frazier and Bradford for their own RBI opportunities.
"We're going to put some guys in the bottom of the order that are going to contribute," Cohen promised Saturday night. Sure enough on Sunday the last-three slots had four hits and scored five combined runs. Cohen did say this was as much about the matchups with a particular starting pitcher as State went right-right-switch in the 7-8-9 slots. "Everything to me is matchup-based," Cohen said. Yet they also swung and hit relievers, including the late-game substitute.
"But we feel good about having the right athletes, as soon as some guys get experience they're going to be good players," said Cohen. Pirtle is the latest example after going 4-of-10. He slugged a two-run homer as a Saturday substitute, then hit three times safely as a Sunday starter. Since there is little to separate him from fellow second-sackers Matthew Britton and Kyle Hann with the glove, and Pirtle is a switch-guy, the chance is there for him to settle into a regular role, though Cohen isn't committing just yet.
Third base is the other in-flux area for offensive matchups. This has had a defensive cost with two crucial errors there in the losses by different starters, though Detz can be excused as it was his first-ever opening there. His bat must be in the order, and with Rea getting healthy first base is reclaimed. Yet 3B Daryl Norris needs to play daily if he is ever to find any offensive rhythm, and Porter has first claim on designated hitter…at least on days C Mitch Slauter is not starting behind the plate.
The close-but-not-quite label applied to weekend starting pitching. Because the rotation was very, very close to putting everything in place. A week after taking a scary shot to his left knee, LHP Jacob Lindgren returned to Friday night on-schedule and put in an impressive start…save for one offering that turned a 4-1 lead into a 4-3 contest. Take that away and the lefthander was on ace form.
"I thought Lindgren was phenomenal," Cohen said. "But phenomenal is about one pitch." A breaking ball specifically which the sophomore had been specifically instructed not to throw, yet did anyway. Something similar happened later when sophomore RHP Will Cox went against instructions with a curveball that was slugged out for the game-winning Friday runs. As Cohen said, some moundsmen were not good listeners. They've heard earfuls since in game reviews and everyone is presumably communicating on the same wavelength again.
For that matter RHP Evan Mitchell's stuff was good and selection smarter in game-two, if as he said himself only one or two things shy of excellence. "It might be one at-bat when I'm getting behind. Or a 2-0 swing instead of a 1-1, something like that." Mitchell (0-1, 2.75) could be Exhibit A for the starting staff in terms of just how close they are to putting it together for five, six or more innings.
Of doing what Graveman (2-1, 2.36) did Sunday, that is. While he already has shown a knack for handling LSU hitters, it was still impressive to put in six-plus innings and allow a lone run on seven hits, three walks. Though the senior is tempted to go for strikeouts, his ground-balling forte was back on display. "I'm really proud of Kendall, he kind of took our ball club on his shoulders today to make a statement for our club." Referring only to the pitching, the coach meant.
After a brilliant first three weeks, the Bulldog bullpen has had some harder knocks the past two weekends. Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson retain full faith in the relievers, at least as long as some younger ones learn their lessons from taking too much initiative in situations and stick to the plan. And even a couple of veterans might benefit from getting roughed-up lately without it costing the team's record. Closer Jonathan Holder hasn't gotten the same regular work as last year and thus has not been as sharp, though both should change in coming weekends.
Because the Bulldogs are about to go on the road. The real one, as a trip to fan-friendly Pearl doesn't really count. This long opening home stretch concludes Tuesday with Alcorn State (6:30) in town. Then it is off to face a hot Wildcat club that not only began their SEC season with a series victory but is sure to have revenge on their minds. It was Mississippi State which ruined their 2012 campaign not only with a sweep at the end of the regular season, but a knock-out game in the SEC Tournament which likely kept Kentucky from a much-deserved Regional host opportunity.
Those hoping State has settled on a lineup and order should probably overlook Tuesday's non-conference game. "We have to play well against Alcorn and get a bunch of people involved in that one," Cohen said. RHP Brandon Woodruff (1-1, 3.38) gets the start. "And then we need to go to Lexington and have a great weekend there."