Diamond Dogs Taking Act On The SEC Road

Of course they'll be tempted. No matter where they swing in the order, every Bulldog stepping into the box will see that wall teasing them to just swing away. Which is why John Cohen will sound like a preacher lecturing his flock, on not yielding to such temptations when Mississippi State visits Kentucky's cozy ballpark.

"That's one of the reasons why Kentucky is so successful," Cohen said. "I felt that way when I was there. A lot of folks go in and change who they are because of where they are."

The former Wildcat head coach knows better than most of course. So he is regularly reminding the Diamond Dogs to be themselves during the coming weekend's series in Lexington. Though by the same token Cohen is about to find out what sort of road team Mississippi State (20-4, 1-2 SEC) is as for the first time this season they venture beyond the borders. The only ‘away' game played so far was in friendly Pearl, and went well enough with a 13-5 victory over Southern Mississippi.

This though is a true road trip. How will the Diamond Dogs respond to leaving home at last? "I think kids like getting in different environments," Cohen said today, adding that with a largely-veteran ball club some road-trip traps aren't as dangerous as in previous years. "They should be able to deal with that."

Dealing with a top-ten-ranked Wildcat (16-4, 2-1 SEC) team fresh off a series success at Florida is the real issue. "We have a challenge in front of us," said Cohen. Mississippi State players and fans both will recognize a whole lot of names too, from the Kentucky club faced five times last season, all in less than a week. The '12 Bulldogs swept that Wildcat team in the final home series in three thrillers, then split a pair of SEC Tournament games en route to winning the trophy. And, unfortunately, helping keep a deserving Kentucky from hosting a NCAA regional in the process.

Now the bat Kats get a rematch and on their turf. Game times (CT) are 5:30, 11:00am, and noon, with Saturday a FSN telecast. That is if everything goes to schedule. Weather forecasts for the bluegrass region aren't encouraging for Sunday when temperatures should stay in the 30s and rain appears likely. This combined with a NCAA basketball regional in town complicates things greatly.

"And I've already been in touch with folks saying what do you think?" Cohen said, though he admitted asking any SEC coach five days in advance about weather options is futile. "You can guess, but it's a good chance you'll be wrong." The SEC weather policy (page 4 of the league baseball media guide) does allow the home team, with agreement by the visitors, to request moving game-three into a Saturday doubleheader, though approval is not supposed to be given before Saturday morning. Missouri and South Carolina did so this past weekend and avoided a Sunday threat.

Talking too much about weather is just another potential distraction for the Bulldogs. Though, when they gripe as kids do about it being a bit chilly Cohen is prone to tell them of shoveling snow off Kentucky's field during his 2004-08 tenure there. Regardless, the MSU coaches are stressing attention to Bulldog business for their second SEC series.

"Our catchword the last two weeks has been identity. We've got to know what our identity is, and that can't change just because of the ballpark." Any more, Cohen would say, than they would playing in professional-sized parks. Which Hagan Stadium is certainly not. Even the direct dimensions of 340 and 310 feet in the left and right corners, the alleys of 365 and 350, and straight-center shot of 390 read larger than the place plays. This is Mississippi State's first trip to Kentucky since 2008 when Cohen was coaching there.

The Bulldogs need a good trip too after dropping their opening series, to LSU. As recounted over the past week it was a typical SEC set that swung, so to speak, on two or three big hacks by Tigers against State pitching. And that was in Friday's opener which perversely proved the ‘rubber' game. The Dogs salvaged a split 10-2 in the finale, which seemed to have them back on the same stride as in the 17-0 start to the season. Then came Tuesday's opening against Alcorn State, falling behind 5-0 fast and needing repeated rallies for a 7-6 win.

Cohen is taking the positive from that comeback, mostly the lack of panic. But he's certainly using the embarrassment of how that game developed to remind even veterans about anybody, any night, any park is potential trouble. Part of which Tuesday was when CF C.T. Bradford came up gimpy after legging out a single. He'd tweaked a hamstring, next to the place Bradford was plunked, hard, by a LSU pitch. The Dogs had Wednesday off, so the first update on his condition came this early morning at a team talk.

"He said he's good to go. He did show where he got hit, it's black-and-blue around the hamstring." Keeping Bradford's bat high in the order is a must, as after a short slump the junior has been setting a pace even better than leadoff man SS Adam Frazier. Which is saying something as the junior shortstop leads the SEC with both 39 base hits and 29 runs scored.

Frazier sprays the ball everywhere, though Tuesday he went long to rightfield for a change. He was denied what replay showed to have been his first college home run as it caromed off a tough-to-see spot where the fence, pole, and bullpen wall meet. That or another fly Frazier hit caught near the track would have left Hagan Stadium's tempting right side. But of course the emphasis for Frazier and Bradford are to get on a base and move into positions to score.

Which when OF Hunter Renfroe connects can be any base. The junior rightfielder owns a SEC-best slugging rate of .817 with six home runs, seven doubles and two triples. He has power to all angles of course, and while 1B/3B Alex Detz hasn't put anything out yet he can pull something to rightfield. The trick is not trying too hard, especially this weekend reminds Cohen.

For that matter this top-foursome in the order might be adjusted for this series. Kentucky—not surprisingly given their ballpark's tendencies--expects to start three lefthanded pitchers. Stacking the top half with south-side State swingers isn't playing the percentages and would appear to give right-handed hitters more opportunities.

One of them, 1B Wes Rea, remains somewhat questionable. He did not play Tuesday after getting a weekend start to protect the still-sensitive quadriceps pulled back in mid-February. Cohen certainly wants his best defensive first-corner man on the field on days the pitchers are rolling ground balls, but the cold conditions increase risk of another muscle pull. "We're hopeful we can get something out of him this weekend, that's why we sat him on Tuesday."

Kentucky scores runs often and easily at home, and Mississippi State takes the SEC's best batting average into the series. Still if Bulldog pitchers are on their game they can, hopefully, keep offense under some sort of control. LHP Jacob Lindgren (2-0, 1.85) takes the first turn while RHP Evan Mitchell (0-1, 2.75) is booked for Saturday. Weather permitting Sunday it will be RHP Kendall Graveman (2-1, 2.36), though Cohen agreed the senior's steadiness is why he wouldn't mind a day-two twinbill.

"I think Kendall is capable of moving up to Saturday. Of all our guys he would probably react to it the best."

Much is made of getting more out of State's starters. The fifth, and often fourth innings has been a breaking point for the rotation so far whether SEC action or non. Cohen said Lindgren is certainly capable of going deeper into games, and when rolling Graveman eats innings. For that matter Mitchell had a much better start against LSU than most recognized at the time, showing signs he is close to becoming the ace all anticipated.

This might not be the right weekend to stretch the starters though, especially if weather impacts how hits are travelling for both teams. Besides, "With the belief we have in the bullpen you go to them a little quicker, just because the different look can help you in those middle innings."

The Bulldogs were practicing on campus today before leaving for Lexington later. They'll work on scouting stuff, go through the training and rehab routines, all the usual items. And mostly, stick to their own gameplans now that the conference grind is begun. True, Cohen said, "That ballpark plays differently and we have to prepare for certain things."

At the same time, "I think when spend too much time focus on differences you take the kids focus away from who they are. We'll spend more time on our own identity and what we're trying to accomplish."

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