"Just go in there focused, that's the main thing," SS Adam Frazier said.
A road trip to Arkansas (18-7, 4-2) ought to grab team attention. Game times are 6:35, 2:00, and 1:00. While there is a 60% chance of rain Friday and Saturday the temperatures are expected to be a more spring-like 60s. That at least is some good news for a Bulldog team that has dealt with cold conditions for too long.
The matchup, is another matter. "Arkansas is good and they were supposed to be good," Coach John Cohen said. The Razorbacks are coming off an impressive road sweep at South Carolina and if not for a rash of Sunday errors against Ole Miss would be tied atop the Western Division. Not surprisingly they are powered by pitching, with three of the SEC's top-15 hurlers in individual ERA and the league's best staff overall in this category.
Not only don't Arkansas moundsmen give up many runs, they keep balls inside their good-sized yard. Opponents have hit just four home runs all season so far. Another measure of staff efficiency is a low walks total, and only ten hit-by-pitch reaches. Even getting on base means little given a dearth of successful steal tries.
"Arkansas has one of the best pitching staffs in the nation," said RF Hunter Renfroe. "We just have to keep battling at the plate and as Coach says keep our identity. Keep hitting line-drives and ground balls."
Renfroe should know about contact. He takes a 13-game hitting streak to Fayetteville and is coming off a Kentucky trip where he knocked a homer in all three games, giving him nine for the season. That puts him second in SEC longballs, but with his doubles he is first in league slugging. In his streak Renfroe has batted .468. But he won't walk into the Cole Field batter's box looking to go yard. As Cohen said, the junior is producing big by swinging short and smart.
"I'm hitting the ball well," Renfroe agreed. "Leaving the curveballs down and hunting fastballs and off-speed up in the zone. And it's paying off big right now."
Should he and teammates continue their sharp swinging of late this could set up as a pitching-vs.-hitting matchup. Mississippi State remains tied for the SEC (all-season stats) lead with a .308 average. As a result the Bulldogs are first in runs scored and on-base rate, as well as slugging thanks to a lot of doubles and surprising number of triples. SS Adam Frazier is fifth in SEC hitting and first in runs scored, in no small part due to Renfroe driving him and CF C.T. Bradford in. IF Alex Detz is first in individual on-base average.
State is also are near the top in team walks…but is first in strikeouts too, something that concerns Cohen. Contact is all the more key this weekend because for all their pitching prowess the Razorbacks have more boots than anyone else in the SEC.
Playing in a larger park this weekend should serve to re-focus Bulldog mindsets on percentage hitting, because at Kentucky those tempting fences had several swinging too big. "This past weekend we didn't have the sticks going as well as we thought," DH Trey Porter said. "We kind of got away from ourselves. Short swings, getting ahead in the count, and doing a good job with fastballs."
For their part, the Dogs were supposed to be really good at pitching this season. And by the overall numbers they have been; the SEC's third-best staff ERA as of today, first in strikeouts, second in batting-against. But a closer look, at their league numbers, is worrisome. Against conference competition the ERA expands to 4.22, must mid-pack, and league teams have hit .256 in the six games. That's a somewhat small sample size to be sure and against top-ten-ranked teams.
Still there's a frustrating something missing on the mound; nothing big but with perfectly-awful timing when it shows. And it has been happening to pitchers with proven prowess, who know how to win SEC games. "That's what is tough, I guess guys just going through a rough stretch," Frazier said. "We're trying to pick them up and they'll come around and we'll be hitting on all cylinders."
"You think we're just a couple of pitches away from being 4-2, 5-1, in that area," Cohen said. "That's how tight it is." Those pitches, at least last weekend, were in the first innings as Kentucky scored five of their seven total runs in the doubleheader off a rough State start. Up to now Cohen and coach Butch Thompson have somewhat downplayed lack of innings from starters, adding that in the long run making free March use of the deep bullpen would pay off in April and May.
Suddenly there is more serious concern though. In his Tuesday practice LHP Jacob Lindgren "had some complications" Cohen said. He was shut-down and now won't throw until probably Saturday as a test. Cohen for now is moving Lindgren (2-0, 2.76) back to Sunday if he can pitch. The coaching staff now plans on moving LHP Luis Pollorena (4-0, 2.77) up to Friday for his first SEC start this season. The senior southpaw had been put in the rotation, and thus didn't throw Tuesday against Austin Peay State, after RHP Evan Mitchell's first inning base-on-balls binge at Kentucky.
For a ‘fly ball guy' Pollorena did a superb job keeping it on the ground at Lexington. This will be at a larger yard. "He's just a real competitor and a guy who can rise to the occasion," Cohen said. "He's earned the opportunity to start. And Arkansas' park plays a little more like ours, it's a tough place to hit."
Mitchell (0-1, 4.12) will make this trip and could very well find himself back in the rotation depending on Lindgren's status. RHP Kendall Graveman (2-2, 2.84) gets the ball Saturday, as was his regular role in 2012.
There is another health concern, and in C Mitch Slauter's case it will keep him at home. A weekend viral condition brought a throat procedure this week. Cohen hopes the senior backstop can be back in action by next weekend, for now senior Nick Ammirati will handle an entire weekend for his first time. Just in case, redshirting C Zach Randolph will make the travel roster.
The unavoidable impression is time has come for the starters, even new ones, to get State more than half-way through a game before calling on the mix-and-match relievers. Cohen still won't say that, though he does make it clear first innings must be better. "But it seems such a strange set of circumstances," he said. "It's something we'll get through, we just have too many different arms."
Now including, perhaps, RHP Trevor Fitts. He's only worked seven innings this season but has been added to the SEC roster (in place of an un-named position player not another pitcher Cohen said). Though RHP Will Cox didn't get out of the second midweek inning review showed how close the sophomore was to thriving against a good Governors team. And long-term Cohen is still the strongest advocate that RHP Brandon Woodruff can still win his way into the weekend work. This season.
"I think we're going to have a couple of names that haven't necessarily been heard of that will have the opportunity to step forward for us. And that's what happens with good ball clubs."
Good teams also steal wins on the SEC road. Doing so this weekend would be noteworthy, as State hasn't won a series in Fayetteville since 2007 or even taken two-of-three against any Arkansas team since 2008. After playing the first 24 games at home, or friendly in-state, parks, the Bulldogs are in a stretch of seven road games out of eight contests.