Diamond Dogs Need Change Of SEC Pace

The schedule lists this as the fourth series of conference season. Coach John Cohen calculates things a little differently. He is already referring to the ‘second half' of the slate, time to change its pace. "I really believe we can get on a roll, and hopefully that starts this weekend."

It is a good weekend to start Mississippi State rolling in a better SEC direction. The first-third of the league schedule has left the Diamond Dogs 3-6, though 24-8 overall and with the third-most wins of any SEC squad. The frustration arises from where Cohen and club believe they could or should be.

"Maybe two at-bats and two pitches, and we're 6-3, 7-2. Honestly, that's how close it is." He's correct. Three one-run losses, another two-run defeat, and an extra-inning setback confirm how close the Bulldogs have been. Unfortunately margins don't matter in post-season mathematics, meaning Mississippi State must turn it around.

Or maybe more accurately, finish what they start in SEC games. "Obviously this is a really important weekend for us," Cohen said today. "We love the opportunity to win a series and feel like we've played well enough to win every series we've played this year."

Weekend #4 brings Florida to Dudy Noble Field with gametimes of 6:30, 3:00, and 1:30. The Gators (14-16, 4-5 SEC) have struggled early on in this major rebuilding season, but come to campus on a three-win streak after taking a home series from Ole Miss and a midweek victory over Central Florida. This is not the Florida lineup of 2011 and '12, which the Bulldogs played some memorable battles with in regular and post-season alike.

But, "I see a really young club that can get on a roll at any moment," Cohen said. "A team that has played one of the best schedules in the country. You hope it's not this weekend." That stout slate has taken a toll. The Gators are 12th in the league, all games, for batting and pitching alike. But consecutive shutouts of the Rebels gave all their SEC-only numbers a boost into mid-pack range.

Mississippi State is the opposite case, with outstanding statistics for the season as a whole. They lead the league in runs scored and batted-in, are second in batting average and walks, and third in on-base percentage. Narrow it to just the nine conference games though and the numbers drop dramatically, to 9th in average. Yet even here box scores barely indicate how close the Bulldogs are to standing near the top of the SEC West now.

State out-scored Kentucky in losing that road series, then out-hit Arkansas this past week only to drop a pair. And in Fayetteville the Bulldogs played three errorless games yet only won one, behind a brilliant effort again from RHP Kendall Graveman. "So we feel we've played well enough to win, and that hasn't happened," Cohen said.

The most consistent single issue is easy to see. When State starters get through an opening inning without and damage, odds of winning skyrocket. The last four losses all saw runs, usually multiple tallies, scored by the other team in their first at-bat, and often without hitting the ball much or even at all. Take away first innings and this staff's stats are spectacular.

Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson made some major moves this past weekend, shifting LHP Luis Pollorena (4-1, 3.35) from mid-relief to Friday starter. The senior was one of those one-pitches, a bases-clearing triple, from probably winning in his first SEC start. And while his history with Florida isn't fun to recall this is a very different Gator order he can match up with. This keeps Graveman (3-2, 2.43) in the pivotal game-two. "Kendall has been great, he's what a senior captain is supposed to be," Cohen said.

"For now we're looking at something similar to last weekend. Pollorena, Graveman, and Sunday t.b.a. Because our bullpen will effect how we approach Sunday for sure."

Because Thompson is leaving the bullpen door open for another reliever to take on a rotation role. Cohen conjectures, purely for an example, giving LHP Ross Mitchell (5-0, 0.96 and the SEC's ERA leader) the ball Sunday if he isn't used in long-relief earlier. This obviously has not happened yet; the senior southpaw has found himself called on earlier and oftener than hoped. It is an ideal sort of idea though.

For that matter LHP Jacob Lindgren might, might be able to go again. He had to miss his Arkansas turn after an elbow issue came up on Tuesday and has been cautiously worked-back since. "We're still not 100% sure where he is," Cohen said. "I know he threw flat-ground yesterday and said he felt fine." A healthy Lindgren (2-0, 2.83) back in Friday night duty would solve lots of SEC questions and allow more weekend options.

The caution is because a hard breaking-ball pitcher like Lindgren can only be judged once on the mound in a real game. Suggestions that State have an ‘alternate' starter ready early on Sunday aren't practical for now, Cohen said, since A) who is available isn't known until after game-two and B) heating an arm in the first inning just-in-case risks that pitcher's condition for later in the game.

There are a couple of other right-side options though. Sophomore Brandon Woodruff (1-1, 5.56) finally got the midweek results he'd sought when he battled through a win Tuesday at South Alabama. If not for an uncharacteristic defensive breakdown which let the Jaguars tie it up, Woodruff could have cruised longer. Fortunately a two-run single by 1B Wes Rea gave the margin of 6-4 victory.

And Woodruff made a strong step forward. "It's a good start for him after not pitching for a while. He needs to take that and run with it. I know he desperately wants to pitch on weekend but that game was extremely important to us, like a weekend game in many ways." Woodruff is not ruled-out for the weekend, but after throwing many pitches he would seem on schedule to get the ball next Tuesday against Ole Miss in Pearl.

Who ought not be forgotten is Evan Mitchell. The righthander (0-1, 4.12) has had the most glaring first-inning SEC issues of all, and on the full season has 19 walks against 23 strikeouts. Yet in a still-long season there is every chance to find another place or maybe regain his rotation role. Cohen likes how the junior has responded to struggles and demotion.

"He threw a bullpen at South Alabama, and it was lights-out. That's very positive. And we feel he is developing a ‘road map' to dealing with his command. We'd love to see him get back out there soon, maybe in a relief type of role. But his stuff is so good we've got to find opportunities for him. A month from now he could be the best pitcher in the SEC, so we have to stay positive and keep finding a way for him."

This would keep RHP Ben Bracewell (0-1, 2.25) in later relief for multiple appearances each weekend rather than trying to start him as at Arkansas…where the first Sunday inning produced the three runs that cost the defeat. Between RHP Myles Gentry, LHP Chad Girodo, and RHP Will Cox—also a potential starter—there are enough arms to win a weekend as long as the Friday and Saturday starters just get past half-way.

"I still believe the depth of our staff is going to pay off in the long run," Cohen said.

The other injury issue of last week should be over soon. C Mitch Slauter came back from Kentucky with an abscessed tonsil that needed minor surgery. The senior is still weak now, Cohen said. "A four-day span he couldn't do anything at all." Slauter didn't play at Mobile but can be back behind the plate this weekend, though C Nick Ammirati has been able to double his duties and perform well.

The offense is paced by RF Hunter Renfroe, as his .436 average is second-best in the SEC as are his 36 RBI and nine homers. He hasn't been able to drive in too many runners lately as SS Adam Frazier endured a rough weekend, 1-of-15, at top of the order. Frazier still leads the league in runs scored and is second in hits, and few worry about his getting back on track.

The offensive problem has been classic clutch production, as when at Arkansas with two Dogs in scoring positions with no outs nothing happened afterwards. Not for the first time, which is why the lofty overall average must be kept in context. State has left 260 un-scored runners in 31 games and after a while the frustration mounts.

Parts of the order remain in-play every game, most notably the designated hitter, third baseman, and leftfielder. They are picked for matchup purposes, and while on the face of it this is for left- and right-handed pitching Cohen said it isn't so standard as might seem. Parks come into play, or the wind; and if conditions favor swinging for rightfield LH Trey Porter certainly comes to mind for one example.

Or, does it? "When you're trying to break down a staff or a pitcher you're going to face it's important to know what he gets his swing-and-misses with," Cohen explained today. "If he's a changeup guy, if he's a curveball guy it changes things. Some players fit that role. Trey is an example of a very special niche in our lineup, but it's got match up with who we're facing."

And realistically Cohen said there are three or four batters involved in this mixing and matching, with righthanders Daryl Norris and Demarcus Henderson opposite Porter and Jacob Robson. "And when looking at splits, some lefthanders struggle more to get lefthanders out than righthanders out. So it's not that simple. There's a ton of factors. We sit down as a group and make decisions, at the end you're going wow it's not what we thought it was going to be. But that is what you try to do."

What the Bulldogs are really trying, and obviously needing, to do is just win a SEC weekend, and against a vulnerable guest with its own current questions. The calendar just turned to April but already clubs are shuffling for post-season positions and Mississippi State has lots of ground to make up. Then again, they were also 3-6 at this point of 2012, and 5-10 at the real half-way point.

So starting the turnaround earlier in '13 ought to bode better for tournament time. "If we play well down this second half we have a chance to have an incredible RPI. With wins down the stretch it can only get better, so that part is exciting."

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