Dogs Hope To Stay Hot On Texas A&M Trip

They've won a conference series. Now the Diamond Dogs upgrade their mid-season ambitions to getting on the winning side of the SEC standings. "This is a huge weekend for us," said Coach John Cohen of Mississippi State's trip to Texas A&M. "This is the kind of weekend two-of-three can do something dramatic for our club."

Dramatics haven't been lacking this season this season of course. Mississippi State (27-9, 5-7 SEC) has played more than its share of thrillers already whether in conference contests or not, with 16 games decided by one or two runs. The drama Cohen refers to is how winning a second weekend will continue the Bulldog turnaround after the first three, lost, series.

Doing so will require winning on the league road though, and at a venue new to every current player and some staffers. State is visiting new conference club Texas A&M (21-13, 6-6) for the first time since 1998. This squad wouldn't mind doing what their predecessors achieved that year, beating the host team twice to take the College Station Regional.

Here several player-generations later, though this is a mid-season meeting there are post-season implications for both. The Aggies were looking strong through the first weekends until a series setback at home to Auburn which had everyone double-checking reports. Now they look for a rebound, and on their own version of spring homecoming weekend. Game times are 6:30 Friday, 12:30 Saturday for SportSouth telecast, and 1:00 Sunday.

"A&M is a really solid club and its going to be a fight," Cohen said today. "Our kids know it."

If judged only by full-season statistics these are well-matched opponents. They bat at nearly the same pace(s) overall, State at .296 with the Aggies one spot behind in the SEC numbers at .288. Bulldog pitching has charted better with a 2.56 ERA while A&M is at 3.24.

But when judged only by each team's 12 league games the stats reverse radically. Here the Aggies have hit .288 compared to just .249 for State. Bulldog batters have struck-out more often in SEC games than anyone, while A&M pitchers issue the fewest walks. For that matter getting on-base was not MSU's big problem in their three lost league weekends, and in all four series so-far State has had the better batting average. Scoring those runners has been the challenge.

So taking two of three from Florida was a most positive point. Not because there was much scoring but because the Dogs got enough timely hits to score a few, then made modest margins hold up. If not for one broken-down Sunday inning in fact a sweep was within reach. The point being, these Bulldogs have come out of so many close games with confidence intact and maybe even increased.

This showed again Tuesday night when after falling behind 1-0 State pitching and defense settled down, and the batting came through in middle-innings to beat Ole Miss 5-1 in the Governors Cup game. "I felt Tuesday was a great opportunity for us, those are the kind of midweek games that seem like midweek games," Cohen said. "It's great to have that going into a weekend where it's going to be an incredible atmosphere again.

"We played in front of 8,000 people Tuesday night. Now there will be less people cheering for the Bulldogs! But these are older kids and our priorities are in line." State was to practice today, probably indoors given the weather arriving, then fly out at 5:00. Even in Pearl the Dogs were thinking about the trip.

"We don't get much of a break but Auburn took two of three from them," SS Adam Frazier said. "So we want to go in there and do at least the same."

State has won four of the last five now, reversing a stretch where they'd dropped four of six games and with three one-run defeats, and took two from a Florida team just finding its own stride. "And don't underscore South Alabama," Cohen said. "That was a big win too because we blew a lead and found a way to win. I think our kids feel a little bit of momentum."

Hopefully a few Bulldogs are also feeling healthier today. Game-three with Florida saw LHP Jacob Lindgren return from missing a week with an elbow concern, and throw four scoreless innings. In the fifth, fielding a bunt to the third-base side, he rolled an ankle and immediately left. Though Cohen pointed out after two leadoff singles the sophomore was about due for lifting. Still getting on the hill and throwing well without obvious issue was a good sign.

The ankle, Cohen reported, is OK again. "Hopefully he'll be ready to go Sunday. His arm is fine." Lindgren (2-1, 3.31) was developing into a fine Friday starter and had a win at Kentucky prior to the midweek elbow issue. In time he could return to Friday, though probably not next week with a series beginning on Thursday. Cohen said he fully expects A&M to test Lindgren's ankle with some quick bunts, and not just because the Aggies are already a ‘scrambling' sort of offensive squad. "We don't have a lot of secrets," Cohen reminded of SEC scouting.

LHP Luis Pollorena (5-1, 3.29) will make his third Friday start, having filled Lindgren's slot nicely at Arkansas and winning against the Gators. This will be a sort-of homecoming for the native Texan, though Laredo is not exactly near College Station. Still the senior expects twenty or so family to make the cross-state trip. Rotation-rock RHP Kendall Graveman (4-2, 1.99) has the Saturday start.

Cohen showed how important the Governors Cup game was in big-picture terms by lifting RHP Brandon Woodruff in the second inning and riding LHP Ross Mitchell for six full innings. "I'll be ready for Saturday, but probably more likely for Sunday," Mitchell (6-0, 1.12) promised. His soft-throwing style does indeed bounce-back quickly but giving up the most reliable long reliever for game-one made clear the power-rating and post-season implications of beating Ole Miss on a neutral field first.

"The weekend games are obviously more important but this game is important too," Cohen said. "We'll sacrifice Ross a little more to the back of the weekend to get a game like this." The obvious goal, or hope, is for Pollorena to get deep into Friday and allow bullpen regulars LHP Chad Girodo, RHP Ben Bracewell, and others to set it up for RHP Jonathan Holder to close. Holder didn't get a save for his 1.2 Tuesday innings, he just needed the freshening-up for the weekend per his coach.

For that matter, "I can see using him a little more in a seventh or eighth inning scenario," Cohen said. State is almost come to count on Graveman going long in game-twos, as he's hung consecutive complete-route wins in the last two weekends. As for Sunday speculations, "I think a lot of it has to do with Lindgren's health. Having him back changes the dynamic, if you believe he can give us five-six innings that shortens the game for our bullpen."

State got a scare in Tuesday's ninth inning as RF Hunter Renfroe dove for a miss-read fly ball, made the catch, then stayed on his knees holding the left wrist awkwardly. Fortunately, a Thursday morning cage session showed "His wrist is fine" per Cohen. Renfroe is third in the SEC this week in both average (.417) and RBI (38).

Frazier meanwhile is fifth in SEC hits, as well as second in runs scored and doubles, despite going through what for him passes for a slump the last few weeks. Naturally then it was his full-count single that scored two runs and put State ahead Tuesday, showing why nobody gets concerned when the junior seems to be struggling.

"I haven't really changed much. The swing feels good and as long as the approach stays the same usually the results come." State has comparable faith in CF C.T. Bradford, who is 5-of-32 in the last eight games. Stats and trends are risky things for a pitcher to count on against the junior, and while moving him from second to sixth in the order looks like a demotion it has more to do with ‘spreading' hitters around. Plus, 3B Alex Detz (.340) has settled in nicely at the second slot between Frazier and Renfroe; and 2B Brett Pirtle has become the most unexpected ‘cleanup' batter in the league. He is 6-of-15 in the last four games, scoring runs or driving them in.

Having 1B Wes Rea on the ‘injured' list is superfluous because the big guy is rarely healthy. Just last weekend he took a pitch to the left kneecap, and was spiked on the calf making a tough defensive play. Yet he just soldiers on, giving teammates a comforting presence and big glove on that corner while coming through with hits and runs at key times.

"He just fights through it," Cohen said. "He's been beaten-up, but he's been able to withstand some of those injuries."

Cohen shows no signs of ‘settling' on a defensive lineup. Tuesday he surprised many by giving OF Derrick Armstrong a start in leftfield, though few knew Jacob Robson—who hit well against Florida—was ill and not available. The juco rose to occasion by getting his team's first base hit against Rebel pitching and scoring the tying run.

"He deserved an opportunity," Cohen said, adding that players deserve the reward of playing by their practice work. Later LF Demarcus Henderson did get in left and while he didn't get a hit the junior smoked two balls.

Putting Detz on third base opens up the DH job and, much like leftfield, this is a game-by-game decision. Trey Porter is the usual left-handed choice with a couple of right-side options now. But Cohen said decisions aren't quite as obvious as the side-matchup. "Trey sees breaking balls better than changeups," for one example. "Different guys handle different pitches. The other things is we have to reward merit."

Upon return from this trip the Bulldogs do have something of a midweek-off with no non-conference game. But that is because the upcoming Auburn series starts on Thursday, which is an early opening for Super Bulldog Weekend 2013.

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