Dogs Sweep Into SEC Season Second Half

Talk about getting more than asked for. The day his team was preparing for a critical road trip John Cohen said taking two-of-three at Texas A&M would be "dramatic" for the Bulldogs. So, what did winning all three games mean? "I'm excited about what is going on," said Cohen on his postgame radio show following Sunday's sweep-sealing victory.

Coach and club alike have excellent reason to be excited. Make that ecstatic. A sweep of the Aggies has pushed Mississippi State (30-9, 8-7) both over .500 in SEC play and into the top half of the overall conference standings. This is the first time since the 2007 season a Bulldog team has hit the half-way point of the SEC schedule with better than a break-even record.

"I'm really proud of the way our guys are playing," Cohen said. So proud and excited in fact that he said, only half in joke, that he wished the Bulldogs had a non-conference game this week to maintain the mid-SEC-season momentum. They don't, but for very good reason. Mississippi State starts the second half of their league slate this Thursday, with the Auburn series moved-up a day for TV convenience in the first two contests. So it won't be much of a pause.

Nor will the pressure to stay hot diminish. The sweep, combined with last weekend's series success against Florida, has State now in a four-team jam for fourth in the overall conference standings and just a game back of third-place Arkansas. It's a big Bulldog move in just two weekends, as after three series they were sitting 3-6 and frustrated over so many close setbacks.

Now they have won seven of eight April games played, including non-conference contests with Austin Peay and Ole Miss which carry as much RPI-weight as most league victories. Five more SEC weekends and the conference tournament are still ahead before NCAA regional sites are selected, much less the full field. But Mississippi State is certainly on the right track again. For that matter, the first 40-win regular season since 1997 now looks within reasonable reach.

Not that Auburn (22-14, 5-10) will be easy pickings on Super Bulldog Week/End. The Tigers may be last in the Western Division but that is comparable to being lightest man on the sumo squad. Auburn has belied their own struggling start by taking consecutive series at Texas A&M and against Georgia and have won seven of their last ten games.

Still the Bulldogs are energized by how their season has spun around with April's arrival. They might even be unconsciously buying-into their coach's March comment of a team that would heat-up along with the weather. More likely is the combination of inspired examples set by an individual pitcher and hitter, with less-expected contributions from elsewhere tipping the final score State's way.

The tone-setters are obvious. RHP Kendall Graveman is sending program historians scrambling through records for the last MSU moundsman to record three-consecutive complete SEC game victories, whether of nine or seven innings. It certainly has been done before, as Gene Morgan did it in 1985 and all in post-season play including the College World Series.

But that was a different day when starters were left out longer win or lose. Graveman's feats of late are remarkable in his own right. The senior, now 5-2 on the year, has allowed 19 hits in the 27 innings of winning with four runs, two walks and 13 strikeouts. The latter two figures can't be over-stated either as it has rubbed-off on the rest of the staff. Last week Bulldog pitching issued just eight walks to the total 145 batters faced. And the 30 total hits by Rebels and Aggies were equaled by 30 strikeouts!

Moving LHP Luis Pollorena into not just a starting job, but the Friday slot, has paid off handsomely too as wins over Florida and A&M prove. Of course the Texas native and self-confessed Longhorn fan in his youth would have been extra-motivated against the Aggies anyway as a host of family were in the stands. What he did in battling through 6.1 game-one innings wasn't just keep his team in the game though. Pollorena, himself a converted reliever, is sparing the rest of the bullpen on the first night.

And, handing the ball to RHP Jonathan Holder to seal deals. He did it twice at College Station, giving him 11 saves for the season. That's just two short of the record, and his 20 career saves already rank Holder fourth on the all-time list here in just his second State season.

What stands out more is how early and often the ace closer is getting used. Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson both said in late March that Holder would no longer be reserved for just eighth and ninth innings, and they've made good on the threat. To opponents, that is. Holder was summoned with one out Friday, the tying and go-ahead runners on corners, and stranded both. Sunday, the call came with two on in the seventh, no outs and A&M trying to rally from 9-0 down with four runs scored.

Again, Holder was the right choice. He ended that last home-team threat and coasted through two more innings for three full frames to qualify for another save. "You cannot say enough about the poise Jonathan displayed," Cohen said. And this was just days after Holder slammed the door, without getting a save, on Ole Miss with 1.2 more innings. In three appearances he tossed 7.1 innings with four hits, no runs, and 12 strikeouts.

Not to be overlooked though was the Tuesday relief stint by LHP Ross Mitchell. Taking over in the second inning for a struggling starter, he went six innings (pre-Holder of course) to beat the Rebels. That Cohen used his best long-reliever so long in a non-conference-counting game showed the stock put into winning the Governors Cup back as well as scoring the RPI points. Plus, Mitchell was counted on to bounce back in time for Sunday. He did and if two fielding plays were made in A&M's one good inning Mitchell could have kept going.

Then again lifting him for Holder means Mitchell ought to be rested by the Auburn series. Further pitching encouragement comes in the 5.1 innings LHP Jacob Lindgren went Sunday. He got hit hard in the sixth, much as in the fifth a week before by Florida. Still this keeps Lindgren on the return track from an elbow concern to stay in the weekend rotation, whether Friday or Sunday once back on the normal schedule.

Overall, "I'm real proud of those guys," Cohen said. "I thought we pitched well and defended well for the most part." Even the defensive lapses didn't end up costing wins. And the fact that Sunday's two fielding gaffes were both by SS Adam Frazier were more startling than scaring. Presumably it was a case of getting it out of the way for games where big plays are needed. And the Dog defense makes those, whether excellent-to-remarkable catches by the outfielders or the six weekend double-plays that keep State on top of that SEC stat.

And the offense took a big step forward in league numbers as well. State hit .312 for the whole week, compared to .227 for the opposition, and of course all came off SEC arms. Beyond that though was a most positive trend shown by Bulldog batters. The biggest hits against both Ole Miss and A&M came with two outs to either take leads or build them.

"You have to have good fortune, but you have to have the bat in the right spots," Cohen said. "All of our guys are starting to get warm."

Well, one was already hot. Now RF Hunter Renfroe is simply sizzling. He was 9-of-18 for the four games with eight runs…but only three RBI, reflecting the issues State still has setting the plate for their biggest stick. And Renfroe is swinging a huge one as he slugged a homer in all three Aggie games, giving him 13 for the season. He's up to .425 now with 41 RBI and 12 doubles.

Before the Florida series Cohen made a tough choice and moved CF C.T. Bradford into the six-slot. This has improved the middle-to-late order effectiveness and while his 4-of-16 week doesn't look big Cohen sees a breakout coming. "C.T. took really good swings though he didn't get as many hits as he wanted." The key is Bradford seeing more pitches to drive rather than just lift as he has been.

Somebody has to swing second and 3B/DH Alex Detz has seized opportunity. His overall week wasn't great, yet Detz has found a knack for coming through with the right contact. Such as his two-run shot snuck over the rightfield corner Saturday for a lead State never lost…and his first homer of the season. Besides, Cohen points out, Detz has a good eye and has earned some close walks.

"That's why having Detz in the two-hole has been important for us, he's on base so often you're forced to make a decision on pitching to Renfroe." State's insertion of 2B Brett Pirtle as the ‘cleanup' batter has also worked as coming after Renfroe he's hit 5-of-17. And speaking of heating-up, look at 1B Wes Rea's 6-of-16 week with five runs and five RBI. He not only hit two doubles but knocked a ball out of Blue Belle Park on Sunday.

"Wes is really starting to swing the bat for us," Cohen said. Which further strengthens the middle-order. And what of Frazier at the top? By his standards the junior is ‘off' lately, but only by the high standards expected. A 5-of-16 week with five RBI is nothing to sniff at after all. Mississippi State has also been getting some contributions from the varied down-order guys. Such as LF Derrick Armstrong, who had the first base hit and scored the first MSU run against Ole Miss. Jacob Robson and Demarcus Hendrson, the other leftfield choices, had hits last week.

And the biggest Sunday blast, literally, came from C Nick Ammirati in the nine-hole. He made his first home run one to remember, a grand slam key to the eight-run inning. This production matters more than usual at mid-season, as Cohen pointed out, because it wasn't the usual suspects delivering. They'll take increased confidence into the next SEC series.

In fact, "I almost wish we could play on Tuesday because it's like Coach Polk used to say. You want to keep playing when you're swinging it well. But we do need a little rest." And in the case of C Mitch Slauter maybe some rehab. He took a pitch off his hand Sunday and was to be checked Monday for any chance of a fracture.

Mississippi State certainly doesn't need anything interfering with this surge. A sweep has the Dogs in positive SEC territory and opens so many larger opportunities for the second half, which starts Thursday. Cohen hasn't declared a rotation for the expedited series, though by Monday's call-in show he ought to have something for public consumption. In return, the coach is asking fans to ignore the weather forecast for Thursday and come early for a vital West weekend at Dudy Noble Field.

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