Hot Dogs Host Auburn To Start Second Half

Two series successes in a row, including a road-sweep. Seven victories in the last eight chances. The best mid-season SEC record in six years. And now, the chance to keep it going before the home folk. Yeah, the Diamond Dogs know what it means. "I'm excited about what we've got going," Jonathan Holder said.

"We've got a lot of talent and we're starting to put some stuff together that could be special."

Relief pitcher Holder is correct in both aspects. That is, the Mississippi State has started—or maybe started-over—something which if sustained can become special. At the same time ‘special' is only as solid as the next game, weekend, and series as the second half of SEC season starts. In the Diamond Dogs' case, it begins Thursday evening with Auburn (23-14, 5-10).

The series, advanced a day for the league's TV scheduling, is 6:30 both Thursday (ESPNU) and Friday (Comcast) and 4:00 Saturday. Game-three follows the 1:00 spring football game on the annual ‘super Saturday' spring fling.

Coming off a sweep at Texas A&M, the Bulldogs are 30-9 overall and 8-7 SEC. That is the best league record at the half-way point since the 2007 team began 8-5. And given how Coach John Cohen's past couple of teams were stronger in the second-half it bodes well for Bulldog post-season opportunities...as long as this streak is sustained.

Mississippi State will stay on the same piching-cycle which has keyed the bounce-back from a 3-6 SEC start. LHP Luis Pollorena (6-1, 3.02era) will open his third-straight series. His move from league mid-relief to starter has produced consecutive SEC wins with 6.0 and 6.1 innings respectively. Pollorena does give up runs but just keeps game-ones under control long enough for the bullpen to complete. And thanks to no midweek game, the relief roster is as rested as possible for this series. That may matter since all starters have had a day-less rest since the A&M trip though Auburn of course is in the same situation and is coming off a Tuesday game and win over Samford.

But the best boost to the bullpen has been RHP Kendall Graveman's remarkable run of three-straight complete game wins over Arkansas, Florida, and A&M. The senior (5-2, 2.15) has tossed 27-consecutive innings now with just four runs allowed on 19 hits, two walks, and 13 strikeouts. Graveman's consistency has settled down the entire team, not just the pitching staff, though he also is keeping Holder from adding to his record-setting saves pace.

It's OK between them, Graveman reports. "He told me hey, if you pitch the whole game I'm not going to be mad at you!"

Because Holder already has work enough each weekend. He picked up a pair of saves at College Station, giving the sophomore 11 on the season. Only four Bulldog relievers have had more and the record of 13 is obviously within reach. Holder (1-0, 1.85) is tied for the team strikeouts lead at 42 in his 24.1 innings.

And the teammate he's tied with is regaining his stride after a late-March scare. Since missing his turn at Arkansas for an elbow concern—which was what pushed Pollorena into the rotation and Friday slot in the first place—LHP Jacob Lindgren has cautiously come back with 4.0 and 5.1 Sunday-start innings. State hasn't announced a game-three starter yet, but all indicators are soph Lindgren (3-1, 3.08). Whether he can return to a Friday role is the interesting second-half choice after this early weekend.

Also, no Tuesday game means LHP Ross Mitchell (6-0, 0.96) is available as often or as long as needed in relief. The league ERA leader is equally effective following a left- or right-handed starter, too.

While the staff is healthy again, they are short one veteran to throw to. A Sunday pitch off the hand of C Mitch Slauter has sidelined State's first backstop and right-handed DH for an undetermined period. Fortunately C Nick Ammirati showed he can handle a full series already; when Slauter was ill he worked all three Arkansas games. So no drop-off is expected behind the plate. Or at it, after Ammirati slugged a grand slam Sunday for his first college home run and went 4-of-10 for the four-game week.

That was at the tail-end of the order. The top is where SS Adam Frazier works. By his high standards the junior has been slumping lately, going only 5-of-16 last week. That still has him hitting .342 on the season in leadoff with two good bats behind him. 3B and left-handed DH Alex Detz is up to .322 on the season and got his first homer of the year as well last weekend. Though it is his .477 on-base rate, second best among the regulars, that has been the bigger impact.

Because when Frazier, Detz, or both make base, opponents have to pitch to RF Hunter Renfroe. The SEC's reigning Player of the Week is batting .429 and with a homer in all three A&M games now has 13 on the season. He's leading the league in both batting and slugging, in no small part due to a dozen doubles. Half his 54 hits have been for two or more bases.

Cohen gambled on moving CF C.T. Bradford down in the order and this seems to be paying off as the junior has stabilized his batting at .280 and isn't hitting as many easy fly-outs. A corresponding key though is Detz' production in the two-slot, and the encouraging work of 2B Brett Pirtle as a most unlikely ‘cleanup' batter. He has hit 10-of-29 in the last six games behind Renfroe and in front of a warming-up 1B Wes Rea, now up to .311 himself.

For that matter Mississippi State has out-hit the opponent in all five SEC series. The difference in the last two weekends was timely hitting from the middle- and late-order Dogs, as well as sometimes-good results from the ongoing mix-and-match the coaching staff is convinced of. Such as going with lefthanded hitters for third base, leftfield, and DH in that matchup, or righthanders the next day.

This hasn't hurt the defense. The occasional error still occurs but no game has been lost or turned on a fielding gaffe in weeks. And State still leads the SEC with 52 double-plays. Frazier has had a hand in 44 of those.

Auburn is an intriguing opponent for this Super Bulldog Week series. The Tigers might stand last in the Western Division but have heated-up themselves with series wins at A&M and over Georgia. They bat .263 overall and have a staff ERA of 3.30, both middle of the conference pack compared to State's .298 (third) and 2.45 (second). The margins are far closer in SEC-only action though, where the Bulldogs have a .270 to .259 margin in batting and 3.20 to 4.30 lead in pitching. The orders are equal in drawing walks and State swingers actually strike out much more often.

Cohen has mixed feelings about the down-time before this series. True, some Dogs needed a quick break. "But I love the midweek too because it keeps your hitters in tune. And I love guys getting opportunities on the midweek."

Those guys will have to wait until next Tuesday's trip to Memphis and a 6:30 game in AutoZone Park. Or, hope that their starting teammates stay hot the next three days and give them opportunities for mop-up innings.

The Bulldogs were practicing this afternoon at Dudy Noble Field. Super Bulldog Weekend activities are already underway on campus with the SEC Women's Tennis Tournament next-door at the Pitts Tennis Centre. A full schedule of all sports and campus events is on HailState.com.


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