Memphis Challenges Dogs' Midweek Win Streak

John Cohen understands why others are already anticipating the weekend. Winning seven of the last nine conference contests naturally has Diamond Dog thoughts turning to upcoming SEC series. "But there's no Vanderbilt," Cohen said. "There's only Memphis."

The Mississippi State coach shows no lack of regard for the weekend opponent of course. He equally understands how taking on the SEC's overall leader would tend to grab attention. Doing so is dangerous though for a Bulldog team with Tuesday night road business to take care of first, as they take on the Tigers in AutoZone Park. Game time is 6:30, and is part of a pro/college twinbill as the AAA Redbirds host a 2:00 game.

Memphis, coached by former Bulldog pitching mentor Daron Schoenrock, is certainly anticipating this ‘home' game. The Tigers are 25-16 and coming off a tough weekend series which left them 8-7 in Conference USA. What those numbers don't show is how strong Memphis has been in midweek action, where a strong pitching staff has knocked off name opposition. Most recently it was a shutout victory over Ole Miss, also played in AutoZone.

"They're a very good club," Cohen said. "They pitch it very well."

Mississippi State has been plenty stout on the mound as well this season, as a 9-0 record in midweek games reminds. Extending that streak will be the responsibility of RHP Evan Mitchell (0-1, 4.12) who gets the start. And, his first activity since a struggling first inning at Kentucky back on March 23. Cohen said at the time Mitchell had every chance to work his way back into a starting job in the season's second-half and this is it. He has a real challenge matching up with Tiger lefthander Michael Wills (3-2, 1.96).

Mitchell takes the spot held in previous midweeks by RHP Brandon Woodruff (1-1. 4.34). The sophomore struggled two weeks ago against Ole Miss in AA-size Trustmark Park, but that was after his first true extended action in an impressive start at South Alabama. He's had two weeks to rest now. At the same time State has other arms, such as righthanders Will Cox, John Marc Shelly, Myles Gentry, lefty Chad Girodo, and more who need to get some live work in soon.

State leads the cross-border series 51-22 and has won 13 of the last 15 games, but a year ago Schoenrock's squad got a well-earned 7-6 victory at Dudy Noble Field. They are also 6-1 against SEC teams this season and have every opportunity of adding to that score.

The Bulldogs don't need that sort of stumble at this late-April point. The month has been so good so far, with three SEC series wins and a 10-1 record. This has pushed Mississippi State to 32-10 overall and into much stronger post-season position. To be sure the sky-high RPI has State all but assured of a NCAA tournament berth barring the worst of breakdowns.

What the Dogs now aim for is their pre-season ambition of hosting Regional play. This past weekend's turnout certainly had a post-season feel as some 36,000 total turned out to watch State take a series from Auburn. It included an official 14,562 for Saturday's rubber game, the second-largest crowd in Dudy Noble field history…and thus the second-biggest campus game gate in NCAA annals. It foretells what is in store if State secures a first-round Regional for the first time since 2003.

If being the key word. Much remains between these Bulldogs and opening NCAA play on the home field, not least likely the roughest remaining schedule in the SEC. Vanderbilt is pursuing both the SEC's regular season title and a national seeding. Beyond that road trip are remaining series with Alabama, a road series with Ole Miss, and East power South Carolina. Informed fans already are looking at the mid-May showdown in Oxford to settle which of the Mississippi teams does get to host, with Arkansas lurking based on their SEC record against a poor RPI overall.

Cohen isn't ready to look, much less talk, so far ahead. He has this evening's game to plan for, beyond who gets the ball first. "The great opportunity for us Tuesday is to get some pitchers on the mound who need the work."

Pitching continues to set State's pace with three ‘quality' starts over the weekend in stint-length. Even in a loss to Auburn, RHP Kendall Graveman (5-3, 2.06) threw long and well enough to win with 7.0 innings. LHP Jacob Lindgren (4-1, 2.54) appears just about all the way back from two injury interruptions with consecutive Sunday wins, and could return to the Friday starting slot he held before the setbacks. Though, despite a struggle against Auburn in game-one, LHP Luis Pollorena (6-1, 3.38) remains just as viable a series-opening option. Especially as long as LHP Ross Mitchell is ready for long relief. In fact, Mitchell's 49.2 innings in 17 appearances is second only to Graveman's 65.2 frames. He is all-but a starter in State minds these days.

The weekend's impressive aspect though was that just six pitchers threw in three games with a combined 1.33 era and 32 strikeouts against eight walks. An obvious reason why was that RHP Jonathan Holder worked in all three games. His innings total was just 3.2 but still using him to complete an inning before Thursday's weather suspended the game; re-starting that one after game-two was completed and saving it; then sealing Saturday's rubber game showed how strongly State counts on Holder.

The soph, who doesn't turn 20 until June, has as Cohen said "Seized the moment" and officially saved a dozen games already. That's one short of tying the season record shared for now by Scott Tankersley and Van Johnson. For that matter in one-and-a-half seasons Holder has saved 21 games and tied his former teammate Caleb Reed for third on the career list. And in just 28.0 innings he's struck out 52, only one back of Lindgren's staff-leading 53 in 46.0 innings.

In his relief role Holder has been used to throwing at either Bulldog backstop. This past weekend though C Nick Ammirati worked every game, which he'll continue for another series or maybe two until C Mitch Slauter recovers from the broken hand-bone suffered at Texas A&M. Watching how Ammirati handled the weekend might spur Slauter back faster.

Ammirati was simply superb, not only handling the staff and making all but one of the defensive plays; he led State with a .545 average. That earned the senior SEC Player of the Week, and gave a huge boost in the order's #8 slot too. "Nick has done an unbelievable job," Cohen said. "Losing Slauter hurt our club but that's when you find out the character of others. And Ammo, you can't say enough about the character of a guy that competes that way."

"I'm just having fun, relaxing and not worrying," Ammirati said. "Going out and playing my own game."

Ammirati's offense was not just welcome, it was essential. Though State had the better weekend average, for the first time all SEC season the opponent had more base hits. Only one more, but that still indicated some struggling with the stick. By the same token, winning a series when RF Hunter Renfroe and 3B Alex Detz were a combined 2-of-21 said much for the squad's mindset. 1B Wes Rea had the only homer, a solo shot as have been most Bulldog longballs this season.

The encouraging signs came from CF C.T. Bradford going 5-of-12 and breaking out of his April slump; and SS Adam Frazier hitting the same at top of the order.

The defense was much like the series, or vice-versa as a couple of unexpected breakdowns gave Auburn their eventual margin of game-two victory 3-1. Otherwise Bulldogs made most plays and a few outstanding ones. They also stayed on top of the NCAA with 57 double-plays, and counting.

. Tuesday's neutral-site game is in conjunction with the "Twos-Day" promotion by the Memphis Redbirds, with special ticket and concession prices for both the professional and college games.

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