State's Stretch Run Begins With Alabama

No, there won't be any state-of-State lectures to the Diamond Dogs this week. "They know exactly what is at stake through the last nine games," John Cohen says. "All the if/then statements, they're aware of."

The coach is correct. There are all sorts of ifs and thens associated with Mississippi State's current situation, and three SEC weekends to shake everything out. The stretch run begins at Dudy Noble Field with old rival Alabama coming to campus. Game times are 6:06 Friday for ESPNU telecast, 2:00 Saturday and 1:37 Sunday for

Not surprisingly for what has been a soggy spring, weather forecasts are not promising for Friday. Fans should be alert for any alterations in the series scheduling, but continue with plans to show up for game-one of a series that ‘crucial' only scratches surfaces. Following a lost weekend at Vanderbilt, the Bulldogs have heavy work ahead to achieve their long-term goals.

None of which Cohen sees need to discuss in practices or pregames. "In some ways the kids keep up with what‘s going on in our league more than coaches do, from the standpoint of we can only control what we do. But kids are kids and looking at the numbers, hey if we did this we can do this."

The immediate numbers of import are 10-11, State's SEC record after Vanderbilt snapped a four-series winning streak. This has the Bulldogs eighth overall in the conference standings, and fifth in the brutal West side. Mississippi State is still securely in the SEC Tournament picture of course, which removes one sort of stress they felt in May 2011 and '12. For that matter a NCAA Tournament bid is all-but-certain based on a 33-13 overall record and elite RPI.

But the Dogs have higher ambitions, primarily to host a NCAA Regional. And this requires more work now than the status of a week ago. The next nine games, assuming none lost to wet weather, will likely settle that situation before anyone arrives in Hoover. State last hosted a first-round Regional in 2003. Now they have a very real opportunity to end that drought according to projections. If, of course, the Dogs do their part.

"I really believe our kids can get on a roll," Cohen said today. "And these last three weekends would be a good time to get back on a flow."

Certainly State has to reverse last week's setback, admittedly at the hands—and bats and gloves—of the runaway league leader. Alabama is just 27-18 overall but has recovered from a tough SEC start and moved ahead of the Bulldogs with a 11-9 mark. They are on a four-win streak with three of them SEC successes, including a double-header sweep of Texas A&M in a weather-shortened home series. Even in a sweep at Ole Miss, the Crimson Tide played well enough to win at least once.

Offensively State has the better numbers for SEC-only season, with a .263 average against .244; or .363 to .314 in slugging which is interesting given how much cozier the Tide's park is. In fact Alabama has just five SEC home runs so far, where Bulldog blaster RF Hunter Renfroe has eight on his own.

Totals, though, are misleading…and in MSU's case often frustrating. The Bulldogs have smacked balls all over parks with authority and consistency, up to the point where a simple hit is needed to score the baserunners. Alabama on the other hand has lately figured how to get the right contact at right times. "Their numbers don't jump out at you but they get key hits," Cohen said.

"It all starts with them with pitching. Sullivan has really pitched well, Turnbull, their numbers are solid. They've defended it well and turned a whole bunch of double-plays. And they've done a solid job controlling the running game." The Alabama staff ERA (again league games only) is better than the Bulldogs, too, though State's staff has more SEC strikeouts and a few fewer walks.

Numbers or not, this is suddenly a much tighter matchup than it would have appeared a week ago. Plus, there is the intangible hex Tide teams have held in this rivalry, road or home. Last year's series win by the Bulldogs, in Tuscaloosa, was the first for State since 2005. There also ought to be enough veterans on the MSU roster to have bad memories of 2011 when a vulnerable Tide team came to Starkville and stunned the home team with a Saturday double-header sweep. That series nearly cost those Bulldogs any post-season chance and took a last-day tiebreaker just to make the SEC Tournament. So everyone should consider themselves reminded, and warned what can happen.

Mississippi State stays with the rotation begun four series ago, with LHP Luis Pollorena (6-2, 3.42), RHP Kendall Graveman (5-4, 2.17) and LHP Jacob Lindgren (4-2, 3.47). Alabama is listing sophomore righthander Spencer Turnbull (4-1, 2.26) for Friday, followed by righty Charley Sullivan (4-4, 3.27) and lefty Justin Kamplain (1-0, 4.82).

Vanderbilt didn't just interrupt State's SEC success, they halted Pollorena's winning streak. The senior southpaw did his part, working 7.1 intense innings with three runs on seven hits. He also walked four and struck out seven. Three runs were too many in that circumstance though, and typically for the series the Commodores got to State's starters early.

And this, Cohen said, is more key to Pollorena than most. "If he gets off to a good start there's no telling how good he's going to pitch. It's amazing, his last 50 pitches are usually better than the first 50. But you have to hope the first 50 don't put you in a tough situation." This indeed is Pollorena's tendency, though in wins over Florida, Texas A&M, and Auburn those early runs allowed weren't fatal. Still, a stronger and scoreless first three or four frames would do wonders for State psyches…and save the bullpen a little longer.

Though lack of a midweek game due to final spring exams does leave a refreshed staff for this series. Most notably LHP Ross Mitchell, who despite getting thrown—so to speak—into all sorts of scratchy settings continues to lead the entire SEC with his 0.93 ERA in 19 relief stints. "I think he's adapted to that well," Cohen said. "His not pitching in midweek changes his availability on Friday night." Assuming there is a Friday game of course. But given Mitchell's easy action a double-header suits him just fine.

As it does RHP Jonathan Holder, too. The sophomore doorslammer showed it in a weather-scrambled Friday against Auburn, closing out a loss before finishing a suspended win. Holder (1-0, 1.50) never had a save opportunity at Nashville of course, but worked 2.0 scoreless—of course—innings with two strikeouts to stay sharp. And when sharp Holder is the league's elite closer with 12 saves overall. In SEC innings he's struck out 26 against only four walks.

State is short one arm though. RHP Brandon Woodruff, who last threw April 9 against Ole Miss and was knocked out early, is done for the year. The soph had surgery this week to address an issue that came up after a strong, maybe too strong, win at South Alabama. "It went very well," Cohen reported. "It's not related to a ligament so we think the prognosis is great. He's not going to pitch again this year but he'll be back in the fall." As to specifics, the coach would rather a doctor explain. "But it's not a major surgery."

C Mitch Slauter, out since taking a Sunday pitch to his left hand at A&M, will be checked again Friday morning. "I'm really doubtful he's going to be able to play," said Cohen. That leaves the catching up to senior Nick Ammirati another full weekend and is not a concern at all. His offense might be, as after SEC Player of the Week honors Ammirati is 1-of-15…though Vanderbilt made a lot of Dogs struggle with the sticks.

This includes Renfroe, at least by his lofty standards. He was 3-of-10 when Vanderbilt actually pitched to him, something lots of squads would rather not do. Bad bounces have taken a toll on the big Dog's average as well, as Cohen noted. "Last weekend (vs Auburn) he hit ten balls in a row without getting any hits. Then at Vanderbilt we just didn't play well, and he's on base, he's taking his walks."

Renfroe was named today to the 60-man midseason Golden Spikes Award watch list. He leads the SEC (all games) in batting at .403, in slugging at .799 and home runs with 14. He's not the only league-leader on offense for State. 3B Alex Detz sets the SEC pace with his 40 walks, one order-slot in front of Renfroe.

Despite the sweep, and for that matter not hitting overly well against Auburn, the Bulldogs still are fourth in SEC overall batting, third in reaching base and fifth in slugging. So Cohen sees no need to push any panic buttons, much less play around with the order beyond the usual matchup tendencies.

"I think our kids are having good at-bats, we just had a tough weekend with the key at-bats. I'm a big believer in making your own luck but we didn't have a lot of good fortune. There is some ebb and flow and we need to get back."

Back to winning weekends, and in the forefront of Regional hosting talk. Not that coaches make it part of practice and pregame talking points. Every Bulldogs knows this score.

"Our talk is being prepared for the challenge in front of you. We're talking about executing what we need to execute every day."

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