In fact, this series truly sets up as a showdown for more than the annual in-state bragging rights. The closeness of the rivals' records is reflected accurately in where both the Bulldogs and Rebels stand in tournament-time terms. This weekend's winner can emerge with priceless margin for NCAA Regional hosting rights, something each is rightly obsessed with. Not least because both have challenging final series beyond, Ole Miss more so as they visit Western Division leader LSU while Mississippi State is at home for South Carolina.
These differences are a matter of fine degrees though compared to what the closest competitors for host rights face. Arkansas (Tennessee, at Auburn) and Florida (Auburn, at Georgia) have the easiest closing stretches by far, while the Gamecocks entertain Georgia this weekend. So the Dogs and Rebels can't afford to give away any ground to each other.
"There's a lot at stake for both teams," Cohen said. "So it should be a great series. And it always is." Cohen clubs have won three of their four series including both trips to Oxford in 2009 and '11. These Bulldogs also have a win in the books after the 5-1 Governors Cup victory at neutral-site Pearl a month ago. It doesn't figure into the SEC standings but that win is one reason why State's unofficial RPI is a few priceless points better. It also allows just a tiny bit of weekend margin to MSU as well. Maybe.
The counterparts are coming off contrasting weekends. For that matter the Rebels have, surprisingly, dropped their last couple of SEC series, at home to Kentucky and at Auburn. Which means nothing to Cohen at this point of the season. He fully expects to see the Ole Miss squad which blew through both Alabama and Tennessee return to form in their last home-field weekend. Of the regular season, that is.
"They've lost so many close games, a run here or there and they could be sitting first place in the West," said Cohen, who knows something about tough-luck offense from previous experience. The teams aren't far apart in SEC-only batting, .268 for State to .254 Ole Miss, and they are neck-and-neck almost in on-base rate. Not least because this weeks the Dogs rank third in SEC reaching by walks or plunkings, and the Rebels fourth.
The real difference is strikeouts; the Rebels simply don't do it much and certainly not compared to State which fans second-most in the league. This shows a shift in offensive philosophy, away from big swinging to patience at the plate. "And they're doing a lot more creative stuff," Cohen said. "They have that nice mixture of speed and power in their lineup."
This doesn't downplay the longball potential though. State actually has hit a few more out of various parks but not enough to build a gameplan around. Not even at a yard where in the past balls have left regularly. "I still feel their park is not small," Cohen said. "You have to legitimately hit a home run to get it out of there."
"It's one of the most difficult places to play in the country. They have a tremendous ball club, they might have the best Friday night starter in the SEC, and they're really good behind the plate." That being transfer catcher Stuart Turner, second in SEC overall batting at .397. He would be team MVP…if not for that ace Cohen is concerned with. Righthander Bobby Wahl is 9-0, tied for second-most wins in the league, with an 1.21 ERA second to none.
Mississippi State won't put those sort of numbers on the mound for game-one. But if this were a matchup of heart, LHP Luis Pollorena (6-2, 3.92) might be the SEC's true ace. As it is the comparison is classic college ball. "You've got this super-talented, competitive Wahl, against a kid that has fought for everything he's gotten, including survival," Cohen said, referring to Pollorena's well-told story of overcoming grave childhood illness.
What spices the situation is how often and usually well the plucky Pollo has pitched against this particular opponent. In three appearances in 2011 and '12 he has a combined 17.1 innings with 14 hits, five runs, four walks and 16 strikeouts. Two of those were non-decisions; the third was a start and victory last year to clinch the '12 series. While not quite as dominating as Pollorena has been over his career against the other in-state opponent Southern Mississippi, it is a remarkable record.
But his best has come in large parks such as Pearl or Dudy Noble Field. Oxford is cozier and the weather forecast hints at an out-going wind as well. Cohen agrees, Pollorena produces more fly balls than most State pitchers and historically that isn't a good thing in this setting. Still, "It's a challenge he's looking forward to and I think he'll pitch well," Cohen said.
"His whole deal is he can't have big misses, when he tries to create more velocity than he needs he creates those big misses." Pollorena has also been getting hit a little more lately, which had him working with Coach Butch Thompson this week on the changeup and other items. Barring the unexpected or some wild weather shifts State expects to stick with RHP Kendall Graveman (5-4, 2.47) and LHP Jacob Lindgren (4-2, 3.44) for the rest of the rotation.
They too weren't overpowering in the sweep of Alabama, but Cohen saw better on video than most noticed at the time. "I thought Kendall pitched well," he said of the 6.0 inning, four-run stint that saw everything scored with two outs. Graveman left some mid-game stuff up more than is his pattern but only walked one, showing the fundamentals to his success are still in place. The senior has had mixed results against Rebel teams, taking the Saturday loss last year at home on 6.1 innings with four runs on six hits after handling them well at Pearl the year before.
MSU's mound-key though is getting enough innings from the openers before giving the ball, and hopefully a lead, to a stalwart relief staff. LHP Ross Mitchell (9-0, 1.32) was outstanding in Pearl this year, taking over with a 1-0 deficit and allowing not a lot else in a long stint. He's second only to Wahl in league ERA, well-rested for the weekend, as should be everyone else. That includes RHP Jonathan Holder who got a save and win in his Alabama outings. Holder (2-0, 1.26, 13 saves) hasn't given up a run of any sort in 24.1 innings since the LSU series in early March and with his next save will set the Bulldog season record.
In fact Holder might force his name into consideration for the Ferris Trophy, which up to now has been regarded as a race between Rebel ace Wahl and Bulldog basher Hunter Renfroe. The rightfielder slipped to third in SEC batting this week at .394, right behind Turner. But he's first in homers with 15 and overall slugging, and even when not hitting Renfroe reaches base and scores.
In fact, one of big stories last series was State sweeping without big weekends from Renfroe, SS Adam Frazier, and 3B Alex Detz, the top-three in the order. It was the middle and end thirds that delivered the biggest hits, runs, or both. Not only that but every substitution to swing, run, or field just worked, and with two extra-inning games there were a lot of moves made indeed.
"I think that's big," said Cohen. "That is the team nature of this game, understanding that everything matters."
Nothing matters more now than just winning games and piling up post-season points. Even the rivalry aspect has to take second-place, if that is possible, in the bigger picture. Just as a sweep of Alabama is now ancient history.
"Our kids are acutely aware of what we need to do. We've had a good week of preparation, we feel we're healthier than we've been," said Cohen. 2B Brett Pirtle is over his bout of nausea that limited him somewhat in the Alabama series. C Mitch Slauter though is still limited by the catching hand cracked at Texas A&M. State wants to start him one game this weekend if possible to relieve some strain on C Nick Ammirati, but it depends on how he handles pre-game batting practice and the matchup. Adrenalin helped the old Dog handle subbing-in for the two extra-inning wins as one of those many moves.
"It's a neat rivalry that is fun for our players, for our fans, and for our coaches," Cohen said. "I loved it as a player and now as a coach. But at the same time tournament play is what it is all about."