Bulldogs Keep Control Of Tourney-Time Destiny

Just when it appeared their goals were being gutted…the Diamond Dogs gutted out perhaps the most meaningful victory of the regular season. It is a win which will surely impact the post-season plans as well.

Down big early and staring a devastating sweep in the face, Mississippi State never blinked. Instead the Bulldogs got busy with the bats and pulled together sufficient relief pitching to turn a 6-0 deficit into a 7-6 win at Ole Miss. This salvaged a split, which if not the ideal outcome of a rivalry series was the bare-bones Bulldog baseline after dropping Saturday's weather-wrought doubleheader.

In fact, the manner and degree of comeback allowed Coach John Cohen's club to leave Oxford with restored pride and revived ambitions. "I just can't say enough about the way our kids competed through this," Cohen said.

State is 37-15 on the season and 14-13 SEC after nine conference weekends. That's good enough in conjunction with other scores to tie for fifth in the overall lead standings with the Rebels. Both stayed in striking distance of 16-10 South Carolina for fourth place, and even 17-9 Arkansas with two of the first-day byes still up for grabs. 13-13 Alabama and 13-14 Florida are right behind with three games (weather permitting) left to everyone.

Vanderbilt has clinched the 2013 SEC championship and LSU locked up a bye. That might be good news for Ole Miss as they end their schedule in Baton Rouge. What matters to Mississippi State is by saving a split they almost control their own fate (Ole Miss has the tiebreak) because this weekend brings South Carolina to Dudy Noble Field. The Bulldogs have to sweep obviously, but all they ask at this point of the season is a chance.

They still have it. "Maybe this can propel us a little bit," said Cohen. "We have four really big games at home next week and hopefully, this will help us finish strong."

Four games in five days at that. State hosts Oral Roberts on Tuesday at 6:30, and will try to complete a perfect non-conference season. They are 10-0 out of league competition, including the Governors Cup victory over Ole Miss in April which looms even larger now in post-season terms. It might now count towards SEC standings but the RPI points are priceless as State contends for NCAA Regional host rights. Which three innings into Sunday seemed about to vanish, after 3-0 and 10-8 Saturday setbacks.

Though it needs noting in both games the tying runners were on bases and at the plate in the final innings. Third rally-time was the charm, even after a disastrous start with three runs surrendered in the first and third innings and a short starting stint. And it all came about despite not getting hit often or hard.

"We did a lot of things not characteristic of our club," Cohen said. "But the kids never got down, they always felt they were going to win the game. They were not going to let the sweep happen."

By the same token the Bulldogs had no intention of letting the series get away either, even if they were in the most hostile environment facing a squad with likely more on the post-season line than State. This didn't make dropping the doubleheader easier to accept, specifically because of those uncharacteristic items.

"As Coach Cohen would say, we lost our identity," said RF Hunter Renfroe. ID'ing the Dogs was difficult to be sure, as they were stifled on offense in the first loss and gave up—or gave away—too many cheap runs in the second. This certainly wasn't the same squad that had swept Alabama the weekend before. "I felt we were playing good coming in, but baseball is a funny game and can switch on you in a heartbeat," Cohen said.

Yet as noted in each loss State was right in striking range at the end so the potential remained. Sunday it produced, albeit in all sorts of unexpected ways which oddly might bode better for tournament time than simply relying on the usual pacesetters.

Most obviously, in regard to pitching. It has been an erratic few weeks for State starters already, win or not. But at Oxford the three openers lasted a combined 11.0 innings, over half of that from LHP Luis Pollorena with 5.2 turns in game-one. The senior deserved better than a loss with a two-run outing on five hits, not least because he didn't walk anyone…something his peers struggled with. The free bases were more damaging than most Rebel hits, not so much in total—there were 16 walks given total—but timing as they set up the worst innings.

In whole though a combined 9.00 ERA by the starters was recipe for a rout, not just sweep. That State kept competitive was a credit to scrappy bullpen work and batting that fixed some of its flaws en-route and kept making contact. The Bulldogs actually out-hit the home team .280 to .247, nothing new of course as only once this season has State not batted better in a series won or lost. The difference was they had to earn, literally, every one of their 15 runs; four Rebel runs were unearned variety. And no less than 29 Dogs were stranded in 27 innings.

There was little rhyme and less reason to the weekend's offense, with just a couple of Dogs looking ‘hot' over the series. That again is a positive because less-consistent contributors came through in the win, especially down in the order where LF Demarcus Henderson and C Nick Ammirati were excellent examples of clutch swinging. The Rebels were quite careful throwing to Renfroe most situations, leading to a 4-of-12 series and 0-of-4 Sunday.

Though, Renfroe admitted, in game-one he helped the hosts out. His bases-loaded, one-out opportunity to take a lead produced a double-play grounder. Later he popped-out with two teammates on and a 2-0 deficit. Yet what also counts is those were hittable pitches, not chases at all. "I just missed a few," said Renfroe. "I missed a few opportunities when I should have crushed the ball but I saw it well." Which is something else encouraging for a new week.

Besides, "We scored seven with 11 hits and walks, and they pitched around Hunter all day," Cohen said. "He's been carrying us all year but we had some other guys step forward which is really good to see." Renfroe's 15 home runs still lead the SEC and despite an off-day he's very much in the league batting title chase.

SS Adam Frazier was seeing it well too, and went 6-of-14 atop the order. This was a much-sought change of his pace after going 4-of-25 in the previous six SEC games in leadoff. Second-batter 3B Alex Detz didn't hit well yet walked every game, keeping him tied for the league lead in free passes with 42. 2B Brett Pirtle extended his streak of games-reached to 25 by hitting or walking as well. And 1B Wes Rea is regaining his groove with a 5-of-13 weekend, having gone 4-of-12 against Alabama.

Still it is the starting pitching problems that dug the Dogs into holes. RHP Kendall Graveman's issues are the most worrisome; since throwing three complete-game victories the senior has lost three of four starts with a no-decision, and given up 33 hits in 22.1 innings with a 5.24 ERA. Those aren't awful numbers to be sure; just not up to the high standards Graveman has set for himself. And as Cohen reminded, in none of the losses has he pitched poorly. It has been just one delivery here or there that the other team guessed right on that changed everything.

So the old Dog continues to be counted-on in the rotation. Though with this week's advanced series starting Thursday, the scheduling is interesting. Pollorena faced 22 batters with 77 pitches on Saturday, Graveman's 4.1 innings saw 23 batters, thus they are about equally rested. LHP Jacob Lindgren only lasted one Sunday inning, as after two outs he walked two and was hit twice for three runs. Since a 8.0-inning win over Auburn, the sophomore has worked just 0.2, 3.0, and 1.0 innings.

Fortunately the relief staff has risen to most of the occasions. LHP Chad Girodo is emerging as a senior standout. He's thrown in no less than seven of the last ten games, 8.0 total innings with just eight hits and one run allowed against nine strikeouts. He took over with loaded bases and one out and kept it a 6-0 deficit somehow.

The return of RHP Ben Bracewell to his freshman form is also a big boost as he's given up one run in four outings totaling 11.0 innings. Five of those frames came Sunday, the longest stint of his entire career to get his first win ever at State. "You're talking about a senior and a fourth-year junior there," Cohen said, of how down the stretch veterans are striding to the forefront.

"When you have special performances out of your older kids good things can happen." Girodo and Bracewell certainly take some of the load off LHP Ross Mitchell, whose 63.1 innings are more than many a SEC starter. Yet his 1.28 ERA is better than an ace's, if just behind that of RHP Jonathan Holder's 1.19. Sophomore Holder didn't get to save anything over the weekend so he's holding at 13, tied for the season record. Holder did have his 26-inning stretch, going back to the LSU series, of scoreless innings snapped as he gave up three unearned runs in early-game Sunday relief.

Yet that didn't cost a game nor series. And if saving a split wasn't as good a weekend as wanted, it still leaves the Diamond Dogs in reach of their post-season goals. They are already locked into a SEC Tournament berth, but would prefer to watch the first day rather than play the last Tuesday game as a #5 seed…much less be seeded 6th and open the tournament at 9:30am. They thrived in that early slot last year of course, playing six-straight day games in winning the 2012 championship, but were left too drained for NCAA play.

Before hosting the Gamecocks though State has to handle a visiting Oral Roberts (21-28) squad. Game time Tuesday is 6:30, and with an early weekend series ahead Cohen will count on several arms to take care of business and not burn much bullpen.


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