Dogs Set Post-Season Course In Final Series

He's been saying it for weeks, months even, and John Cohen's comment holds just as true today at the sharp end of the schedule. "This is what you want, to go into weekends like this where everything matters and be totally in the thick of it," the Diamond Dog coach said. "Almost every goal we've had to start the year with the exception of winning the SEC is still in front of us."

Right smack in front, in fact. A strong post-season position and potential NCAA host rights are at stake as Mississippi State (38-15, 14-13) hosts South Carolina (38-14, 16-10) on the SEC's concluding weekend. Game times for the annual expedited Thursday-through-Saturday series are 6:30, 6:30, and 2:00 with no telecasts.

Oh, and that ‘at stake' part applies to both competitors. The goals are as similar as the respective records, such as securing a first-day bye at the upcoming SEC Tournament. The Gamecocks currently have that fourth and final free pass, while the Bulldogs are currently tied for fifth with Ole Miss. A sweep, and of a full three games at that, and one Rebel loss to LSU is obviously necessary for State to avoid the pitfalls of first-round, single-elimination play at Hoover next Tuesday.

At the same time both State and South Carolina to all appearances are contending for one of the projected Regional host sites the SEC expects. So somebody will walk off Dudy Noble Field Saturday with plenty of post-season momentum building.

"This weekend matters for many, many different reasons for us and for South Carolina," Cohen said.

Mississippi State has some peripheral ambitions, such as scoring a 40-win regular season for the first time since 1997. And with any sort of crowd(s) this will be the first-ever season with officially 5,000,000 in paid, not actual, attendance. The Bulldogs just concluded their non-conference regular schedule Tuesday night by beating Oral Roberts 3-2, giving a perfect 11-0 midweek mark.

This tight win came on the heels of an emotional Sunday comeback victory at Ole Miss, and an early-starting key SEC series. "It's a short turnaround," SS Adam Frazier said. "It's always good to play, though." And better to win. Ten SEC teams played on Tuesday so State wasn't alone in trying to get into something like a tournament-time rhythm even before it begins.

"We feel we played a very good team and that's something we really needed," Cohen said. "Practicing is great but playing games is better preparation."

In a way the whole schedule has been preparation for both this final, all-important series as well as the post-season. The NCAA doesn't release its official power-ratings figures yet but others with a good feel for such things rate State's RPI 10th-best in the country. Or 10th-worst in a way, as it means a murderous schedule that has clearly taken its toll. The Bulldogs are recognized as having played by-far the toughest schedule in the SEC. A look at the Eastern Division standings and who State did not face proves it.

Yet here they are, still on the verge of top-four status and very much in hosting contention.

"We mention it way too much probably about our schedule," Cohen agreed. "But it's good news/bad news. We have a very strong RPI, the bad is not as many wins as your competition. But if RPI matters and I think it does we should be consideration in many areas for post-season. But, that's not here yet."

No, but what the Bulldogs do, or don't, this weekend will dictate their tourney-time track. South Carolina can relate as they too are setting up for coming weekends. "These are two very evenly-matched clubs," Cohen said.

"They're just really a good club. They can really defend it. I their arms, maybe their numbers aren't as strong as they've had, but they've gotten on a roll. Nolan Belcher (7-5, 2.23) and Jack Wynkoop (7-2, 2.75) are pretty impressive, you know they're capable of beating anybody in the country and they just know how to pitch."

In SEC-only statistics the Gamecocks do pitch it well, fifth-best in the league at 3.24 era with State right behind at 3.44. Strikeouts are almost identical too, yet South Carolina has just 54 walks given compared to 93 by Bulldog moundsmen. On the other side, State has turned twice as many double-plays, 32 to 16, and committed two fewer errors.

There is a little more separation offensively where the Bulldogs bat .269 in league play to .259. South Carolina has markedly better slugging, not on home runs or doubles as much as eight SEC-game triples; something MSU pitchers have to think about in a spacious park like DNF. It's instructive how close the names are to each other in this week's SEC-only charts, or in the case of total bases flat-footed tied.

So when Cohen says of South Carolina that "They're very capable of going deep into the post-season" he should also be referring to his own ball club. The key is winning the best possible position to start from.

State certainly can't say it is going into the last weekend on any sort of streak. In fact recent weeks have seen radical swings, from a sweep at Vanderbilt to sweeping Alabama at home; then dropping a doubleheader at Ole Miss and falling behind 6-0 in the third game. The Bulldogs salvaged Sunday with the best and surely most important comeback of the whole season to win 7-6, so maybe they got the last week started a day early and right.

Scouting the Bulldog batters is interesting as consistency isn't obvious lately. Frazier though does see some signs of who has heated-up. "I guess this weekend you had Wes (Rea) and C.T. (Bradford) picking it up, and I guess myself had a few to drop," the shortstop said Tuesday after the win. "(Alex) Detz tonight. Hunter (Renfroe) hasn't been Hunter like he has the whole year so we're trying to pick him up, he'll come back around and when he does that I think everything will be clicking."

Rightfielder Renfroe has had a tough May stretch, statistically anyway. Yet he still is fourth in all-game SEC batting, 14 points out of the lead; as well as first in home runs by two over LSU's Mason Kat. Yes, we remind, post-season stats count, so a triple-crown is conceivable if Renfroe gets hot at the right time. With Frazier and Detz in front of him now reaching base regularly it is indeed the right time, too.

Meanwhile Rea and Bradford in the five/six slots are consistent again, and in the fourth place 2B Brett Pirtle has a five-week stretch of reaching every game going. What matters maybe more is how other in the middle- and end-orders are coming through. Maybe not in terms of average, but the sort of timely hits that count for more. 3B Sam Frost for one, or either of the alternate leftfielders in righthander Demarcus Henderson and lefty Jacob Robson. Both have extended innings for the top of the order to have RBI opportunities.

The ironic and worrisome twist is State's strength in pitching hasn't been so, well, strong in the second SEC-half. Walks and runs are up to uncomfortable levels from the starters, though Cohen's post-game reviews show things are a lot closer than the linescores look. It hasn't been big breakdowns as much as a untimely miss here-and-there or one ball left in the zone with the batter guessing right.

So the rotation remains as before. Even a much-shorter rest than usual should not impact LHP Luis Pollorena (6-3, 3.86) for game-one Cohen figures. The senior had to start last Saturday due to weather, so "Pollo has two days chopped-off his week instead of one. But in some respects we believe it helps him because he's not going to be amped-up. He has to rely on command and get to the bottom of the zone." Plus a fly-ball pitcher like Pollorena is more effective at home, if the umpire recognizes the low strikes of course.

The one to watch is RHP Kendall Graveman (5-5, 3.00). Since throwing three complete-game wins that got State's SEC season turned-around the right way, the senior has lost three of four starts with a no-decision. A 5.24 ERA in those four outings isn't terrible to be sure, just not what the club had come to expect in that stretch of brilliance.

Maybe too brilliant in fact as Graveman got to liking strikeouts more than ground balls. "I think he ran away a little from his identity," said Cohen today. "If he goes back to being who he is, no more and no less, it's pretty darn good." Good enough to turn an entire series. LHP Jacob Lindgren (4-2, 3.91) gets the game-three start.

Three strong starts is a lot to ask in any SEC series, much less against a clever opponent like South Carolina which makes moundsmen labor. This means keeping the Bulldog bullpen on-call, which they are surely used to. Some of the usual suspects, most notably LHP Ross Mitchell (9-0 and a SEC-best ERA of 1.28 based on total innings) might be showing some strain here at the end. Mitchell has worked 63.1 innings, more than many starters, and lately isn't finding the bottom of the zone as consistently as before. But he should be better-rested by now, especially if he doesn't have to work Thursday.

Where once that would have been most unlikely, now State can call on others in his place. LHP Chad Girodo and RHP Ben Bracewell have stepped to the forefront down the stretch and delivered, not just in straight matchups any more but in all situations. And of course there is rock-solid closer Jonathan Holder, who last night broke the State season record with his 14th save. He is 2-0 in 24 appearances and despite throwing just 39 innings he is 14th in SEC strikeouts with 70. Interestingly, he is one-back of South Carolina's Tyler Webb in SEC saves, so that is another well-matched weekend story line.

And now the bullpen might have produced two more quality set-up arms. CF Bradford finally got to throw again in late-lefthanded relief last night ahead of Holder. The story though was the long-sought return of RHP Daryl Norris. In his first action on the hill since the 2011 Gainesville super regional, the junior shut down Oral Roberts for an inning-plus with a 92, 92 mph fastball and sharp slider.

"That's what we saw in him in high school and I know he desperately wants to be on the field," Cohen said. "It's a shot in the arm for our club. We wanted C.T. to pitch and he did a nice job, and Daryl's outing was special. And we're going to need somebody like that, Thursday-Friday-Saturday and in tournament play."

What the Diamond Dogs do this weekend will likely determine if tournament play returns to Dudy Noble Field this June. Though of course there is still the SEC Tournament ahead to reinforce a case, or two. Not everyone cares it is clear, either about this last weekend or even the Hoover experience. "You'd love to be in Vanderbilt's position," Cohen agreed, of the regular season champions who can mail-in scores between now and site-selection Sunday without a worry. LSU is in a similar state and is already resting pitchers for NCAA play.

Maybe someday State will have that sort of scenario, but for now Cohen likes keeping an edge. For that matter, this is a Bulldog team that has lived on the edge all season, so why change now?

"I look at our schedule, we start with LSU and end with South Carolina! Look at average RPI, ours is 25 and number-two in our league is Ole Miss and almost ten spots behind. It's been a war for us, but that gets you ready for the post-season." Besides, teams that turn it off at this point sometimes can't turn it all the way back on for tournaments.

"They can't get that mojo going down the road. I think we're going to play well, but my hope is the kids put everything they have into the game because they know what is at stake."

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