State Picky On Pitching Matchup With Hoosiers

OMAHA -- Now that he knows the opponent…John Cohen still isn't ready to declare who will throw first against them. At least not as of 7:00 Sunday evening. But at some point Mississippi State's coaching staff has to set their starter for Monday's matchup with Indiana in the College World Series.

"We've got three candidates" was about as far as Cohen was willing to commit. The Mississippi State coach was speaking on Creighton University's field where the Diamond Dogs were having a Sunday late-morning practice. The session—a mix of some infielding drills, a good bit of batting cage cuts, and some tossing by pitchers off to a side—served parallel purposes.

First, to "get the kids moving around" after their thrilling 5-4 Saturday victory over Oregon State to open this College World Series. The championship tournament's nature allows a day-off between first and second games, and either two or three more before the third contest. So Cohen and peers put a premium on keeping their teams in some sort of routine during the days-off.

The Hoosiers were following the same sort of system by the way; their practice at Jays field began as soon as State's ended. Both were taking advantage of a genuine Missouri Valley Conference facility instead of settling for a high school field.

State's second plan was that just watching the Bulldogs put through some paces reinforces notions Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson are assembling in advance of the 7:00 winners bracket battle. The leading candidates for this crucial contest, which will leave the winner on a very fast track to the CWS finals, are obvious enough in LHP Luis Pollorena (6-3, 4.32), RHP Trevor Fitts (0-0, 2.42), and RHP Ben Bracewell (1-1, 1.48).

Only senior southpaw Pollorena's numbers resemble those of a typical Series staff starter. But of course there is little typical about the Mississippi State rotation, such as it is. Often as not the starter's real job is to burn enough innings, and keep the Bulldogs ahead or close, before handing the ball to a slam-dunk relief crew. Still somebody must throw the first pitch.

And Cohen, at least as of this writing, wasn't saying who, though tentative hints would seem to favor lefty Pollorena against Indiana's batting order. Maybe.

And maybe not. For that matter these Hoosiers, the Big Ten champions and 2-0 winners over Louisville on Sunday night, might make such left and right matches a little irrelevant. Certainly Cohen, who watched the broadcast, and aides who attended the game for direct scouting, are impressed.

"It's a good offensive club," Cohen said. They are, with a .304 season batting average and .449 slugging rate; numbers that demand respect in this era. Certainly Bulldogs can admire 53 home runs hit in 63 games, compared to State's 29 in 67. Yet the Hoosiers work for walks as well, and have struck out only 366 times. Bulldogs have fanned much more often, 418 times.

"They're powerful, they've got some bats," said RHP Jonathan Holder. "Just from seeing them play a couple of times on TV they can hit."

Cohen also has seen a squad that will play the short game, both straight sacrifices or bunting to reach. "And boy, they've got some power in the middle of their lineup. So we're going to hope the wind is blowing in, and do what we do." Meaning, pitch at the bottom of the zone—or try to, especially if Pollorena does get the start—and cover a lot of defensive ground.

Speaking of which, Indiana provided the early surprise of the Series when Joey DeNato went a complete-game win and shut out favored Louisville. "Just brilliant," Cohen said. "He seemed to get better as the game went on. They're going to minus-one guy on their staff for Monday." As in only minus-one since DeNato saved the Hoosier bullpen entirely.

Indiana is expected to put Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Aaron Slegers on the hill. And he won't be hard to find; the third-year sophomore stands 6-10, 250 pounds. His record is equally outstanding at 9-1, 2.13 with 54 strikeouts in 97.0 innings, and he was the #140 overall draft pick a week ago, by Minnesota.

Indiana's staff ERA is 2.63 with a .247 average-against. And they've only lost 18 balls long this season.So for all the attention given Hoosier offense, "I think they're a really good pitching and defensive club," Cohen said. "I think they're going to show a little bit of everything. Obviously they showed pitching, they defended it well. Every part of what they do was really solid."

There are some common opponents involved here. Both teams took two-of-three from Florida, though the Hoosiers did so in Gainesville and in early March. Each beat Alabama-Birmingham once. And both lost at Kentucky. Indiana did so a single game on May 14, while State dropped a series in early March.

"They're not a fluke," Cohen said. "They went into one of the most difficult places in the country to play at Florida State and swept that series. And look what they did last night. So I think they've shown they can win in a variety of ways."

So, how does Mississippi State pitch this versatile team? As Cohen said, "There is a lot of ‘gut' feel to it. But you also like to know how this club has done traditionally against lefthanders and righthanders. That kind of stuff helps."

This is the first-ever meeting of these programs. The winner is off until a Friday bracket championship game; while the loser faces the survivor of Monday's Louisville-Oregon State game on Thursday.

"That would be awesome, to get another win here and our pitchers have another day to rest," OF Hunter Renfroe said. "It'd be great to go ahead and get that other win Monday. But if not we'll have to battle back and compete our hearts out like we always do and get back in the winners bracket."

WIDE OPEN SPACES: The first day's action featured some fine contact, some excellent defense, steady to great pitching…and a lot of interesting baserunning calls and choices by everyone. Though every time there is an out at the plate, this doesn't mean sending someone was a mistake. For that matter a couple of rundowns in both games were due much more to automatic reactions by runners, who couldn't know the ball was headed for a glove.

Cohen certainly saw such stuff on the TV as Indiana and Louisville scuffled with each other. "What an incredible game. How many guys are going to get thrown-out at the plate, pickoffs, every single conceivable thing that could happen in a game, except the home run. I don't know if that's going to be a big factor in Omaha."

Not so far. The closest anyone came to departing the yard was Oregon State's Danny Hayes driving one to the rightfield warning track, caught by Renfroe to end the game. Replay made it seem Renfroe was crossed-up by the fly ball; he said otherwise.

"I was just trying to get to the wall and get to the ball as fast as possible," he said. Renfroe also said that as impressive as the drive looked going up, he could tell the ball was fading fast just as other high hits have in Ameritrade Park.

"Because if the ball does get in the air it is not going to carry. That one ball that got over C.T. (Bradord)'s head, the line shot was hit really hard." And not lofted either; Bradford did get a good break but the angle was just too low to catch-up with. Fortunately, as explained in Sunday's Notebook, Bradford saw it bounce over the wall and fan-fence for a ground rule double instead of caroming back into play for a likely RBI triple.

The first day also showed some contrasting outfield philosophies. The evening game saw players at medium depth at most, and often—as commentators said—closer to infield dirt than the warning track. "I've never seen outfielders play as shallow as they were," Cohen said. Mississippi State did position its trio deeper than others, something they can afford with the sort of range Bradford, Renfroe, and Demarcus Henderson possess.

Even then the Bulldogs aren't exactly camped-out on the warning track by their season standards. "It's playing like a big ballpark, so we're playing shallow," Renfroe said. "We'll take oru chances getting burned rather than balls landing in front of us."

Fans, naturally, obsess more over the chances of being burnt. And in obvious end-game situations the Dogs do have their ‘no doubles' defense with corners hedged and outfielders deeper. Mostly though they are more biased towards running in to rob singles. Counter intuitive, maybe?

Not to Cohen. First, conditions favor this scheme. "It's kind of a weird thing, what I'm seeing is the ball is going over the head; then hitting a brick-wall and stopping. As a defender you're running full-speed and the ball just stops on you." Besides, his Bulldogs are used to playing in a largish home field as well as pro parks at Pearl and Hoover. They can get back deeper if necessary, most of the time. The other times, well, those drives would likely land anyway. It's all a calculated risk.

"You have to play shallow because 90% of the time you're getting beat in-front of you, and you certainly don't want to get beat," Cohen said. "But this ballpark dictates you play in."

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT: During Sunday's practice State went through a selection of infielding defensive situations; not all since the session would only last about 90 minutes. But one scenario was specifically included: the three-one field and flip.

The same play butchered in last Monday's frantic ninth inning against Virginia, when RHP Jonathan Holder was to cover first base as 1B Wes Rea fielded the left-side bouncer and relayed. Holder lost his angle to the bag, then his footing and fell on the flip, letting the Cavaliers get within a run with one out left. State did finish that one off successfully of course.

And they can laugh about it now…and did. In practice Rea had a fungo sent his way with Holder dashing over. "Yeah, you can do it!" shouted assistant coach Tyler Bratton, as Holder indeed executed as designed.

Rea's response? "Dog-pile!" he called out. Not that anyone did of course.

During the workout, a few batters naturally were attracted to Creighton's reachable fence. Not Rea, though he'd put on a longball show in Saturday's pre-game batting practice with launches over leftfield. Instead Sunday he did as he had in the game itself, settling for line-drive singles to the left side and gapper-drives to right.

HOT DOG: No, ‘hot' isn't an adequate description of what SS Adam Frazier is doing at the plate these days. This Dog is sizzling with four multiple-hit games in a row. That includes his record-tying six hits against Virginia in game-one of the super regional when Frazier went 6-of-6.

In these four games he has batted 12-of-20 with four runs and seven RBI. It is just a part though of a longer scorching stretch; for his last 18 games Frazier has hit 39-of-87, a .449 rate.

And of course he was able to write his name atop a mighty impressive list Saturday. He collected base hits #103 and 104 of the junior year, giving him the Mississippi State season record all alone. He tied Brian Wiese's 1998 mark with a leadoff double in the first inning; then surpassed it in the fifth inning on an infield single to the left side.

"It feels really good, I guess," said Frazier to score the season standard. "I wasn't really thinking about it, especially when I tied it with that first at-bat. But really all I cared about was winning the game. I guess to get the record and a win make it even better."

CRUNCH TIME, PRIME TIME: The second half of SEC season didn't go as Renfroe hoped offensively. Yet neither did a slow offensive stretch hurt his professional stock. The junior was drafted first-round and 13th overall, by San Diego.

Renfroe's play here in post-season has affirmed the Padres' opinion. In the SEC and NCAA tournaments, Renfroe has hit 18-of-52 or .346 for the eleven games so-far. This compares to his .226 average in the last 17 regular-season games, 15 of them conference contests.

And he is on a seven-game hitting streak for that matter. What has made the difference here at tournament time?

"Mostly a relief, to get everything done with. To relax and just play baseball again, not to worry about anything. But its been a lot of fun and I just keep grinding it out as long as possible."

Once the season is done Renfroe can get busy negotiating with the Padres, in advance of the July 12 signing deadline. Oh, as for his academics, he is two semesters from a degree after three years of college. "I'm on schedule."

AN ELITE CLUB: Mississippi State is playing for only the fourth 50-win season in program history. The best season was a 1989 team that went 54-14, yet did not reach the College World Series. The 1985 and '90 teams both won exactly 50 games, and each finished the year in Omaha. Cohen played on both the '89 and '90 squads.

MORE NUMBERS: With his next save, Holder will tie the career record of 29…in only two seasons. He has closed successfully 19 games this season, already a record…2B Brett Pirtle has a 40-games-reached streak going into Monday…and LHP Ross Mitchell continues his perfect season record, now at 13-0 with all victories in middle- or late-relief.

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