Fall Ball Opens Friday For Diamond Dogs

It's sort of ironic. They've spent weeks upgrading both strength and condition for just this fall-point, and suddenly several Diamond Dogs are sidelined. "A lot of our kids are battling flu stuff," Coach John Cohen said Wednesday. "So it might be a sparse group to start out the official part of fall."

Some bodies might be weakened, or recovering from more serious situations. But Mississippi State spirits are still strong as full-team practicing and scrimmaging begins this weekend. Cohen and staff will have the fall semester squad on Dudy Noble Field together for the first working-time starting Friday at 2:30. After two hours of drills and practices, a scrimmage begins at 4:30.

Saturday, following a 10:00am ceremony with the grand old man of MSU baseball, Boo Ferriss himself, there will be a 11:00 practice and 1:30 scrimmage. This also is part of Homecoming activities on the MSU campus. Sunday's schedule is10:30 and noon.

As Cohen works into his sixth season as head Diamond Dog, he welcomes 19 lettermen and five redshirts from the College World Series finalist squad. They are joined by enough scholarship freshmen and transfers and walk-on additions to make up a 43-man roster for fall ball. It will be trimmed to the NCAA limit of 35 players, 27 on aid, in time for opening day 2014.

And what makes it easier for the coaching staff is that the fall regimen is set up to do the trimming with lots and lots of direct competition. Cohen is a serious believer in the worth of scrimmage games and he has scheduled plenty, as well as set them up to imitate SEC weekend series and line midweek games.

"We're excited about this," Cohen said. "Our kids are ready to play intrasquad games because they've been doing so much drill work, and strength and conditioning. So this is the fun part for them."

The fun has been delayed a week longer than originally planned. "It's a little later than we're used to," Cohen said. A whole week later in fact, as installation of the artificial turf sidelines and backstop pushed team practices back to October 11. That construction is complete now, and results in cleaner and much easier to maintain boundaries to Dudy Noble Field. "Which is going to make our lives a lot easier," said Cohen, who himself likes to water the grass main playing surface after most scrimmages.

What makes team work right now a little harder is the flu bug working through the locker room, or true injury cases. RHP Ben Bracewell had a foot procedure in July, and delaying camp has helped make him available perhaps as early as the second week. RHP Brandon Woodruff was lost mid-season to have a broken elbow bone fused, which should fix a nagging condition.

He may not get to scrimmage, but "His bullpens have been fabulous," Cohen said. "The ball is really coming out of his hand well, he's done a great job on his rehab." When doctors give the go-ahead Woodruff will face live batters. LHP Ross Mitchell is out all fall recovering from a hip injury. 1B Wes Rea reports his hip, hurt in the championship round at Omaha, is healed.

Out for this weekend is 2B/SS Brett Pirtle but not for physical health. "He has to go home and watch his brother get married!" Cohen said.

"We have some nagging things that are keeping us from being full-strength right now." This is not any reflection on how much stronger, and toned, the fall team is after six fierce weeks of workouts. It is nothing new for old Dogs of course, but the eldest of them has been impressed with what all those newcomers have achieved in the Seal Complex facility.

"We have some kids that are just unbelievable," said Rea, who certainly knows his way around a weightroom. "We have guys who've blown through it like they've been here four years, absolutely crushing the weights and conditioning stuff. That's a credit to the coaches finding guys who can handle that."

The top coach in-turn credits Rea, Mitchell, and other seniors for setting a squad tone whether in the weightroom or during the four-man drills leading up to full team camp. Not surprisingly Cohen likes mixing veterans and rookies, regardless of age, for pre-fall. Results are already showing, he said.

"It'd be hard for them to work any harder than they did a year ago! But we do have tremendous leadership on this team. Even some of the guys who didn't play a tremendous amount last year. So we have some guys we feel are doing a great job leading this club, especially positionally."

Positions are what fans most want to watch when everybody lines-up this weekend. Specifically, at the three spots in need of refilling. The most obvious need is where the graduations of Nick Ammirati and Mitch Slauter leaves a huge backstop hole. Cohen is confidently predicting "a battle behind the plate" in coming weeks. "And we feel we have several good candidates. Our returning guys have gotten a lot better and the two new guys in the fold are very talented. We have a lot of competition going on behind the plate and each brings something different to the table."

Redshirt Daniel Garner, for example, "is probably the best hitter out of that group but he's come a long way behind the plate. (Zack) Randolph is a really solid guy all-around, no jump-out at you tools but a great leader and been around some great catchers. (Freshman Gavin) Collins we feel is the future, but how quickly can he? It's kind of like football, how qiuickly can the freshman quarterback step on the field and have things not moving too quick for him. (Transfer) Cody Walker can really catch and throw, that's his strength."

The trick will be getting all four catchers enough scrimmage catches, and at-bats, in the coming weeks. Because Cohen wants to see them all as often as possible. "I haven't counted anybody out and it's exciting to see who is going to step forward."

Somebody has to step forward, or over, at shortstop as Adam Frazier has taken great glove, as well as his school-record 107 base hits last season, on to professional ball. It isn't just competition going on in the six-hold, but decision-making by the coaches whether to shift a proven second-sacker like Pirtle. "Although he's coming off some elbow issues he must have addressed before we can move him to the left side," Cohen said. There's also issue of taking an all-conference caliber second baseman out of place, though like any honest middle-infielder Pirtle would love taking over at short.

"It's really tough with Pirtle because you just don't want to move him form a position he excels in," Cohen said. "But we feel we have four really strong candidates to play shorststop and second base." Sophomore Kyle Hann, a true speedster on the paths and packing a potent bat, is one; transfer Seth Heck is another, having already shown he can hit at the juco level and make the plays. And the best pure defender of the lot is junior Matthew Britton, who Cohen said has been great in pre-fall work.

Rea has first base well covered of course, with 3B Alex Detz his backup if needed and freshman Brent Rooker working at first as well as outfield. An on-base machine like Pirtle, Detz is a good choice to lead off the '14 batting order. And, Cohen said, "Detzy has come a long way defensively at third base. Reid Humphreys is a freshman who you know is the future."

At third base he means, though his plate potential might make that future a whole lot closer. Still, "He's 15 months off hit Tommy John surgery, how quickly he can progress is going to determine how much playing time he's going to have." Cohen is not averse to giving Humphreys a Hunter Renfroe-like freshman season, of 20-25 turns batting, which might seem a waste to fans but makes lots of sense long-term since he will be draft eligible in three years anyway.

Speaking of rightfielder and three-slot hitter Renfroe… "I don't know if there's ever been a player in the history of this program like a Hunter Renfroe," Cohen said. Not just in his hitting but the defensive range and arm-strength, which produced a #13 overall draft selection last June. Taking Renfroe's power and average, as well as Frazier's stick contributions, out of any offense is a blow. "So those are going to be difficult guys to replace but certainly we feel we have very good candidates," Cohen said. And defensively there is no lack of outfielders already in the system, centered literally around senior C.T. Bradford…who pitching coach Thompson is seriously thinking about working into a weekend starting role as the lefthander in a right-side heavy rotation.

Demarcus Henderson and Jacob Robson have battled in leftfield for a full season already and both plan on playing this season, while newcomer Jake Vickerson and redshirt Cody Brown didn't come here to just watch. The most exciting contender isn't new; it's just that Derek Armstrong has scarcely scratched his potential as an outfielder, batter, and baserunner.

Though on paper just three starting jobs are ‘open' from the '13 squad, realistically Cohen is emphasizing competition everywhere from everyone this fall. "We need our older guys to be older guys, the key to winning in this league is older guys step forward and say its my turn." At the same time, rookies like Humphreys and Heck are getting every opportunity to cut-ahead in the time-line if they can win the position battles.

Which isn't as simple as it sounds, most of all at the plate said the coach. "Can they see the spin of the ball, can they read the breaking ball, can they have quality at-bats? How fast is the game moving for them? It's certainly easier in the outfield because the game doesn't get to you as quickly as it does in the infield and behind the plate."

On the mound, the health of Woodruff and Bracewell is a factor as both are up for weekend starting jobs. And starting pitching was the one weakness, by comparison purely, in State's College World Series repertoire. So it is a priority again in fall ball. Trevor Fits, Will Cox and Preston Brown are more righthanders in contention, while State is toying with taking starting lefty Jacob Lindgren and having him fill the frequent left-side relief job done by Chad Girodo. But just toying for now.

In a talk two weeks ago Cohen tossed around other starting candidates, like RHP Paul Young who had juco World Series success and earned a draft call. Avery Geyer, Austin Sexton, Zac Houston, and Dakota Hudson are more righthanders in the mix immediately, with Vance Tatum the newest southpaw. They will get their live innings in the coming weeks along with all-star stopper Jonathan Holder, though fans need remember that when and where a guy throws in a scrimmage doesn't necessarily indicate his projected role. These coaches prefer to have specific pitcher-hitter-defense matchups in scrimmages rather than starters, relievers, closers, etc.

One Diamond Dog pitcher who knows his place this fall will stay busy despite his sidelining situation. Mitchell has some serious work of his own planned, as his Bench Mob also has an open job. The graduation to pro ball of Evan Mitchell leaves a gaping hole in this unofficial-yet-vital group of guys who take responsibility for team attitude. Yes, R.Mitchell said, campaigning has begun by eager wanna-be Mobers.

"The whole fall is going to be a tryout and it's going to be some tough shoes to replace, but we'll do the best we can," he said.

Somewhat more seriously, Mitchell also agreed that this is a very different fall camp. When all Dogs report to Dudy Noble Field Friday, it will be their first formal time together since returning from Omaha with a trophy. A very nice one too, which now sits in the Champions Room corner for all to see. It just wasn't the trophy Mississippi State really wanted to bring home.

This memory is what has put more emphasis on a strong fall session, Mitchell said. "We've all tasted it. Once you get there you know what it takes, and I think we have the same talent this year to get back there and hopefully finish it off."

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