If things are quiet inside the stadium's sanctum, the volume is certainly high outside. From the moment they returned to a heroes welcome last June, all through fall and winter, talk has only grown about what 2014 brings for Bulldog baseball. Now talking can stop and cheering start as the most anticipated Mississippi State season in a quarter-century opens.
The opening has had to adjust quickly. Cancelled flights from the week's weather made Hofstra's scheduled trip impractical. So Mississippi State scrambled to find another guest, and now Western Carolina will return to Dudy Noble Field for the first time since the 1987 and '89 Starkville Regional appearances. Instead of a four-game set it is three with the Catamounts; 6:30 Friday, 4:00 Saturday, and 1:30 Sunday.
The late change saves this opening weekend for a State team tired of scrimmaging. Though, Coach John Cohen said, "Getting outside three times (last weekend) helped in the evaluation process and helped our kids get ready. So ready or not its upon us and our kids and staff are excited about the opportunity."
This larger opportunity has been years in the building. In fact, reaching the CWS in 2013 was in many respects ahead of reasonable schedule. Not so much because the team wasn't capable, but that there were still uncertainties and the schedule was simply brutal. As it turned out a vicious slate prepared Cohen's fifth Bulldog ball club perfectly for post-season pressures, which is how a 16-14 SEC team was 51-20 overall despite a top-tier schedule strength.
For that matter, State fans and equally foes understand something about Cohen's program: this is about the last team anyone wants to see in their tournament bracket. Any tournament. They have won at least one post-season event the last three seasons and in '13 made it two with both the Starkville Regional and the Charlottesville super regional. Then those Dogs reached the best-of-three round for the whole NCAA crown, the farthest advance ever by a Bulldog ball club.
Now, the '14 squad is clear that their goal is to win the only tournament title missing from the program's resume. They just don't see need now to say so. It is understood, Jonathan Holder explains.
"It kind of puts a ‘vibe' in the older guys because we know it's possible. It's our goal, it's real, it's there. But we know how hard it was to get there and get to the national championship game. So we know there's a lot of work between here and mid-June."
Hype and hoopla, epitomized by consensus top-ten or top-five ranking, will make it hard for fans to be patient. They certainly recognize much of the roster with 19 lettermen and five redshirts back, joined by one of the best-rated recruiting classes ever at State. To be sure no program automatically replaces the losses of first-round draft outfielder Hunter Renfroe, or an Adam Frazier who may well have been the best all-around shortstop to wear the uniform. And catcher, so key in how the pitching and defense are schemed here, shows no game experience at all.
Yet results of prior recruiting and development ease most of the transition, especially on defense which returns lots of proven gloves. For that matter Rea's reliable presence on first base would make an average infield look good…and a good infield look great. This one should be good to begin and better by SEC season.
Fall and preseason scrimmages certainly showed how senior Alex Detz has developed as a third baseman. His fielding and throwing, solid enough last season, were even more fluid and confident now. "I definitely feel I've come a long way. It was a little more than a year ago they first moved me to third, I'd never played there before! It's been a fun transition."
Detz's senior stability allows touted freshman Reid Humphreys to develop at his own rookie pace as a backup third baseman and likely the future first baseman which seems a more natural role. Not that Rea ever wants to take a seat, but prepared backups are always good and Rea's injury history makes it wise too. Freshman Dylan Ingram has been the other starter in scrimmages, and of course Detz can handle first base with no hesitation.
Shortstop is much more competitive and any honest middle infielder admits that is where he wants most to play. This is the opportunity Matthew Britton has sought and based on scrimmage work the backup second baseman is up to the move over. He's been smooth and efficient fielding either side of the second sack and has the strong arm as well. At the same time juco transfer Seth Heck has made impressive intrasquad fielding plays too, maybe more dramatic even. Indications are both will take turns at shortstop all pre-SEC season and in the end their bats will determine which gets more innings.
Their fielding prowess means Brett Pirtle, who assuredly can and does hit, stays at second base another season, though he'd love a shot at short himself. Pirtle was the under-appreciated key in turning so many of State's record-setting season for double-plays in '13. Sophomore Kyle Hann backs Pirtle and can sub at short as well, making the whole infield truly two-deep.
Catcher, is four-deep. For practicing that is, with a quartet of candidates and none who has received a single live college pitch. Junior Zack Randolph has all the unit's experience at State and that as a redshirt last season. He did parlay this advantage into scrimmage starts and at this point stands—or crouches—to take the first pitch of the new season.
From then on it's wide-open for a few weeks. "All of our guys have competed well, they all bring something different to the table," Cohen said. "Randolph has really improved as a pitch-caller, as a blocker, his arm has come a long way. (Gavin) Collins just keeps getting better every single day, just a great receiver and he's starting to make some adjustments offensively. Cody Walker probably has the best arm in the entire group. And (redshirt Daniel) Garner can really hit, he's probably the best hitter."
Which could well end up the deciding factor after the corps shakes out in coming non-conference weekends. Cohen jokes that combine the quartet's tools and "you have a first rounder! But each brings something different and I think there's going to be a lot of opportunities early to find out whose going to end up being that guy." Or guys, as a two-catcher system has worked well in recent seasons.
If the infielders expect to see some alternative lineups early on, that's nothing compared to the guys farthest from the plate. With four veterans and some outstanding new talents here, the outfield is almost too well-stocked. So, "We'll probably do some matchup of our outfield," Cohen said. Not just to match at the plate but against opposing offenses with their hitting tendencies to be covered.
The constant should be senior C.T. Bradford, who showed most of what he's capable of in playing a full season at last. Avoiding injuries let him start 68 times in centerfield and provide a sure glove and steady leadership. The ‘most' reflects that his often-interrupted career has kept Bradford from becoming a complete batter, but that is expected now as he ought be peaking in all aspects.
At the same time Bradford is also expected to serve some late left-handed relief pitching again, maybe even more than in '13. Instead of running a pitcher out to center for a couple of outs before Bradford returns, senior Derrick Armstrong can step in and stay. Or even start outright. "Derrick might be one of our most-improved players," Cohen said. "He's come a long way as a defender and his arm has gotten better. And even his base stealing ability is really improved." Which is a scary thought since Armstrong is a marvelous base-runner already, maybe fastest of the whole SEC.
Replacing the most all-around gifted outfielder to wear a Bulldog uniform since the 1980s would intimidate many. Not Demarcus Henderson. He's spent four years making the transition from infield to outfield and last year was getting a real grip on leftfield. So what does Henderson do now but make a bid for Renfroe's rightfield job. And it is working out for the senior.
"Demarcus has come so far and he's really embraced the opportunity to play rightfield," Cohen said. "And rightfield at Dudy Noble at the end of the day when the day the sun sets is hard. I know that for a fact because I failed out there miserably at times!" The former high school quarterback's arm comes in handy on this corner. Soph Jacob Robson has taken scrimmage turns in right too, while for now odds are rookie Brent Rooker will be redshirting.
Robson is more experienced in leftfield and is bound to take some turns there. Based on fall and preseason games though transfer Jake Vickerson has to play. He fields well, throws better, and had one of the hottest scrimmage bats. Redshirt Cody Brown made some great fall-ball catches too, and should be a solid swinger as well. His situation is uncertain after tweaking a hamstring last weekend.
Overall then, "I think our outfield is as competitive as any in the country," said Cohen. "When you look at the collective speed and the arm strength and the offensive capabilities of all these kids, it's pretty remarkable. I don't know if I've ever coached a collection as skilled as this group, but you can only put three guys out there."
An excellent challenge, of course, and including the infield these skills shown over coming pre-SEC weeks will settle positions naturally, if Cohen has his way. "It's not because we're wavering, you want your players to force you into that."
Opening weekend does force some decisions, most obviously involving pitching. Somebody has to open every game and as expected righthander Brandon Woodruff is supposed to get the ball first. It's not a surprise based on both his scrimmage throwing since return from last April's elbow surgery, and just that he worked the first games in intrasquad weekends. "Just what we've been timing-out to do," Cohen said.
At the same time Woodruff ought be poised for a breakout junior season. True, he only worked seven games with six starts last year and opened midweek games. For just 18.2 innings. Yet the potential is so clear and some figure Woodruff can be the next Chris Stratton-type ace here, albeit from the right-hand side. So he has timed turns to get this opening opening. "I think he's earned the start," pitching Coach Butch Thompson said.
Which isn't saying Woodruff or any starter is asked to dominate and go the distance. Not yet. When it was a four-game weekend Cohen was counting on eight 'starters' in combined stints. Now he and Thompson are revising such plans. Either way, "We're not going to roll somebody past 70, 80 pitches," Cohen said. "We're really going to try to prepare two starters with each ball game to get a really good evaluation of who we're going to end up being those three guys on the weekend when we start into league play."
Were this revised series to go as planned then Woodruff will throw the first 70 or so and then a long reliever or even starting candidate take over. Such as loose-limbed lefty Ross Mitchell who can go either way in combination with a righty like Woodruff. RHP Ben Bracewell—"He's been around as long as I have it seems like!" Thompson jokes—has been Woodruff's counterpart in scrimmage games and is certainly a starting choice.
So is Trevor Fitts, another righthander whose tools are such that Thompson likes him against both right- and left-side batters. "And Preston Brown was the pitcher for the fall," the coach said.
More fascinating is the chance two freshmen have of cracking the rotation right now. Austin Sexton and Dakota Hudson came to campus with high expectations already. Now in spring scrimmaging the rookie righties have only increased them, and their starting stock as well. "They're advanced freshmen," Thompson says in standard understatement. Cohen is a little more openly enthused after their final intrasquad.
"They did a great job controlling the running game, throwing to the bottom of the zone, throwing a second pitch into the strike zone, fielding their position." Meaning they don't throw like usual freshmen. Sexton has worked in the high 80s with movement while Hudson clocks mid-90s routinely. Their debuts depend on how the first couple of games develop, Cohen said.
"We'll see who we don't use the first two days and go into Sunday." Which at some schools would put pressure on the relief staff. At Mississippi State, that pressure falls on the other team's batters. And as Cohen said, "When you have a strong bullpen you have to use it."
Not many pens are as packed as this one, even with some graduations. A key move was taking potential lefty starter Jacob Lindgren and making him a reliever. "He's been phenomenal for us," Cohen said, who foresees using Lindgren in long relief, in set-up, even in outright closing situations. Mitchell of course can throw often as necessary, and newcomer Lucas Laster is another lefthander in the mix pending final roster choices.
On the right side Will Cox looks to be the counterpart to Mitchell, not in style for sure but in consistent availability. Myles Gentry has been groomed for that middle role as well, and John Marc Shelly looks to have turned that proverbial corner in time for the third-year sophomore season. Thompson hopes to have talented transfer Paul Young back to speed after a juco injury sometime in March. And this is barely half of the twenty preseason pitching prospects. State scheduled all these four-game weekends to get everyone possible the work.
"You feel there's enough pieces," Cohen said. "I'm not sure who is going to be the perfect piece, we just have to line something up and go play a weekend and go from there." Though there is one pretty perfect piece backing up everyone in Holder, already the program record-holder for season and career saves.
"At the tail-end it doesn't get better than that," Cohen said.
Offense? That's a tough topic for speculation, especially in this era of high-seam balls and neutered bats. An era it should be noted that Mississippi State adapted to better than most with emphasis on ground-ball and line-drive hitting to make base; bumping and running around bases; and constant pressure on fielders. Renfroe's power potential was an exception to the rule, same as was an unusual and even weird batting order.
Intrasquad games didn't blow up the scoreboard much, Rea agreed. "It may be frustrating for fans to come watch scrimmages because not a lot of runs are scored," he said. "But long-term it's helping us a lot, because we're facing some of the best pitching you're going to see in this league and we know that."
In turn, the Bulldogs appear committed even more to contact and running. Lots of running. "I think we are planning on stealing a little bit more this year," said Detz, a prime candidate to hit leadoff. "And I'm excited about that because we have some guys that can fly." Detz and Pirtle epitomize the get-on-and-go approach with their knack of making first base some how, some way. Bradford has hit first in his career, then sixth a lot last season, and can fit anywhere else as well.
Rea is the obvious power potential even if he prefers driving in his runs with well-placed singles and doubles. Still this is his year to impress scouts and Rea would like to add a few homers to the total. Others have some pop, such as Humphreys and Garner.
But as to looking for the one ‘clutch' batter, Cohen goes against the grain. "It can be your nine-hole guy in the third inning with two on and two outs, that's where the game is and it has to be won right there. So Wes can be a force in the middle and he has tremendous power. But I think he has a chance to be one of a collection of guys who can hurt you if you make mistakes."
Thanks to fast staff footwork in finding a replacement opponent, frantic fans will get to see the first act of a greatly-anticipated 2014 drama which can only end happily in Omaha. "At the same time we have to hold it together, it's a long season," said Cohen. After all, the CWS isn't won on Opening Day.
"We have to take it one game at a time and take it slowly," Holder said.