Diamond Dogs Review For Busy Second Week

He certainly enjoyed sharing the moment with the full family. John Cohen would just preferred eldest daughter Jordan not drive 700 solo miles from college through iffy weekend weather to be there for the big win…his 500th as a head college coach. Though what this number says in the bigger picture?

"It means I'm a lot older than I thought I was," Cohen said, following Sunday's 7-2 Bulldog victory over Western Carolina. "When I was younger I heard many coaches I look up to say that just means you're getting old. I would laugh; now it happens to me."

And anyway, the Mississippi State coach was more concerned that his team exit Dudy Noble Field having won both that game and the series. Which the Diamond Dogs did. After coming up short at the end of a 3-2 loss in Friday's season opener, they thumped the visiting Catamounts 6-1 and 7-2 to make sure of a winning weekend. One which might never have been played too. The same east coast weather which would have had the dad concerned had he known daughter was driving in from Virginia kept originally-scheduled opening opponent Hofstra from coming to campus.

Cohen and staff did some fast phone-footwork to find possible replacements also looking for make-up dates. Western Carolina was and accepted the offer, even being bussed by MSU Transportation to town. The downsides were playing just a three-game set instead of four; and hosting a much better competitor, the defending Southern Conference champions and runaway preseason league favorites.

The Catamounts proved up to the challenge with the game-one win and made MSU scramble for the two wins. It wasn't how the preseason top-five Bulldogs wanted to begin, but "Sometimes you have to tip your hat," said OF and game-two hitting hero Jake Vickerson.

"I thought Friday got away from us a little bit," Cohen said. "But that is a 40-win team over here and that's not who we started out on the schedule playing. But I think they taught us a lot about where we are as a team and that's what you want your first weekend to be all about."

As for fans already flustered by a non-conference loss so soon, a look around the country showed over one-third of the Top 30 teams in one poll also lost at least once. That count included #1 Cal State Fullerton and #2 Virginia, defending national champs and #8 UCLA, and more. The worst weekend of all belonged to #7 Indiana as they lost a series to unranked Texas Tech. So for #4 Mississippi State to get scratched early wasn't unusual for this 2014 season already.

Besides, "We're not worried about expectations right now," said 2B Brett Pirtle, whose three-run triple was the big blow of Sunday's win.

As for what Cohen expected from the opening series and for a club with so many lineup and rotation questions to answer, it went about two-thirds to plan. First, "The story of the weekend is how well we defended the field." The Dogs did that, handling 108 total chances without a charged error and five double-plays turned. One of those came on maybe the play of the series, after WCU touched freshman pitcher Dakota Hudson for a solo home run to lead off their Sunday fourth. With a runner on base via plunking the rookie right was tagged for another deep drive to the same area.

RF Demarcus Henderson made a perfect angle-and-run for the reaching catch on the track, and saw that the runner was already between second and third base. The relay throw was high but C Zack Randolph covered it and threw back to first for the unique twin-killing. No, Cohen said, they don't practice those sorts of plays.

But "We practice running to get that ball the way Demarcus did. I thought we had some really nice plays in the outfield. C.T. Bradford makes it look easy and Cody Brown had a difficult ball against the wall. We have six guys who can really go in the outfield and getting them all opportunities is a challenge right now." The others are veteran corner outfielder Jacob Robson who played twice as a substitute; senior Derrick Armstrong with one start in three games besides his base-running duties; and Vickerson, who started the first two games and batted leadoff both times.

The infield was consistent with the same quartet as came out of preseason forecast to start. 1B Wes Rea and 3B Alex Detz were obvious for the corner jobs, and Pirtle is back at second sack. The addition is former second baseman Matthew Britton, now holding down shortstop and playing it without a hitch the first weekend. This doesn't mean in upcoming games others won't take turns, especially in the middle where juco Seth Heck keeps pushing Britton at short. And while he did starting DH duty one game and pinched another game, freshman Reid Humphreys has to be tested at one of the corners sooner or later.

It's still very early and heavier tests remain. In fact Hofstra was scheduled to test how a brand-new catching corps (of course in conjunction with the pitchers) would handle a running team. Western Carolina isn't one but did execute all three of their steal tries. So that remains TBD. Otherwise though starting backstops Zack Randolph and Gavin Collins handled the receiving duties just fine, and their pitch-calling was praised by the pitchers. On top of that Randolph slapped a pair of hits in seven chances with a walk and a RBI at the bottom of the order.

So, save for controlling runners, the defense passed its first series test completely. The pitching also scored high with one obvious exception. And it wasn't lack of skill that made RHP Brandon Woodruff's opening night start short. Cohen figured that after the long comeback grind Woodruff was a little over-amped to get going again. His velocity was solid but location lacking in 1.0-plus innings with four walks, a plunking, two runs scored. Yet he also struck out three good batters, so there is no sudden panic over this expected rotation regular.

More encouraging was work by the other two starters. It's still too early to establish any ace but RHP Trevor Fitts looked line one in game-two. It helped he'd seen the other order of course but Fitts showed up big with 11 strikeouts in 6.0 innings, only one run on seven hits and two walks. He was forecast to be strong against lefthanders and indeed was as WCU used an order with seven south-side swingers and paid for it.

"We'd been working on that a lot and that was one of my problems last year," Fitts said. "Just different pitches I can throw to them. And my catchers have been working hard for me." Collins caught Fitts on Saturday. Sunday, Randolph was back to receive true freshman Dakota Hudson. ‘Impressive' is understating the rookie righty's debut.

It was just 51 pitches since State didn't want to push a brand-new arm too far. Plus, Hudson gave up his one run on that solo shot in the fourth and was tagged hard by others. But a four-hitter with two strikeouts against a good order this first time out? That sends a message. So does Hudson's comment, "I'm hoping to mix it up a little bit more next time and do more pitching than throwing." Because while he hammered the zone with fastballs of 94-96 (the stadium gun reads a little high) and an 87 slider, Hudson really was just throwing. When he becomes a true pitcher, that is a SEC ace in the making.

Or it could be his fellow rookie righthander. Austin Sexton tops out a little below 90 right now but has more movement. He had two scoreless innings with two fannings in a relief debut Sunday. Had a four-game set gone off as originally planned RHP Ben Bracewell would probably have gotten a starter. He settled for relief work to get the year going this time and wasn't entirely sharp, but that reflects lingering rust from his long, tough battle back from early-career injuries. There are no worries about the senior and he ought to get a start in the coming weekend.

Long relief is in good hands, especially when one is Ross Mitchell's left hand. He was nothing but brilliant entering so early Friday, lasting a career-long 8.0 innings with seven strikeouts against six mostly-scattered hits and a run. Such a showing might have some wondering if the old southpaw should be a starter, but Mitchell has no fears for the planned openers.

"You expect Woodruff to go 6, 7 innings and we expect him to do that the next time," Mitchell said. "He's worked so hard to prepare and he's 100%, he knows it. It was just one of those days for him." State tipped the hand in other areas, with Preston Brown as the first right-side reliever and Will Cox entering later. And Myles Gentry didn't even get a chance to chuck the ball the first weekend, that will come soon. Jacob Lindgren will be the left-handed match man and even get to close games out if they work out that way, while LHP Vance Tatum entered for the last Sunday out. And of course there's that #14 always ready in the bullpen late. Fittingly, the first Bulldog win of '14 was saved by Jonathan Holder, 31st of his record-setting career.

So defense and pitching gets good grades off the first test. Offense? A .207 average isn't exactly a flying start. To be fair the Catamounts were not only a very veteran pitching staff with good stuff and three good starters, one who would be prized by a SEC program. They played much better defense than anticipated including two eye-opening infield stops.

At the same time, Cohen saw some stresses. "The kids are in the dugout looking around at each other saying are we ever going to score? And in baseball those things can play mind games." Also typical of baseball, when just one high drive by Cody Brown went off a WCU glove for a RBI double in Saturday's fourth inning, attitudes turned entirely.

"We finally got some balls to fall for us and create a little bit of offense," Cohen said. Then Sunday the home team was more in attack mode against a veteran pitcher and rattled off five third-inning runs. The first RBI required a bases-loaded plunking, naturally of Rea; but it was a smart first-pitch swing by Pirtle that scored three and effectively settled the series.

Interestingly, that big hit came with Pirtle's return to the cleanup spot he swung in the second half of 2013. Does that matter? "Not really, I'm just going up there in situations where they have runners on base and swinging." And realistically the ‘order' is not an early-season obsession for Cohen and club. The one constant was Detz in the two-slot, where he had just two hits but also walked four times. In the process Detz extended his game-reached streak to 26, and counting.

Leadoff was split with outfield subbing, as Vickerson batted first in games one and two with Brown on Sunday. Bradford has resumed the mid-order assignment begun midway of last season, and matched Pirtle's 4-of-11 opening weekend. Rea had the most deceiving stat-line to those who don't understand his knack for clutch over average. He RBI all three days, five total on just two hits and a plunking. With empty bases he was hitless, an exchange State gladly accepts.

"We just needed to back up our pitchers because they did real well this weekend," Pirtle said. "We started off a little slow hitting but we got better. It's promising. The pitchers are doing real well and we're having good at-bats so overall it was a good weekend. And we're going to keep getting better."

For that matter a dozen of the 15 runs scored came on two-out contact. It's a system that can work but is certainly stressful with little leeway. Plus, even against a stout staff, 33 strikeouts on opening weekend was a lot. WCU fanned 34 times, by the way. Offsetting the Ks were 23 walks. "We did not have a great offensive weekend," Cohen said. "We were out of synch, out of rhythm."

"We have a lot of new pieces offensively that are just trying to figure some things out. We saw really good arms and did not compete well offensively. But we got the big hits when it mattered. And we did a nice job with the strike zone creating some walks and some pressure. Our bunting and short game needs to get better. But the bell cow is the defense and the pitching and when that shows up we've got a chance to win every ball game."

The chance for Cohen's 501st comes Wednesday afternoon against Memphis (6:30). With a four-game weekend ahead, weather permitting, this is when the staff needs innings for evaluating. "It forces you to have a fourth starter and we'll have that next weekend," Cohen said. "We don't know who we're going to pitch on Wednesday. But it's fun for our guys to have those one and two innings in the middle of the week instead of having to throw a bullpen."

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