Club, Coaches Working On Early-Season Issues

It's probable the next round of national polls will include Mississippi State. It's more likely that the Diamond Dogs themselves won't care. Outside opinions are suddenly irrelevant for a ballclub seeking their own answers. "Just going back to the drawing board," said Jake Vickerson. "I don't think it's time for us to go in there and feel sorry for ourselves."

There being the Mississippi State locker room, sanctum for a squad following an entirely unexpected week of struggles. Three losses in five home games leave the Diamond Dogs 4-4 and sure to fall from the top-ten perch assigned them before the schedule began. Admittedly, winter polls are an unreliable forecast of February scores, as has been proven far beyond Starkville ten days into the season. These Bulldogs only need check their own 2013 example of how high an unranked club can climb.

But this team has done more sliding so far, and in ways which raise honest concerns from those in the State fan-fold. Of course, "That's the great benefit of playing in a program where people care," Coach John Cohen said.

He was speaking after a 6-1 thumping by Holy Cross, which shook off two losses to split the four-game weekend. Combined with a Wednesday loss to Memphis, the Dogs are off to the slowest start since the 2008 team was also 4-4. But that team had few if any expectations.

This one does, or more precisely still does. "Because it's still early," said junior outfielder Vickerson. "I don't think it's time to freak-out at all, we're still mixing things in and out, we're trying to find what we need to do to get a win. And I'm very confident we're going to start getting it done."

Or as fellow outfielder Jacob Robson said. "Everybody has amazing tools here, and if we use them to the best of our ability the sky is the limit to our success."

Such tools haven't been displayed often or efficiently so far. To be clear, even optimistic fans aren't surprised at some struggles. Especially so on offense where replacing a record-setting bat in leadoff and a power provider or at least threat in the middle wasn't going to happen easily. If at all. To some extent pitching was supposed to need a little time to shake out with an entire rotation to find as well as mid-week starters.

The surprise, even the shock, has been on defense. In a four-game stretch nine official errors were assessed, and more than enough other plays went un-made which would cost Dogs dearly. In fact, that the record wasn't worse or margins wider spoke to the club's competitive approach. Then came a one-error Sunday which wasn't really competitive from the start.

Cohen's capsule comment? "The game is beating us right now. I say that all the time to our players."

What the game is finding are flaws inherent with incomplete rebuilding. Defense ought be the fastest to fix though this will require some close and risky calls. The schedule was written to play a lot of guys in a lot of games in a little time. Opening week weather cut one date from the schedule and brought a tougher test than intended in a good and proving so Western Carolina club. Memphis and Holy Cross weren't supposed to push State so hard.

But both came in swinging aggressively, putting balls in play which found vulnerable players. Not just new ones but even veterans have eaten errors already, guys who have made great plays on the biggest stages. The elders will be fine once in season-synch. Otherwise, "We have a lot of growing pains going on," Cohen said. "We have some young positional players who are doing some really stupid stuff." Harsh but reasonable, since the gaffes come on things State practices. And practices, and practices again.

From all sorts of examples Cohen picked one Sunday situation; two on, one out, and a bunt to the mound. Freshman Vance Tatum had a force at third base for the lead runner, looked at it and hesitated before firing back to first. It did get an out but left two in scoring positions…which they did on the sort of head-pounding play which test team hearts. The ball, off John Marc Shelly's pitch, was pounded to the turf. Because a runner was at third Brett Pirtle was rightly charging the ball, yet it took a high hop and skinned off Pirtle's desperate reach. Two runs scored and the game might as well have been over already.

No errors were involved, just a fundamental failure that led to a back-breaking inning. Combine other such examples with the real errors and the problems grow greater. Or as Cohen repeats, "The game will find you. And the game has found a lot of the guys who are not ready. And, it's some of our older guys. We have to figure that out."

The figuring accelerates as coaches review the eight games. In fact Cohen saw some situations clarifying even during Sunday defeat. "I learned a little bit about our left-side defense," he said. "We're learning a little bit about our pitching staff and the roles we're going to have to have, who can do what. And we've learned a lot about catching this weekend. I think that's one thing that came out of this weekend; we really have a good handle on the catching."

That's an interesting comment since over the weekend different backstops were tried. Cohen didn't call a name; what he said about the position was "It's really positive even though catching a freshman (Gavin Collins) a ton is difficult, because there's so many things he's not experienced.

"But we knew that coming in, that it would be a difficult thing for us when you lose two seniors who caught every game over a two-year period. It's a big hole to fill even more than a Hunter Renfroe or an Adam Frazier."

Which is the best indicator of how vital the receiver is, in conjunction with a revamped mound staff. Even the two wins weren't resounding successes for pitching as the second weekend saw some likely-natural sputters. Especially for frosh Austin Sexton and Dakota Hudson who both struggled.

For that matter older if not all-that-seasoned staffers often weren't so sharp either. Short starts did, unintentionally, put relievers in stressed situations early and often, and that is useful in its way. At the same time more opening innings is the goal from Brandon Woodruff, Trevor Fitts, etc. This week will particularly pressure the staff with a Tuesday/Wednesday set against Mount St. Mary's (Maryland).

Cohen didn't say what was learned about left-side defense, other than being reminded just how great Frazier was. After giving Matthew Britton first chances, fellow second baseman Kyle Hann started Sunday. He had the game's only official error too, but at the same time made most routine stops and throws and even a few fine plays. Juco Seth Heck made a late Sunday appearance as well. Third base also seems somewhat in flux unless of course veteran Alex Detz is given his job full-time. Rookie Reid Humphreys is learning that corner too, though Hann and Britton are the likely defensive moves.

There is no deadline for picking the best left-siders that Cohen is giving. Nor for corner outfield jobs which have been mixed-and-matched as well. Cohen affirmed that through ten days "We're giving a lot of opportunities to people. The good side of that is you're involving a lot of people early in the season.

"The bad part of that is I think we have a lot of people pressing. You have your four or five regular guys who are playing every day, and then the other four or five every time they get on the field they kind of make it into a tryout. That's the benefit to playing nine guys. But the problem is you can't block-out the rest of your club when they deserve opportunities as well."

A touchy situation to be sure. But this is why coaches have jobs. "So we'll get to a point we have more of a nine-man lineup. But it's early in the season, we feel some other guys have earned some opportunities."

The same balancing-act applies at what to fans is always the surest sore spot. State isn't scoring runs, which isn't exactly new. But the Bulldogs aren't even batting effectively with a .251 average. Ironically there are runners reaching bases, early and often. This just emphasizes lack of steady swinging because the left-on-base total has already hit 76. And that's with just six stranded on Sunday. Epitomizing the frustration was the end of Detz's reach streak after an impressive 30 games over two seasons. The Bulldogs were nearly shut-out by a Holy Cross staff that isn't on sports scholarships.

It was ironic, in a bitter way, when Saturday's games went split; State winning 8-4 early and losing 7-6 late. Because 1B Wes Rea had his breakout day, slugging a pair of two-RBI homers in the win and a go-ahead three-run shot in the loss. Defense and pitching breakdowns negated his biggest blast.

"I felt good today," said Rea. "It feels good to get the swing going and watching your plan work."

The price was not seeing many more good pitches in other turns, though it took a great running reach by the Crusader centerfielder to rob Rea of a late Sunday RBI. Vickerson and others say good contacts end up in gloves, which has been a frequent issue so far. The small positive for the second weekend was fewer strikeouts, so maybe better is in store on offense.

In fact, "I'm walking out here on Friday and somebody looks me dead in the eye and says what is wrong with Wes Rea," Cohen said. "I remember thinking that guy might get five or six hits tomorrow and hit three bombs. That's exactly what happened! So it can change."

Not that the coach wants his order swinging for fences; futile upper-cuts against Memphis earned maybe the worst insult possible when Cohen talked about "softball swings" when State stranded a full dozen runners. A single timely hit would have iced a victory, just as Saturday evening.

Or just a caught pitch Wednesday. Closer Jonathan Holder located it for a strikeout but it got through the catcher for a free base…and turned into the tying runner as well as a bigger Memphis inning that won the game. Of such narrow margins are February losses made for a team which expected so much of itself. And, still does.

"It was a little of a slow start but it's only been a week," Robson said. "We've got a bunch of great hitters and we're doing all we can and sticking to our tools."

Cohen is sticking by his roster, regardless of age and experience. Effort is not a problem, in fact at times Dogs are trying too hard at bat or on mound or in field. And work must pay off in time. "So we just have to cure it all because those guys are the future of the program," Cohen said.

Speaking of future… Another fact of a fan base that cares is awareness of the longer picture. It's exaggerating to suggest fans are fearful of the post-season. At the same time State folk know what these early losses may mean come June when it is time for seeding and even more important siting. Swapping Hofstra for Western Carolina is a net-SOS and -RPI gain. Memphis looks a competitor in their conference and Holy Cross is projected to win theirs.

At the same time, ambitions of a national seeding (top eight) and super regional rights have already absorbed some serious shots. It will take a lot, a very lot of SEC wins to undo this damage, which puts even more importance on properly picking lineups and orders in the coming non-conference weekends. Yet at the same time truly testing those means using lots of players which risks cohesion and consistency…and more losses.

A challenge? Absolutely. Yet also opportunity to re-start the pre-SEC season in a better way with seven home games in just nine days. And as Rea said, "The hosting thing is not on our minds." So let fans worry about June, the Diamond Dogs are focused on finishing February stronger and gaining March momentum.

"These kids will keep competing, we'll keep getting better," Cohen said. "And we'll be a different club a month from now than where we are right now."

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