Eastern Illinois and Michigan State open the event at 2:30 with the Bulldogs and Spartans playing at 6:30. Saturday is a twinbill day for the home team, and times have been changed at the last moment. State faces Eastern Illinois at 1:00 now, with a rematch of the two MSUs at 4:00. On Sunday the morning game is Michigan State and EIU, with the latter staying for a 3:00 finale against State.
The forecast is far friendlier for the Classic days than what the Diamond Dogs, and Mountaineers as well, endured Wednesday with wind-chills and literally freezing windchills. Cold conditions aren't unusual of course in any early season, and Coach John Cohen had it worse in his years at Kentucky. Still it was just another challenge for a State squad that has had some frustrations already.
So building on Tuesday's romp was another encouraging step. Plus, trite as it seems to fans, how the team handled discomfort impressed the coach. Cohen had actually weighed cancelling the second game for the forecast cold, but was glad it got played and not just for the W. "You have to be so dialed-in, and I'm really proud of these kids."
With this just the second full week of the season there is no aspect where the Bulldogs aren't seeking improvement. But for all the emphasis Cohen rightly places on pitching-and-defense first, the bats have had everyone on edge in the early going. As the coach himself said after opening weekend, "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."
All correct and mostly expected. Sluggish swinging against both Memphis and Holy Cross still amped-up a few anxieties. So to knock Mountaineer pitching around for 25 total hits and get almost every Dog involved at the plate was welcome progress. Not that Mount St. Mary's has the sort of arms that State will soon see in SEC season.
But as SS Seth Heck said, "Hitting is contagious"…a phrase familiar to long-time State fans of course, but still just as true. For the two games Dogs not only batted better overall but were 5-of-13 in two-out settings with 11 of the RBI coming on such contacts. "We needed some offensive production like this early in the year just to get some confidence going," said Cohen. "It's been a productive two days for us."
The twist to this is that win or lose so far Bulldogs have been reaching base. In bunches. No less than five times already State has batted-around in an inning, with runners reaching on hits, walks, plunkings, errors, any way available. The problems have come in the ‘RISP' category, because through the first eight games 76 Dogs had been left un-scored. A single, well, single more in three of the losses would have reversed the outcome entirely.
So MSM was a welcome cure for some offensive ails. When the Dogs got to hitting they didn't stop. And in regards to not stopping there are batters who've been delivering. 1B Wes Rea has a RBI, or two or three, in nine of ten games to-date to lead the SEC with 19, and has reached base in all contests. 2B Brett Pirtle has a ten-game hitting streak going of his own. And while his reach-streak ended at 30 games on Sunday, 3B/DH Alex Detz—now hitting down in the latter third of the order for a change—has started over with two more games.
State has shuffled the order a good bit through ten games, more reflecting lots of lineup tests still taking place as the best defensive combinations remain to be established. LF Jake Vickerson seems ready to take leadoff for his own, with platoon-RF Cody Brown another option. Juco transfer Vickerson has moved atop the stat sheet with a .393 average and is tied with RF Demarcus Henderson at eight runs scored. Henderson's .350 hitting has been marked improvement too, and both he and Vickerson have worked for six walks. So CF C.T. Bradford (.267) has moved up and down the order almost on a by-game basis. The stable spots are Rea (.306 now) in third and Pirtle (.341) behind him.
Strikeouts remain an issue with an average ten per-game so far. Cohen certainly wants a better ratio of walks, 39 in ten games though 15 Dogs have been drilled too. Plate-eyes ought get sharper with more at-bats but that means settling on a consistent group of players used. Cohen said this week results from the two wins will help make the still-close calls about primary and backup roles.
"We got a lot of people involved, and it helps as we get through these first there weekends to make key decisions on what the rotation is going to look like in terms of who is going to play." Foremost are shortstop, where after barely seeing the field the first eight games Heck has started twice. "We've been waiting the right matchup to get Heck in at shortstop," Cohen said. "I thought he did a great job. I think he's going to be a really good player for us."
Heck understands. He has a senior in Matthew Britton who earned his chances for this season, and another veteran in Kyle Hann who can make the plays. "There's so much depth you can't put everybody out there. It's not that you're not good enough or don't have the ability to be successful. You just have to stay ready."
Catching might now be shaking out after a couple of full weeks' work. Or maybe not. Freshman Gavin Collins has six starts, including Wednesday's win; with three for redshirt Zack Randolph and another by transfer Cody Walker. Cohen has commented favorably on them all at times without tipping any hand, much less indicating what receivers handle certain throwers better or not. So those two jobs, as well as potential platooning positions in right and left fields, are watched every time a new lineup card is submitted.
"It has to be very delicately managed," Cohen said. "So we're going to keep playing a lot of people early even thought it might cost us a little bit. It's going to make us a better program and a better club."
State has tried plenty of pitchers already, including initial stints by bullpen Bulldogs Zac Houston and Lucas Laster this mid-week. "Houston his first time out there I felt he did a great job, he's going to be a great one before it's said and done," said Cohen of the righthander. For Laster, "We're really trying to get him in that left handed relief, middle-to-late type of role. Butch (Thompson) has lowered his arm slot and he's somebody that is going to help us."
It's too early to declare RHP Ben Bracewell has been booked for mid-week work only, though he's started twice in that role with a win. The weekend rotation is not established by any means either and an upperclassman like Bracewell has to be considered again. "My whole focus is not trying to do too much, I get in trouble when I start trying to overpower guys," Bracewell said Tuesday. "It's staying in control and spinning the baseball, letting it do its work."
As expected, RHP Brandon Woodruff (1-1, 4.05) will get the ball for a third Friday. These past two Saturdays RHP Trevor Fitts (2-0, 2.31) has taken the next start with freshmen righthanders Austin Sexton (0-0, 0.00) and Dakota Hudson (0-1, 2.57) following. It is still a little early to claim a rotation has been settled, though Fitts is staking a good claim and the two rookies are keys to the future. Woodruff still hopes to be the lead-Dog and as he continues recovery, still only ten months removed from elbow surgery, the potential improves with each outing.
Star closer Jonathan Holder (0-1, 2.25) will be watched closely when he enters this weekend. A finger-tip problem has taken a little edge off his stuff in three appearances. He's struck out six with no walks but has also been hit and hard enough at times. Preceding the right-handed stopper, lefties Ross Mitchell (0-0, 2.45) and Jacob Lindgren (0-0, 0.00) are fitting in fine in long or matchup relief. And while there have been a few walks issued, this staff overall leads the SEC in strikeouts rate.
It always happens this time of season; what seems a long pre-conference period for grading guys and groups suddenly looks a lot shorter. It might stretch things to suggest Mississippi State is feeling urgency going into the third weekend. More likely the Diamond Dogs and their coaches know the clock is ticking towards SEC season, and for that matter next weekend's big-test trip to Arizona. A 6-4 beginning was not what anyone expected, either.
"But I'd rather start off slow than end slow," said old Dog Mitchell. "So I think we're good where we're at."