And as outfielder Armstrong said, club confidence is renewed.
"I'm really proud of our kids," Coach John Cohen said. "We needed this weekend, we needed to get back winning balls games, getting some confidence."
Every bit of faith will be needed, and tested, by the week ahead. Mississippi State not only hosts an old rival also feeling fine today, but for the first time leave home field. The Bulldogs head to Tucson for the Hi Corbett Classic, played on the field of the same name and home of Arizona's Wildcats. Joining the SEC and Pac 12 club will be UC Santa Barbara. State will face both on Friday, UCSB at 3:00 (ct) and Arizona at 8:00. There are single games Saturday (Arizona 8:00) and Sunday (UCSB 6:00).
And Cohen wasn't even ready to think about the weekend after wrapping up Sunday's 9-0 win over Eastern Illinois. "We're' going to be really concerned about a great South Alabama club," (6:30 Wednesday). The Jags not only know the Bulldogs but Dudy Noble Field as well, having played here in last June's Regional. South Alabama has given State many a fine contest over the decades and won their share and won't come to campus intimidated.
"They just went and beat Arkansas twice and that's one of the most difficult places to play in the country," Cohen said. "So they're a hot ball club."
The Bulldogs are pretty warm for their part. Everything was better in the Diamond Classic; team batting up by over sixty points, staff ERA down impressively, and no errors charged in four games with 152 fielding chances. The latter mattered since in a stretch of three losses from five games nine errors occurred and other breakdowns.
Also, despite their records—which reflect ambitious scheduling—the Spartans and Panthers weren't pushovers at the plate or in the field. They made MSU work for everything, and enough worked to win out.
Some solid Classic averages resulted. CF C.T. Bradford was off to a slow senior start but hit 5-of-8 in the two games played. He missed two more with a muscle strain that was being protected more than anything. Cohen expects the center-piece of the outfield defense back this week. At the same time, when backup Armstrong came to the forefront it proved the depth of this unit. The other senior had three hits in four games, two starts; drove in two and scored five times.
Armstrong was also 5-of-6 on the paths, with a four-steal night against Michigan State which tied a program record dating back to 1981 (Brad Winkler). "I just tried to go up there and stay with my approach, line drive and ground balls. And everybody knows I can run so I try to use my speed on the bases."
That speed is well-known and nets intense interest from defenses. In fact, Sunday when Armstrong took off for second on a full-count pitch the throw came down. It was a ball so no tag would count…yet Armstrong paused on the paths, the Panthers chased, and from third base OF Jacob Robson darted home with an accidental but successful ‘steal'. The play was not at all called but reflected how State's active runners impact opponents.
"Certainly it puts a lot more pressure on the pitcher," Cohen said. The speed helps the person at the plate get a better pitch to hit. We like having runners, especially in a ballpark that's going to play big."
Other Dogs do steals too. After three weekends LF Jake Vickerson has affirmed the faith placed in having him bat first each game. He hit safely six times in the Classic, made all three steals, and handled the field fine. His .370 average is best of the every-day Dogs thus far. Senior OF Demarcus Henderson has been reliable at the plate in the lower part of the order, while 2B Brett Pirtle delivers in the four-hole. He had a rough Sunday with three ground-outs, but on the fourth time came through with the RBI-single that sparked a seven-run inning.
Offense still has much to prove against quality pitching of course. And there are some frustrating numbers; 1B Wes Rea at .289 with 13 strikeouts, though the big Dog also has 14 walks and five plunkings. Clutch is better than constant for the #3 man, but when Rea's swing gets in synch the offense can really take off at the top. And 3B Alex Detz has proven he can hit when it counts, so a .224 start isn't worrying anyone yet.
The larger point is that this is still an offense and order taking shape. "It's a little different," Armstrong said. "Everybody knows we don't have Hunter Renfroe on the team. So we have a lot more speed this year and we've still got Big Wes to hit doubles for us."
While the weekend was about further progress for the 2014 team, there was an unavoidable aspect of looking to the future. Because lots of it was on display. Freshmen came to the fore on the mound, in rookie righties Austin Sexton and Dakota Hudson; at the plate in Reid Humphreys and Daniel Garner; or behind it even with Gavin Collins, who is staking a claim as primary catcher.
Certainly in the Saturday game-one "Gavin was spectacular," Cohen said. "He's becoming the person we think he can be, he's a really skilled player. But playing catcher in the SEC as a freshman is like playing quarterback in the SEC as a freshman." Even with seven starts already Cohen won't concede this competition is over with Zack Randolph and Cody Walker.
"I think all three of our catchers this weekend have done a great job. All three of those guys are just feeding off each other and getting better."
Collins came up big with the bat in the Classic, as did Humphreys with a game-winning infield single against EIU and no-doubted home run against Michigan State. The power potential was obvious as a high schooler; what makes that first college shot more impressive was how Humphreys wasn't even looking to go long. In fact, he said it was the same sort of swing he made on the crunched grounder that knocked down the Panther shortstop and scored the walk-off run—Collins by coincidence.
"Just middle of the field, try not to get too big. A single is the first thing on my mind, I'm not trying to do any more than that." But if he, as Humphreys called the homer ‘runs into a fastball' it is going to go a long way very fast. Still the DH job is getting crowded as redshirt Garner is showing his swing potential too, and when Humphreys takes a turn at third 3B Alex Detz must stay in the order somewhere.
Certainly there are first choices for pinch-batting roles too. Garner came up big on Friday night with the clutch at-bat in State's comeback. "You sit for three hours in the cold waiting to get an opportunity against a lefthander," Cohen noted. "He gets it, and he comes through. That's the kind of thing that can propel you forward. He has bat speed and power and really understands the strike zone."
However the order shakes out and shapes up, "It's definitely fun to be able to go out there and at least have a role or something on the team," Humphreys said. "I know I'm not going to be out there every day. If my number gets called I just have to be focused and go in there."
Even the head coach can't resist thinking over the horizon a bit, certainly on offense. "There's going to come a day when you have a Collins, a Humphreys, a Garner and those guys in the lineup, with a different baseball that is going to travel a little bit more. That's exciting to me."
In the case of Sexton and Hudson the future is here. Sexton's work was "Dramatically better" to Cohen as he came at the strike zone first, and then did it with all three of his pitches. "And he got to both sides of the plate. It's exciting because he is somebody we're going to need." Hudson offered some further excitement by going into Sunday's sixth with no runs scored. He did have batters reach on hits and a couple of walks to be sure, but Hudson is working with more than heat now. Cohen noted how his fastballs were finding the zone glove-side better, and the off-speed was going for strikes too.
With a big weekend ahead and SEC season to follow there is incentive to set some sort of rotation soon. Though, midweek starts must also be accounted for, a task falling to Ben Bracewell so far. Now though, Cohen is adjusting. "I think we push Benny back to the weekend playing four in Arizona. For now probably we'll be leaning toward pitching Preston Brown Wednesday." That is a tough task for sure given how hot the Jaguars are after their Arkansas trip.
"So I like playing all these games, because you really get an accurate depiction of who these guys are," Cohen said. "And I think we have some really good candidates."
While catcher has a full corps, shortstop might be shaking out. Especially if juco Seth Heck can have more .357 weekends with three RBI and two runs. This was after he began 2-of-9 in four games, two starts once give his chances. Cohen did note that Heck had been swinging well in those games, "He just hadn't gotten any hits. He's starting to get in the flow and get some hits." At the same time veterans Matthew Britton and Kyle Hann aren't eliminated at all.
The time for making such close calls is coming though. Cohen is working a fine line still, giving deserving guys chances and then more chances when they produce; without consigning anyone to the bench yet. Plus he has another week before making the first 27-squad selection for the opening conference weekend, at Georgia.
After splitting with Holy Cross the MSU coach said he'd learned some things about the individual players that would factor into who started and subbed in week-three. A Sunday later he said the same thing, but with a much merrier mood.
"I think we've learned a lot. I think our kids are playing a little bit more relaxed and we're having better ABs. we're a little more in rhythm defensively. And hopefully we'll be able to catapult a little forward after a weekend like this."
The Bulldogs themselves go into the toughest scheduled week so far much more optimistic than before. Even if it means leaving home, said Hudson. "We can't wait. It's going to be fun, a good test for us. We're going to do our thing and hopefully come back with a couple more wins."