For all Cohen's program has done the last three seasons, or more accurately post-seasons, starting SEC play has not been productive. Until now. This was the first time since 2009 a State squad has won its first conference series, whether home or away. That it came on the road might not matter in end-of-season calculations…but it is very, very encouraging for a Bulldog ball club that had shown some unexpected fragility to begin 2014.
And after Friday's opening loss, which displayed the same struggles on offense and starting pitching, concerns were that much greater. Cohen even said on-air that having to play two, as it turned out most East Division hosts ended up doing, was a further challenge since it meant a midweek starter who'd thrown very well could not toss if needed in relief.
What he told his team was probably different than anything said on radio. That was reflected in Cohen's post-victory comment. "We looked deep in our souls and found out who we are," the head coach said. Now, "I really believe we're close to getting on a roll with this club."
If so, the Diamond Dogs will have to wait a few days to keep it rolling. After playing the normal crammed pre-conference schedule and an initial SEC weekend, State's slate slows with no midweek games. Next action waits for Friday as another East rival, Vanderbilt, comes to campus. Friday's 6:30 game is for CSS telecast, Saturday is also a 6:30 start but for ESPNU; and Sunday is the normal 1:30. The Commodores will come in with their own healthy momentum after taking two from LSU, at home, in their own opener.
By the same token, if Georgia wasn't ranked the other Dogs were on a great big roll under new management. "You're playing a team that won ten in a row, they're a hot club," Cohen said. "They had a ton of confidence coming into this series." As well as some history on their side, since Mississippi State hadn't won a series in Athens since 1997. When the home team took Friday's debut, and the visiting Dogs struggled in most aspects, the trends weren't encouraging.
Cohen was. More to the point, he made some moves that had been considered for a couple of weeks but were delayed by the need to evaluate everyone. With the first series in the balance buttons got pushed and things worked well enough. Which is not at all to say the same plans will hold for next week, next month, much less the rest of the schedule. There is still lots about this ball club still to be established.
But winning a road series—which from 2009-13 only happened five times for State—is exactly what these Dogs needed. Doing it on opening weekend? So much the better.
Speaking of opening…the most obvious Saturday change was pitching. Not that a true ‘rotation' had been established in pre-SEC weekends, of course. What had been settled, supposedly, was how priceless LHP Ross Mitchell is for long-relief. Really long relief, which made him a ‘hole card' for Coach Butch Thompson if usual starters struggled. But after another Friday fall-behind the coaches made the big move. And Mitchell delivered; not just a good start or official quality start, he threw the first complete game of his college career needing 129 pitches to do it.
Mitchell tossed a four-hitter and while challenged plenty of times with multiple runners he stranded all but one and rolled double-plays as needed to prevent real rallies. A week after absorbing his first college loss ‘Rosterphobic' is now the most amazing 19-1 in program history. In the process he might have set a tone for a SEC season.
"You can't say too many superlatives for what Ross did to a pretty good offensive team," Cohen said. So, Mitchell (3-1, 1.50) is now established as a starter, right? Maybe, because his off-speed stuff is most assuredly not what SEC aces use and sometimes umpires aren't impressed as 11 walks shows. Then again, save only for Chris Stratton in 2012 Cohen's clubs have not had a true ‘ace' or even an obvious Friday fellow of any sort. So why not this crafty lefty? In fact, Mitchell's impact on an opponent might be bigger than a single game.
"He's the kind of guy who could destroy (hitters') timing for a week," Cohen said. "That's why we decided to throw him out there first (Saturday), because we felt he was going to compete and disrupt some timing." Which would sound like a fine Friday idea, eh?
Plus, while he ended up moved-back a game (albeit on the same DH day), RHP Trevor Fitts looks exactly like the sort of Saturday starter Cohen prefers. Fitts (2-0, 3.55) isn't overpowering either but after seeing Mitchell's movement a mid-80s Fitts fastball must look like 95. Fitts got the game-three win, and now has a staff-best 31 strikeouts against just five walks.
Though he took the Friday loss, RHP Ben Bracewell (2-2, 2.38) didn't pitch badly at all to a hot home team and was a defensive play or two from being in contention a longer time. So the senior isn't out of this picture at all. Thing is, the picture is a little more crowded. Cohen's concern about a twinbill was not having RHP Preston Brown for short Sunday use, after the sophomore slung a superb Tuesday start of 8.0 innings to shut out Southern Illinois. Because there is no midweek game between today and Vanderbilt, suddenly Brown is a candidate for weekend starting. Most likely, on Sundays.
"We're searching for that now so it's great to see Preston come out and do things like Kendall Graveman could do," Cohen said, referring to controlling the ground game, defending the mound, and rolling lots of ground-outs. "It helps that we don't have a midweek," said Cohen. "He would be a candidate for sure."
And while he did not throw last week, RHP Brandon Woodruff is not forgotten. Cohen says the junior is too gifted and too close to "a major breakthrough" to ignore, though close in baseball can look like the width of a field. "He hasn't executed as much as he's wanted or we wanted him to, but he's just such a great worker and so talented. There's no doubt in my mind he will make a big jump before its all said and done."
For now the fact is that the team simply trusts the older, more proven pitchers, as to be expected. Cohen saw it when Mitchell started game-two, then when LHP Jacob Lindgren and RHP Jonathan Holder entered game-three to seal success. "There's such a vibe in the dugout when those guys are on the mound." Lindgren didn't get a decision for his excellent relief stint, while his four outs earned Holder the second save of the season and 32nd career.
"The numbers are pretty staggering when we have leads in the 6-7-8 innings," Cohen said. Yes, a 94-1 record when leading into the ninth is pretty staggering. So, "Our kids have real confidence. But that doesn't mean we can't come from behind."
Far better though to have a lead, and get it early. Both wins came after State scored first and for all the emphasis on pitching-and-defense at State nothing boosts confidence like putting up runs. By no coincidence, Cohen noted that in the twinbill "We just had a much better day at the plate, we played with more confidence and attacked more."
State was 22-of-98 for the series, not a great average to be sure but after lifting too many Friday fly balls the offense got back to business Saturday with contact that made the defense make plays. Or, not. Nine walks helped greatly, and compared to preceding weeks 14 strikeouts in 27 innings was real progress. Plus, there were three multi-run innings Saturday thanks to timely hits that had been missing. For that matter the ninth-inning run to give Holder a 4-1 lead for protecting was something sorta new too, adding insurance for a change. "That one extra run changes the nature of the ball game," Cohen said.
The hot or at least hotter Dogs were at opposing ends of the order and not every game. Just one, in fact, as 3B Matthew Britton returned to the lineup for game-two. It was for defense since Mitchell produces lots of grounders to the left side and Britton had that handled. But when he went 2-of-4 with three RBI and two runs, it was more than gravy. It really changed the entire game as Georgia couldn't handle him hitting in the nine-hole. Britton had just two hits all season going to Georgia in fact, then showed how valuable a veteran can be in SEC order.
Britton only batted in that game, though he played defense in the third contest. Up in the two-slot, the guy he replaced suddenly regained his stroke after a 0-of-18 slump. 3B/DH Alex Detz went 5-of-12 in the series with three RBI and, save for one Friday fly-out, looked like the reliable stroker of last season. "Detzy really for the last week has been coming around," Cohen said.
For now the coach sounds more inclined to using Britton at third and DHing Detz, at least when a ground-ball pitcher is starting. If Briton can keep hitting though he might make it academic. "Matthew really is a dynamic defender. I think he's made some adjustments to his swing. When you put him on the left side he has explosive feet, great arm strength."
2B Brett Pirtle remains constant in the four-slot, having hit safely in all but two games this season. By the same token consistency isn't everything if a guy is clutch. 1B Wes Rea is not having the hitting year he hoped, but both of his two base hits Saturday scored a teammate. Add in walks and Rea has reached base in 22 of 23 games.
State's outfield is a little more in-flux than expected due to CF C.T. Bradford's tender hip. That also keeps him from doing any left-handed relief pitching for the moment as State doesn't want to risk aggravating anything this early in a schedule. Bradford had the key two-run double in game-three that put the Dogs in real charge, and barely missed adding to his triples tally with some close foul-shots. One interesting change in the order didn't show much results, as SS Seth Heck—who has settled that defensive spot for the moment—batted leadoff for a game. LF Jake Vickerson was back there in the other games.
Nor did the Dogs get to use their base-speed on stealing often…at the same time Georgia had to pitch a little more cautiously with this threat present. So will everyone else State faces. But to steal requires reaching base first, and Vanderbilt is not known for walking many men on. So the Diamond Dogs have to continue to improve their swings and their contacts. Fast. Cohen can show them the difference from how they hit, or didn't, from one day to the next in the opening weekend.
"We're keeping a lot of stats, and we hit a ton more ground balls and line drives than average fly balls. We felt we let Friday get away from us offensively and we made some really good adjustments." As well as changes to staff, lineup, and order. Whether those shifts stick will await the second SEC series, since there is no midweek game to evaluate by.
Nor any doubleheader set for the weekend...though with this slow-coming spring's weather, who knows? There won't be any coaching complaint if that happens again, either.