Whether this is just ‘another start' is debatable enough. Vanderbilt comes to town with a consensus top-ten or top-five ranking depending on polls favored. They are19-3 overall and tied for the early-season league lead at 2-1 after taking two from visiting LSU last weekend.
This isn't the identical team which tore through the 2013 regular SEC season behind a brilliant starting staff and lots of quality batters. But enough of the names and numbers are familiar to Coach John Cohen.
"They lost some guys just like everybody else in the league did. But certainly they're pitching as well as anybody in the country. They're a very, very good club. I think they're as good as anybody, I think it's another SEC weekend. You're facing a guy on a Friday night who is potential first round pick. It's just another weekend in this league."
That guy is Commodore ace Tyler Beede (4-1, 0.84), regarded as one of the SEC's top two starters this season. Against the junior Mississippi State (15-8, 2-1 SEC) will be throwing a sophomore in Brown (2-0, 0.75) for a first SEC start. For that matter practically his first SEC experience period; as a redshirt frosh in '13 he tossed 0.2 innings against LSU in relief. That was also his last appearance of a short season. This is developing into a very different year for the righthander, which began with a fall ball MVP grading.
When Brown worked 8.0 shutout innings nine days ago against Southern Illinois in a victory, Cohen and pitching Coach Butch Thompson immediately turned thoughts to giving a SEC rotation role. The decision was made easier when a weather-revised Georgia series kept Brown from throwing at all…and new game-two starter Ross Mitchell tossed a complete-game victory.
"With the amount of pitches Ross threw on Saturday, giving him the extra day because we can is important," Cohen said. "I think we've been able to do that with all the rest of our pitchers in the rotation, so I didn't want to short him one day. The more we watched the film and his brilliant performance on Saturday the more we wanted to get him the full extent of the week to recover."
In turn, Brown has had a lengthy break. So rested in fact that Cohen wants to get him back on the hill at the first opportunity. "The more we looked at it and watched film, the more we thought that would be the way to go."
"He told me on Wednesday," Brown said, adding he hadn't come into this week expecting a SEC start. But he's ready all the same. "I enjoyed the rest because I was out there a lot in the bullpen Sunday in Arizona, then I started on Tuesday. I would have been ready (last) Sunday but the weather didn't allow it. But yeah, I'm ready and rested."
Lefthander Mitchell (3-1, 1.50) stays in the second game with RHP Trevor Fitts (2-0, 3.55) scheduled for Sunday. Brown is replacing RHP Ben Bracewell (2-2, 2.38) as the series starter after Bracewell had some Friday struggles at Georgia, much not of his own making to be sure. He is now free for any-day use in long relief, even first man-in if necessary Cohen said.
"It really depends on the situation. It depends on where we are in the lineup; it could be (Jacob) Lindgren, it could be Benny, any one of those guys." With RHP Jonathan Holder ready to save the day if needed, though he's also been used earlier in games if the matchups were promising. All those pre-SEC weekends were booked for exactly this evaluation of arms.
Unfortunately the bullpen is another man-short now, as RHP Will Cox has been lost to Thursday elbow surgery. State had already missed two more righthanders as John Marc Shelly was injured and lost on February 23; and sophomore RHP Paul Young is officially sidelined for the season as he continues a comeback from his junior college injury.
While Brown was always working for this sort of status, it's unlikely he envisioned matching-up with Beede in his first SEC start. Though, "He's not on the field when I'm on the field, so I don't see what the big deal is." Spoken a bit tongue-in-cheek of course since any SEC Friday is a big deal, and this one looms larger than most of the league's series on week-two. Mississippi State certainly wants to build on a winning series at Georgia, at the expense of an Eastern Division leader.
"I watched a few clips of Vanderbilt, they're obviously a solid ball club," Brown said. "There's a couple of familiar guys, but they definitely lost some guys. They're a new team, we're a new team, so we'll see."
Setting the starters means more than even usual for this Diamond Dog squad. When Cohen moved long-reliever Mitchell into this new role last Saturday he also adjusted the defense with Matthew Britton taking over third base. Mitchell rolls grounders and Britton's glove was counted on, and he produced in the game-two win. Even better, he had a break-out day at the plate with two hits and three RBI. In game-three with Fitts throwing more fastballs for fly balls 3B Alex Detz returned to that corner, though he hadn't left the batting order. Brown was a ground-ball machine against Southern Illinois with 17 such outs, so a similar shift seems likely.
"Whoever we have out there is going to make the plays," Brown said.
As to shagging flies, the outfield isn't entirely settled now as senior CF C.T. Bradford aggravated a painful hip at Georgia. "I don't know if he's going to be able to go full-speed this weekend, so it might be a DH, it might be a wait-and-see," Cohen said. "It's a shame because he's been swinging so well. We'll see how he's doing tomorrow." Here at least there are viable opportunities with both Derrick Armstrong and Jacob Robson experienced in center.
"Certainly we feel that's one of the places on the field we have some flexibility and some options," Cohen said. The catching job is also deeper. Gavin Collins and Zach Randolph have been the primary backstops but Cohen said don't rule out Cody Walker by any means.
"I think Cody has been good too, he's had a couple of plays here and there he'd want back but he's done a nice job as well. I like our catching situation. I have a lot of confidence in the fact week to week it gets better. They feed off each other and are really starting to learn our staff. I think Butch is doing a great job with preparing those guys."
Series game times are 6:30 Friday, 7:30 Saturday, and 1:30 Sunday.