That is followed by the first Division matchup of the still-young SEC season as Arkansas come to Dudy Noble Field. Weather forecasts for the weekend are encouraging with a small chance of Friday rain but 70s-temperatures all three days. Promising weather should assure more crowds of the sort which turned out for the Vanderbilt series, with an official total three-day gate of over 26,000.
Consider one first-year Bulldog impressed. "It's definitely different than the northwest!" said Washington native SS Seth Heck. "There's not quite the same support up there so it's incredible. The crowds have been amazing and it's been a lot of fun."
So is winning conference games. Now 4-2 after taking series from Georgia and Vanderbilt, these Dogs are tied for the overall league lead. That in itself guarantees nothing come May and June. What does count is that Mississippi State (17-9) is keeping pace with everyone and not falling behind early. Though, after 17-2 and 6-3 wins to seal the series, a Sunday victory would have really set State up in March.
Coach John Cohen admitted his own disappointment. "We want to win every single game. But overall the level of baseball we're playing and fact we had a third really good quality start on a SEC weekend is really good. So upcoming week, certainly we have some work we need to do, but overall successful."
Cohen's comment includes the core to SEC success so far. Against an aggressive Vanderbilt order State got 21.2 total innings of work by three starters, with five runs on 18 hits. The starters didn't ‘dominate' as most understand the term with 12 strikeouts. What mattered more were issuing just four walks in the equivalent of two-and-a-half full games' work.
That is the sort of starting pitching State has sought for, well, for years going back even before Cohen returned to campus. The three starters had a cumulative 2.08 ERA. Yet only one of this trio, righthander Fitts (2-1, 3.13) was in the four-game starting group for the first three weekends. That is exactly why State scheduled so many weekend games so early, to evaluate what arms were best-suited for starting SEC games. Fitts has taken the game-three role with aplomb.
The unexpected developments have been with RHP Preston Brown and LHP Ross Mitchell. To be sure Brown (3-0, 1.12) was evaluated in fall ball for starting but in February he began as long right-handed relief and maybe midweek starts. Suddenly here he is not just stating SEC games, but throwing the first pitch of the Vanderbilt series, period. And he was paired with a national pitcher of the year candidate in Tyler Beede at that. When Friday's numbers were tallied Brown was a winner after 8.0 innings of seven-hit, two-run ball. He only struck out three of 33 batters, but…
"I cut down on the walks which was good. I think they (coaches) weren't too happy with that the first two outings. I shoved it in there tonight." With the tactic of letting the Dog defense do the hard work, which they did. That is also why long-left-reliever Mitchell is now a SEC starter too, and with two wins in as many chances and 17.0 total innings.
"I love playing against good competition," Mitchell (4-1, 1.66) said. The Dog defense loves having Mitchell throwing his stuff in the zone where it is contacted but rarely well-driven. Mitchell nor Brown blow away batters; they don't try to. Mitchell also shrugged-off a bad beginning with two runs allowed, both put on bases by a plunking and walk, and shut things down the rest of his way. Skill counts, Cohen agreed, but that was the maturity which has pushed Mitchell and Brown into primary positions.
"Ross and Preston, they did a great job," Fitts said. "I read I was going to be the innings-eater this year, if I'm that and they're going eight and nine? OK I guess I'm going to be the bullpen guy! But they're doing a great job." And Fitts is not going to the pen any time soon. He is fifth in SEC strikeouts this week and among the best in not walking batters.
Where does this put RHP Brandon Woodruff and RHP Ben Bracewell; as well as freshmen righties Austin Sexton and Dakota Hudson? Still in the larger scheme, Cohen said. Veterans Woodruff and Bracewell are obvious bullpen long-righthanders if the starter(s) struggles, then if not working a weekend good starting choices for midweek matchups. At the same time Coach Butch Thompson wants the rookie righthanders to keep working when possible and practical.
So, said Cohen, "I feel we have a lot of good options for Tuesday and we're excited about seeing some guys that didn't get to pitch this weekend. You want your arms to be able to perform and if they're not on the weekend it's because somebody is keeping on the bench. And we got three great starts. So we'll have some fresh guys."
State went to Brown and Mitchell not only because they would challenge strike zones, but to play to this team's defensive strengths. And when this defense is ‘on' the Dogs are tough to defeat. There was some Sunday consternation after a couple of official errors and couple more miscues turned a 3-1 deficit into a 5-1 final. But not all errors are created equally, as Vanderbilt could attest after a five-E Friday forced by Bulldog batters.
"It's easy to be critical but look back the last 10, 15 games," Cohen said. "We've been defending the infield as well as anybody in the country. You have to point out the positives and I think there were plenty of them this weekend."
Certainly Heck at shortstop and 3B Matthew Britton had plenty of highlight-quality plays and throws. Britton in particular, as his re-insertion into the defense but at a new position of third base is paying off big for Bulldogs. Combined with 2B Brett Pirtle and the confidence-building present of 1B Wes Rea on the receiving end, and this infielding allows Brown, Mitchell, Fitts, et.al. to go challenge hitters rather than risk walks with nibbling corners.
Outfield defense has been equally solid, even with the absence of CF C.T. Bradford. The senior didn't play against Vanderbilt, having aggravated a hip pointer the previous weekend. Bradford was dressed for the series though and expects to return against Arkansas. Another left-hand bat, and the league's leader in triples, will be welcome indeed. Meanwhile OF Derrick Armstrong can certainly defend centerfield, between LF Jake Vickerson and either right-handed hitter Demarcus Henderson or lefty Cody Brown takes right depending on batting matchup. Interestingly, State wasn't able to activate its running game much this weekend against Commodore pitching. The Razorbacks might be another matter, assuming Dogs get to first base in the first place.
Offense remains a paradox. State won a SEC series batting just .253 (Vanderbilt batted .250). While it's always encouraging to succeed with a low average this approach does leave mighty fine margins if the ‘timely' hit isn't produced. Because Bulldogs make base far more effectively than the average shows, thanks to 20 walks this weekend and five plunkings. The ‘Dores by contrast worked just six walks, while the teams were almost equal in striking out.
What Sunday's box score can't show was how State did make the right contact with runners ready to score. Those contacts just happened to go right into gloves, as does happen in this sport. "It happened to Vanderbilt the first two games so there is some fortune involved," Cohen said. At least the Dogs did show they can swing in a 14-hit assault for Friday's win. But the baseline remains timely contact and pressure on defenses more than swinging big and for averages.
So despite being three-hit by Vanderbilt fastballers Sunday, "I don't think anybody's confidence was shaken," Fitts said. "Even though the score may not show it I thought we had great ABs all game."
Then again, if more Dogs duplicated the weekend Heck had with nine ‘reaches' out of eleven chances in Friday and Saturday; or a Sunday like C Gavin Collins with two hits and three turns; or the consistency of Pirtle in the four-hole; well then this offense could yet take off. For the full season Henderson is setting a .333 pace, same as his SEC average, while Collins is 3-of-6 in his three SEC starts out of the six games. Alternate C Zack Randolph is .167 SEC swinging yet drove in three runners in Friday's rout. And Pirtle (.310 season, .318 SEC) just keeps making things happen. He's reached base in 31-straight games against SEC foes, whether regular season or tournament.
Maybe it is Rea who again exemplifies State's strategies of timing over average. He's off to a 5-of-23 start in SEC games but leads the league in walks with 22 and has been hit five times. Heck and Pirtle combine for eleven plunkings, by the way. And Rea does pick his hits well as he's fourth in SEC RBI.
One other aspect not measured on a stat sheet is a club's confidence. With consecutive series wins, these Diamond Dogs have regained theirs. They downplayed it going into the weekend but taking a series from Vanderbilt meant more to this team than most would expect. First, knocking off the reigning SEC champions was a worthy goal itself. And, "I saw a stat that Vandy hadn't lost a series since 2012," Collins said. State ended that streak in two days.
On top of that, there were enough veterans on this Bulldog team who recalled getting swept at Nashville a year ago; and the keep-running-rout in the SEC Tournament semifinals. Payback might be putting it a little strongly, but… "I think this is a date they marked on their calendar and said we want to play well against Vanderbilt," Cohen said.
Mississippi State did just that. Now that an account has been squared, though, attention turns to the upcoming opponents. Because, as Heck said, "In the SEC it can bite you if you let up."
Tuesday's starting pitcher was to be named later Monday, and the SEC rotation set by Thursday.