Diamond Dogs Test Their March Momentum

The basic lineup, or lineups, has settled into a relative routine now. Which to Wes Rea's mind is why Mississippi State has found another sort of routine—winning SEC series. "Baseball is a game of being comfortable and I feel we've got our lineup. Which happened last year."

Except that settling-down took a little longer and came after some early conference struggles. These Bulldogs are two weekends deep into the SEC schedule with a 4-2 record to show after taking series from Georgia and Vanderbilt. Now for the first time a Western Division rival is in the other dugout as Mississippi State hosts Arkansas.

Game times are also back into a routine, with the usual and non-televised times of 6:30, 2:00, and 1:30 at Dudy Noble Field. This is a second-straight home series for the Diamond Dogs, and Coach John Cohen hopes for more than the similar results on the field. Last weekend's attendance of over 29,000 was excellent for March.

"And we'd love to have the same type of home field advantage that we had last weekend. And we've got to get off to a great start"

Of course 4-2 (18-9) is a good start this SEC season, and has State tied at the front of the early league standings. Staying there isn't easy of course but the Bulldogs would far rather keep this pace than play from behind. Plus, already this season State has defeated one team that swept them last season (Vanderbilt) and another that swept the programs' last meeting (Georgia). Now comes a Razorback team (16-8, 3-3) which doesn't have a lot of the same names from 2012 and '13…

…but which looks similar in ways that count to Cohen. "They're really talented and their pitching numbers are ridiculous. You played Vanderbilt last weekend and their pitching numbers, you look at Arkansas' and they're almost identical. They're a very good defensive club. You've got to hope your club gets off to a good start."

The coach was speaking in all aspects of course, and it is a trend that when scoring first or at least early the Bulldogs are a much better ball club. But the good starts are obviously aimed at a pitching rotation which has been carried-over from last weekend. RHP Preston Brown (3-0, 1.12) will make his second SEC start and would love for this one to go as well as the first did last Friday. LHP Ross Mitchell (4-1, 1.66) gets the ball Saturday, and RHP Trevor Fitts (2-1, 3.13) for Sunday.

There was some thought that Mitchell, with his swing-wrecking delivery and location, might get the lead job. But Cohen and Butch Thompson hew to the theme that game-two is the decisive contest and like the lefthander's reliability and durability there. It works all the better when Brown can go 8.0 full innings, as he did last Friday…albeit supported by 11 runs in the first three frames, something that is definitely the exception to State's offensive rule.

Regardless, against Vanderbilt the three starters ate up 21.2 out of 27 innings. Early season offensive statistics are risky to rely on but Arkansas does come to campus batting .265 and not a lot of walks. The Bulldogs bat a tiny bit better at .268 collectively, and rely—a lot—on free bases via walks or plunkings. Even then runs are hard for State to come by most nights, with last Friday's 14-hit, 17-run rout of the Commodore ace so against-the-norm as to be best forgotten.

The fact remains that, much like the past two seasons, batting average is not something Mississippi State should pay much attention to. As comforting for fans as a .300-club would be, this once again is an offense based on timing more than average. "That's where we're getting some of our wins, right time right place," says 2B Brett Pirtle, who is second in squad batting at .311 and finds some way to just reach base every SEC game. "I mean that's all you need, you don't need somebody to go out there and bat .350 and be .500 winning percentage."

Rea is Exhibit A in this approach. He's hitting .277 so far and has 25 strikeouts…yet he is one of the sticks opponents least want to see when other Dogs are on bases in front of him. Because he has a team-best 23 RBI and has reached base 28 times on either walks—where he leads the league—or getting drilled. Timing trumps average in his case, and if nobody is on a base Rea is willing to walk.

"I have tried to be more patient. But at the same time I feel I've been striking out more than I'd like to. Not striking out would result in more walks than I've been getting. So that's something I've been working on."

Rea has settled into the third order-slot, with Pirtle reprising his role as the most unique ‘cleanup' batter in the college game. "I'm an aggressive swinger, I'm always looking for a fastball early in the count," he gives as one reason why. Cohen has another, reflecting some complications in assembling an order this season.

"We just don't want to have two non-runners in a row in our lineup. If you look at our lineup it's kind of strange, that's a reason you have a Pirtle hitting in the four-hole. Not to criticize Wes but he's not exactly a runner. So you need to have a runner behind him."

Running is not an issue at the top or near the end of any order. LF Jake Vickerson (.261) has slumped some since the early season, as a juco player normally does the first time facing SEC pitching. He's still expected to produce as the schedule winds on, and his defense has been excellent. Down at the bottom of the order, RF Demarcus Henderson has a team-best .347 average and has become a clutch contact guy in his own right. His ninth-inning single against Southeast Missouri was errored into the game-winning play, for instance.

Henderson has swung well against both sides of pitchers, but Cohen says with Arkansas predicted to throw a lefthander in game-one Henderson should be a factor wherever he swings.

State has won three of the last four despite the absence of C.T. Bradford in both centerfield and the order. A hip pointer aggravated during the double-header sweep at Georgia has kept the senior sidelined, and while the Dog outfield doesn't lack for quality defenders getting Bradford's bat (.306) back would be a boost. Not least because he has the knack for the extra-base hit at the best times.

"He gets a little bit better every day and that's something you can't hurry," Cohen said. "We're hopeful he's going to be available this weekend. We probably won't know until tomorrow if he can get out there and run."

Alex Detz had a six-game hitting streak snapped Tuesday, but his contact is encouraging after a slow start and he works well between the order-topper and Rea. His third base position has been taken over most games by 3B Matt Britton, a result of starting ground-ball producers Brown and Mitchell. Britton's strong arm has saved both starters, and relievers, several runners in SEC play already as he and SS Seth Heck solidify the left side.

Pirtle and Rea complete the double-play cycle from the right side as a stout defense continues to develop. "It's just playing baseball, not worrying about if we make an error or not," Pirtle said. "We've been consistently making all the plays, sometimes we make an error but it doesn't affect us."

Other than a rough weekend out in Arizona, this has been a good month for Mississippi State with eleven wins. That's not near the pace set by the 2006 team which won 18 times in March…but then that team folded fast in April. By contrast this squad seems to be improving as the rotation and defense take clearer shape. Now if the offense comes around, these Diamond Dogs can build upon their good SEC start and get even better in April. And beyond.

"We've been playing pretty good," Rea said. "But like Coach Cohen said, at the beginning of this season we moved a lot of guys around, we had a different lineup every day it seemed like. Alex Detz wasn't in the lineup last year and look how that turned out. So it changes and when you get comfortable you start getting confident. And when you get confident you start playing better. I feel that's where we're at right now."

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