Road Series Is Next Test For Diamond Dogs

They'd love to have swept somebody by now, sure. Having sole possession of first place would be even better. At the same time, these Diamond Dogs are quite comfortable with how and where they stand after another winning weekend. "Any series win is a good sign," said Alex Detz. "But we're going to take it one step at a time.

This step-by-step approach has paid off nicely so far, as Mississippi State ends March at 20-10; and goes into April 6-3 for SEC play. That is good for a four-team tie at first place in both the overall league as well as for the Western Division. It's still early in conference season and nobody could—or should—be talking about titles just yet.

But a fast start has certainly put a little spring in Bulldog steps as a new month begins. Or as LHP Jacob Lindgren said, "At the end of the day the win is all that matters."

At that moment, Lindgren was talking specifically about how State pitched its way through the rubber game with Arkansas. Successfully, too, as the 5-1 final along with a game-two win by the same score gave the Bulldogs their third SEC series in as many weekends. In the larger sense winning Sunday pitcher Lindgren was talking for how MSU must handle this schedule and season. Media and fans focus on series; players and coaches on the next single game.

Which is why Detz could speak for the squad after winning another weekend with two victories. "Hopefully we'll be able to take three eventually. But right now we're always happy with two."

Everyone should be. As Sunday's game wound-down press were perusing the record book for last times. The results: this is the first season since 2003 a Bulldog squad has won its first three league series. First time since 2006 to be 6-3, and since 2007 just to have a winning SEC record after nine games. So yes, it is a promising start…to a long season. One which resumes this weekend with a road trip to annual Division rival Louisiana State.

"Yeah, going to Baton Rouge," Lindgren said. "It's always tough playing over there but we have a good team, they've got a good team. So it will be a good showdown."

Then again, every series is a showdown in this year's Southeastern Conference. And while being up front is fine, the gap between first and worst in next weekend's standings is as close as a single sweeping. So no Bulldog is taking the current status either for granted or as guaranteeing anything come tournament time. Just getting this far into the league slate with nose above water is an achievement itself.

"It is a good start for this group," Coach John Cohen said. "We stumbled out of the gate trying different things, but the last three weekends we've had great effort and our kids have really responded."

The stumbles were early-schedule losses to opponents of varying quality, though it will be instructive to track Western Carolina, Holy Cross, Memphis, and Santa Barbara through their seasons. None did damage to the Bulldogs schedule strength. To Cohen the more dangerous moments came in series-opening losses to Georgia and Arkansas. Each time this still-developing team responded.

"Everybody wants to win every game. But realistically everybody is trying to win their series," Cohen said. "I'm proud of our kids, in some circumstances there's a little bit of luck involved, the scheduling component, and are you playing somebody playing very well or not at that moment. But I like our club for two reasons. We have not played well two of the first three games of a series at all, but our kids found a way to come back and win. That says a lot about the composure our kids have."

As for Cohen's different things, those have been in all aspects but foremost on the mound. It is no coincidence that when the weekend pitching plan changed, so did the results. RHP Preston Brown has taken the opening job, LHP Ross Mitchell game-two, and RHP Trevor Fitts found the Sunday niche. When the season began Brown was looked at a long-relief righty or midweek starter, and of course Mitchell was the magical long-left side winner.

Now they are maybe the most unique one-two pitching punch in the conference. Brown (3-1, 1.95) had a tough loss to Arkansas when he wasn't hit all that hard or often. As much harm was done off bounced breaking balls that weren't blocked as anything the Razorbacks swung at. This didn't hurt Brown's status though, much less his growing confidence as a series-starter.

"I guess you get more in the groove of things when you get in patterns and a certain time each week," said Brown. For his part Mitchell (5-1, 1.55) has settled into that swing-game pattern; not only has he won all three of his SEC starts but he's tossed 25.1 out of 27.0 possible innings with just a .165 average-against. All done with his mix of location and off-speed or no-speed stuff which, Cohen says, can throw batters off their game for days if they try adjusting too much.

Not that Mitchell has been flawless by his own account. "That's three starts and three first batters either walking or hit. I've got to fix that. But so far I've been able to settle down and finish the game out pretty well." And do it without relying on strikeouts; he has just 10 in his three SEC stints. No, the forte of Mitchell and Brown is producing ground balls and doing it early in counts to keep the game moving. This is even more of a priority now, because LSU favors big drives and if Tigers make their sort of contact big innings develop. Fitts (2-1, 3.09) is staff strikeout leader at 40 but will be warned how anything hung in the hitting zone can become trouble, quickly.

It is another staff switch made last fall paying off big this spring, as Lindgren (3-0, 0.93) has blossomed as a reliever. The former starter can now go max-effort out of the bullpen, and he dominated Arkansas with eight strikeouts and 11-straight outs. Count 1B Wes Rea as non-surprised. "I grew up with the kid. So I've seen him for a very long time. This year he's settled in and done what he's done his whole life. He's unbelievable when he's on like that."

Lindgren has struck out 37 in 19.1 innings, though Cohen isn't a big fan of big fannings since they usually require more pitches. Still the lefty and C Gavin Collins make a good battery. "Gavin calling a good game, blocking up balls and throwing guys out," Lindgren said. C Zack Randolph worked both ends of the Saturday doubleheader and while he had some bounce-stopping issues he came up with the momentum-changing two-run hit in the nightcap, a must-win situation.

When the starting pitching changed, so did the infield to handle all the bouncers Brown and Mitchell should produce. SS Seth Heck was likely to win that job anyway as the season developed, but he's been an especially good fit for this rotation with his range and arm. No infield arm is sharper though than 3B Matthew Britton's as he has gunned down some pretty fleet SEC runners. Not to jinx them but the two left-side guys have just one error each in a combined 57 conference-game chances.

And their plays are so remarkable at times it almost makes what 2B Brett Pirtle does mundane. It isn't. "It's fun to watch that guy play second base," says Rea.

The outfield has been short a starter for two weekends, though as of today Cohen hopes senior CF C.T. Bradford might be back in time for the LSU trip. "C.T. is moving around a little bit better. We have to get him full speed before we get him on the field." In the meanwhile though CF Derrick Armstrong has covered center just fine, as well as become a contributor on offense. He went 6-of-8 in the Arkansas doubleheader, then drove in a clutch Sunday run as well. His SEC average of .357 is a bit inflated by one big day, but one big weekend shows what the senior is capable of over the longer haul.

And when Bradford is activated? "A good problem, which means we can have more lefthanded in our lineup," Cohen said. As in mixing righthanders Armstrong and Demarcus Henderson (.278 SEC) with lefties Bradford and Jake Vickerson (.188 SEC) in the outfield. Vickerson's average has dropped in the leadoff batting role lately but not for lack contact; he's only struck out twice in league play.

Offense remains the great big unknown each weekend, or each game really. Pirtle (.333 SEC) is the surest thing in the order, having reached base one way or another in 38-consecutive games against SEC opponents. Fortunately Detz (.344 SEC) appears to have regained his stroke after a slow start, and Henderson has become a clutch swinger of late. That of course is Rea's calling card as conference pitchers know better than to count on that .257 league average. His hits come when they count for the most.

A team.255 SEC average is not nearly as poor as it may seem, by the way; the entire league is averaging just .257 for conference batting! And State is 8th this week, compared to 1st in both conference ERA and fielding. Though, Cohen will qualify even these top-ratings after just three weekends for everyone.

"It's not just the standings that are so equal, it's even statistical. Everybody has very similar offensive and pitching numbers. So it's going to be a dogfight."

Or a Dog-and-Cat fight this weekend. The Bulldogs have no midweek game while LSU is hosting McNeese State on Wednesday, a good way to bounce back from the lost weekend at Florida. And no, Mississippi State reads absolutely nothing into a Tiger sweeping as last weekend is ancient history already. Speaking of history, no Bulldog bunch since 2006 has taken a series from the Tigers.

"LSU is going to play good at home no matter what, whether they've won three or lost three," Cohen said. "They're one of the premier clubs in the country, just like we are, and we're looking forward to a great series."

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