Diamond Dogs Renew Tiger Rivalry On Road

As if a Mississippi State-Louisiana State series didn't have enough annual angles, suddenly this weekend's series features fresh twists. Or curves. Pitching health, rotation revisions, oncoming weather…all magnify what was already an important early-season collision of Western Division rivals.

Or, "Another great Mississippi State-LSU weekend," as Coach John Cohen said today.

Having played in this rivalry himself—his feats in that 1989 doubleheader sweep remain fresh in many a memory—and taken several teams to Baton Rouge, Cohen is qualified to comment. But the current participants are only concerned with writing their own history, not so much this weekend as this season. And what happens over the next three, or more likely two given pending weather complications, can set a tone for the rest of this SEC schedule. For more than just Bulldogs and Tigers, too.

Three series into league play, Mississippi State (20-10, 6-3) is one of four teams jammed atop the very early SEC standings. Meanwhile LSU (21-8, 3-5-1) is listed last in both the Western Division and overall. Neither status amounts to too much with April just begun, since a single series can flip everything around.

What does matter is that the Bulldogs enter the new month with some welcome margin. State got through March with a winning SEC record for the first time since 2007, after all, having taken series at Georgia and from Vanderbilt and Arkansas. The last team to take its first three SEC series was way back in 2003, for perspective.

Yet the national perspective properly accords LSU respect their league record and a three-game sweeping at Florida obscures. Cohen knows better than contrast standings or statistics; comparing the lineups and rotations tells the real story.

"LSU lost some really good players but they have really good young talented kids who have taken their place. (Pitcher Austin) Nola is one of the best in college baseball, they're a very good defensive team. They had a great offensive last night against McNeese State."

Big batting games have been the exception this season for a Tiger program built around offense. They are hitting .274 for the entire season (State .270), but in conference play just .212 which is last this week. The Dogs have at least hit .255 in the nine league games, admittedly a small sampling size for both squads. LSU even trailed McNeese State mid-way of Wednesday's game before blowing it entirely open. So Cohen knows this is a foe that can heat-up at any time, and a visit from the old rivals is just that sort of spark.

Besides, "After last weekend I know there a sense of urgency for sure. But I feel like we have a sense of urgency as well."

The Bulldogs indeed have a little edgy attitude going back on the SEC road. The last State squad to leave Baton Rouge with a won-series was in 2006, and three trips since have netted a 2-7 result.

More immediately, there are suddenly concerns how Mississippi State can and will set up pitching. Cohen confirmed today that RHP Preston Brown (3-1, 1.95) will not open this series. Brown took the game-one role the past two weekends and went 5.0 innings in a loss to Arkansas. During a normal Monday bullpen session shoulder soreness cropped up.

"So we're going to have to adjust to that," Cohen said. "Whether that is moving Ross up into that slot we don't know." As in LHP Mitchell (5-1, 1.55) who has posted three-straight SEC wins as the most surprising starting pitcher in this conference. Not just for the wins but his 25.1 innings in them. Cohen has hinted before that using the softer-throwing southpaw on opening night might be a good call if for no other reason that how it impacts batters for ensuing games, but has stuck with Mitchell in the usually-decisive game-two.

Yet, "Ross really wants to pitch on Friday night having talked to him yesterday. But we're going to have to see how he feels Friday." The complication is that Mitchell threw a complete game last Saturday; only 98 pitches were needed to beat Arkansas but this still is shorting him a day off the routine. Even with Mitchell this isn't an easy or obvious call.

RHP Trevor Fitts (2-1, 3.09) only went 3.1 innings last Sunday with 51 pitches, so he was a Friday option as the team boarded the bus just after noon. By this evening, or tomorrow morning? Cohen couldn't predict.

"Whenever you move guys around you're going to find out what is best for that young man and how he feels. Certainly we don't know exactly what we're going to do with Trevor, for right now we would proably go Ross and probably with Trevor on Saturday and see how Brown's shoulder is doing on Sunday. But we can deviate from that."

Pitching Coach Butch Thompson talked Thursday of coming with any of three other starter candidates, all righthanders. Ben Bracewell (2-2, 2.00) did start the Georgia weekend and wouldn't be shaken by road-series pressures. Two freshmen, Dakota Hudson and Austin Sexton, are also available though Hudson has yet to toss a SEC inning and Sexton saw 2.0 innings of relief work. At least the opponent wouldn't have a lot of scouting material to work from.

And anyway, State's trump card remains the bullpen. Though Thompson has gotten used to such long starts that LHP Jacob Lindgren (3-0, 0.93, 2 saves) and RHP Jonathan Holder (2-1, 2.60, 4 saves) have been almost under-worked lately and definitely held in reserve longer. Now middle-men like Vance Tatum, Myles Gentry, or throw-anytime Brandon Woodruff have more incentive to prepare.

It isn't just the Bulldog staff thinking about adjustments this weekend. LSU also had to play a twinbill last Saturday so there is good logic behind giving ace Nola another day to recover and use him Saturday. Certainly the Tigers would rather not risk one of if not the best arms in the SEC for the rest of the schedule in early April for a single series, no matter the perceived urgency.

Besides, Cohen said, "Just when you're convinced you have to beat one guy on a staff another guy steps forward and pitches well." The Tiger staff has a SEC ERA of 3.90, #13 this week, but that's a bit deceptive too based on who they've faced and where. They still strike folk out in bunches and get great defense behind them with only three unearned runs through nine games.

Not that Mississippi State's offense is a statistical juggernaut either. However several Bulldogs noted last weekend, especially after a shutout loss to Arkansas, that stats don't show contact and they had enough of that in the game and entire series. Cohen backed up their evaluation with the hard-hit balls chart kept in the dugout. Keep making that sort of contact and sooner or later they must become hits, or so goes the philosophy.

"We have charts that affect how we practice and if we beat the chart we feel we have a great chance to beat the game," Cohen said. "And really it has worked out that way." Beating said chart and by inference opposing teams means no average fly balls (though LSU fences are certainly within reach they aren't quite as close as reputation has it) and as few strikeouts as possible. The goal, to Cohen, is "getting to first base and hitting hard, hard ground balls and line drives. We feel that's who we are." Getting on-base doesn't require hitting either, if the pitch hits the hitter first or a walk is issued. Then State can get the ground game going.

Mississippi State would love having another piece of their offense available again. CF C.T. Bradford has missed the last two weekends with a groin issue aggravated at Georgia. Chilly weather last weekend probably kept the senior stiff for the Arkansas series but time and warmer conditions have to help.

"I think he's moving around better," Cohen said. "Does he play tomorrow? We're going to have to wait and see. We're going to have to run him around and see how he's reacting. Hopefully we can have him on the field sometime this weekend."

There is one more wild card about the weekend. All forecasts call for Sunday rain, which would justify a Friday joint decision to play two on Saturday. That is somewhat complicated because game-two is a 6:30 TV date and can't be moved. So game-three would have to begin in early afternoon to guarantee completion in time.

These Bulldogs won't be surprised if that happens. Their opening SEC series at Georgia was expedited in-advance of weather for a Saturday doubleheader too, and State swept it. But last Friday forecasts for evening storms convinced MSU to delay game-one for a Saturday twinbill…and not a drop fell until the a.m. hours. Altering things in-advance probably had nothing to do with splitting the set. Still Cohen wasn't adjusting his road routine too soon today.

"You look at the predictions and it's different, I don't like playing weather man until you get five or six hours away. And I know that impacts fans and game management. But when you try to play weatherman more than 24 hours in advance you're going to make more mistakes than anything else."

And even with six more weekends to play, mistakes in early April can continue rippling on into May and June. Whether one team or the other or both are feeling pressure at this point only they know. Cohen's ‘urgency' is sufficient description anyway.

"We feel like we've had a good week of preparation. We're excited about playing a really good LSU team in a great environment. This has been a long-standing series and a lot of great games over the years, and if eel it will be really competitive. This great opportunity they have."

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