State Series Sweeping Tightens The SEC Pack

The enthused talked three wins; the merely optimistic of taking a series. Hard-headed pragmatists, of simply avoiding a road sweep. None came true as Mississippi State lost an entire weekend and slipped back into the SEC pack.

And it is indeed a pack. A trio of defeats at Louisiana State makes Diamond Dogs 20-13 and 6-6 SEC, two games back of surprising Alabama in both the Western Division and overall standings. Of course the cellar currently contains 3-8 Missouri, meaning nobody is more than one great or awful weekend from swinging their status entirely.

This is scant comfort for Mississippi State at the moment. They discovered how fast a fall can be. After standing with the frontrunners when the week began, being broomed in Baton Rouge used up margin grindingly built-up over three winning weekends. ‘Grinding' being key, because the Bulldogs won those series on long starting pitching stints and reliable defense with just enough offense.

But when a LSU team which itself ranked last in SEC-game hitting beat the Bulldogs at their own game of pitching, defense, and timely contact, it reminded how fragile this formula can be. At least in terms of regular season titles, something that up to Friday afternoon looked like a realistic objective. Now Mississippi State is scrambling for some mid-schedule answers, and about to host a hot rival with revived ambitions of their own.

This piece of scheduling also offers the Diamond Dogs a perfect situation to do what so many other SEC squads have already done this frenetic season. There is nothing which cannot be cured with a series success against Ole Miss to put State back on the regular- and post-season fast track. But doing so, almost necessarily now with a sweep, means the home team is the one facing more week-five pressures.

For that matter MSU has a midweek trap game first, Tuesday night against a Southern Mississippi squad on a streak of their own and with lots of recent scores to settle. That matchup compounds a very, very dangerous four-rivalry-game week which could cost the Dogs dearly when NCAA hosting rights are decided. True, almost everyone in the SEC this season has a ‘bad' loss or two in RPI terms right now. The Bulldogs already used all their mulligans with setbacks to Holy Cross and Arizona. There is a lot of season ahead, as well as the conference tournament to score RPI points. But at the moment thinking is to host a Region in this year's SEC requires a top-four finish at the bare minimum, more likely finishing first in a Division to feel comfortable on site-selection day.

All entirely within Bulldog reach…if they can start scoring runs a little more often and a lot earlier.

To keep context nobody, or no realist came into 2014 forecasting an offensive juggernaut. A record-setting hits man in leadoff and big-bat threat which had opponents thinking-ahead by innings aren't automatically replaced here. There are young bats on the roster of potential but for 2014 they don't fit defensive needs. And Mississippi State focuses on pitching/defense nearly to obsession, for legitimate reasons. Unless the still-years-away renovations to Dudy Noble Field points the playing surface in another direction, and spring wind patterns shift, playing for big-blast offense is impractical. Even with a new baseball arriving in 2015 DNF is where fly balls come to die, usually well-short of the track.

For that matter, the entire SEC is having an off-year offensively. State's .236 league average is nearer the bottom today than a week ago though. As noted, LSU was 14th going into the series at .212; in the three games they batted .313, most of the damage done in a Sunday runaway. Still it may say something about how the programs regard offense, that even in an off year Tigers expect to hit a baseball at some point. Mississippi State, just doesn't. Only the Dogs really know if years of emphasizing pitching-and-defense with offense given last priority has impacted expectations. Or confidence.

During Saturday's post-game radio show after a tight and well-played contest, Coach John Cohen said something which summarized the larger situation. "I think we're defending well, I think we're pitching well. We just have to get a break."

That message was State hasn't been in charge of its own offensive fate. The Bulldogs still must receive more than normal opponent aid to literally manufacture a run. Not runs, just a run. Walks, plunkings, dropped strike-threes, fielding errors…these are essential to MSU offense. There is nothing at all wrong with wanting, hoping for such gifts in amateur baseball. And as the past three seasons have proved, they come frequently enough for State to compete and often succeed, especially at tournament time fortunately.

But when the other team isn't so charitable? Then Bulldogs must rely on their own offensive abilities. The average shows how fragile that process is. And take away that fluke 17-run outburst aided by five Vanderbilt errors, and State has scored 33 runs in 96 SEC innings. In Friday's loss at LSU, there were just two walks and one HBP; and just two hits. Saturday had four walks but no plunkings and four hits. The game-three numbers might not be a reliable guide as LSU went to the bullpen with a big lead.

What does seem a preview of coming attractions were some Sunday order changes and later on substitutions for slumping swingers. The top of the order was a combined 5-of-34 on the series, and even allowing for some good contacts not rewarded by hits that is not something an already-struggling attack can afford. Cohen made a Sunday move though, giving SS Seth Heck first at-bat; while LF Jake Vickerson went down. Heck wasn't rewarded though Cohen liked his swings. Vickerson was with a three-hit outing.

Other shifts in the second-half order aren't new since that segment adapts game-by-game to defensive lineups. Now Cohen might have to gamble a little with this too. Just for a few examples, 3B Matt Britton is ideal for ground ball-style State starters but hasn't hit well in the nine-hole. Or, to have another DH, such as alternate C Gavin Collins, hitting means moving DH/3B Alex Detz back to the hot corner job which he filled well enough the second half of 2013. Or, even the unthinkable. 1B Wes Rea was hitless for the series with six strikeouts and no walks; and is 9-of-46 in SEC play. His overriding value is peerless defense on that corner, while drawing walks or HBPs at the plate and coming up with one timely hit each game.

"He's going to be better in the long run, we all know that," Cohen assured. And taking this great big defensive security blanket away could smack of desperation. Finding another slot in the order might make more sense. There is precedent too. It began last April 2 when Rea, at full-health again, was put in the five-slot and from then on became an opponent's nightmare in the clutch-RBI setting. That coincided with moving CF C.T. Bradford from the top-third of the order to sixth behind Rea, which worked out very well for him too.

Coincidence or not this would seem the time of schedule when moves are made all around the order. What can be counted on is keeping 2B Brett Pirtle in a fourth or higher slot since he just plain gets on base; for 41-straight games against SEC foes in fact. And Bradford, fortunately, is again available after missing over two weeks with a groin problem. He isn't just another left-handed bat, but one with average and extra-base potential State desperately needs now.

But this also means a logjam in the outfield. In Bradford's absence CF Derrick Armstrong has raised his stock with three hits in the second two games. "He knows who he is," Cohen said, as Armstrong makes pitchers work and doesn't give away many easy outs. "And we need more of that on our club," the coach added. Meaning fewer strikeouts and routine fly balls which an iffy offense cannot afford.

Adjusting the overall order would mean changing something else. Cohen makes clear the current 1-through-9 is not ideal; it is done to avoid consecutive slow guys, a sensible goal for a squad that counts on running and extra-base taking to pressure foes. But it also gives opposing pitchers an easier out or two in any stretch. And if nobody is on base, especially in less-than-two-out settings, there is no running game anyway. Bunching the best current batters would mean shifting philosophy mid-course, yet if it offered possibilities for real offensive innings the trade-off seems worthwhile. Only the coaches know for sure.

What the head coach does know is "We're trying to find players who aren't trying to get big, we're trying to find players who know who they are and know their strengths, stay with their identity. When we do that we're a pretty good ball club." If of course the starting and relief pitching is present, backed-up by consistent defense.

State did pitch and field well enough to at minimum avoid a sweep and maybe take the first two with any offensive support. Game-two was lost ironically enough on a stunning defensive lapse; superb-fielding pitcher Ross Mitchell snared a one-out grounder and could have triggered the twin-killing or at least one out…only to have the ball fall out of the glove as he spun. It led to both LSU runs in the 2-1 final, and left all shocked.

A repeat is unlikely. It does remind how delicate the Dogs' balance is. A bad start or even just one defensive breakdown can cripple a club which isn't hitting for average or production. Speaking of pitching, road-trip developments begun by a sore shoulder to two-series opener RHP Preston Brown could ripple into more changes. Mitchell is secure, but a brilliant relief stint from RHP Brandon Woodruff might signal the junior is at last ready for the weekend starting job all expected in 2014. Cohen wonders what a slightly lower strike zone might have meant for freshman RHP Dakota Hudson on Sunday. And while by no means intended, several short weekend turns should leave enough arms to script this Tuesday without rocking the rotation or straining the bullpen.

As to the main concern Cohen agrees, there is almost no margin in any area for this team as long as State cannot deliver at the plate. He did see signs that don't show in a box score Sunday. "I'm proud of our guys, we hit a ton of balls hard in this game. That's just how it kind of went for us this weekend. We really hit a lot of balls hard."

Because the contacts didn't find open ground, the standings-margin is now evaporated. However, this too needs some perspective. In previous seasons a sweeping would have sunk State well below .500 and meant a season second-half scrabbling to assure a SEC Tourney berth, as well as the NCAAs. These Bulldogs remain on those post-season paths so their situation is far more favorable. Yet here in 2014 the goals are greater than just qualifying. It is entirely about hosting, and winning.

And as bold as it seems to even think ahead, the second half of the slate does offer much more promising matchups including all four of the clubs currently 5/6 in the respective Divisions. State's remaining slate won't produce a great schedule-strength, certainly nothing near last season's stratospheric rating. It's an acceptable trade-off; wins count more to this team.

At the same time confidence is required to make any second-half run. Nothing, nothing will boost Bulldog attitudes like winning-out this week. Even without the rivalry spice, playing a team now a game-ahead in the standings and one which likes to swing it ought to bring out State's best…including with the bats.

"We're right in the middle of a great conference race, everybody is kind of bunched-up in the middle," Cohen said. "It's a big game at Pearl, I can promise we're going to come out and compete hard. And a big, big weekend. I would love for us to have the best atmosphere in college baseball this weekend when we welcome Ole Miss to town."

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