Bulldogs Back To Work As Second Half Starts

Rolling out the tarp yesterday did no good as rain will send the Diamond Dogs indoors. But based on coach comments, rain or shine, out-doors or in-, there will be work. A lot of work. "It's a new opportunity to get after it again," John Cohen said. Or more accurately promised. And if one wished to hear it such a way, warned.

Certainly there is some shaking-up in store for Mississippi State here at the half-way point of their Southeastern Conference season. Because what happened over the last two weekends has shaken things to their core. Having been tied for first overall after three successful series, the Diamond Dogs have lost consecutive weekends.

If losing five of six SEC contests doesn't hurt enough, the setbacks were to Mississippi State's special rivals. After being swept at Louisiana State, the Bulldogs wanted to bounce back in a big way at home against Ole Miss. Instead they dropped the Friday and Sunday matchups by 6-1 and 12-2 scores that weren't particularly competitive. The lone victory was a sweet one in its way. Having fallen behind 5-2 in the top of the tenth Saturday inning, State stormed back in the bottom for four runs to win 6-5 on a two-out single by C Gavin Collins.

The comeback saved that day in another way; an all-time largest campus crowd for MSU, and thus the entire NCAA, rewrote a record set back in 1989. The old mark of 14,991 which stood for a quarter-century yielded to a gate of 15,586, and longtime observers of Bulldog baseball agreed this was a record day. To lose the game would have been unthinkable and the Dogs didn't.

But, they did lose the series an in embarrassing Sunday fashion. The Rebels came back to the ballpark unshaken; Cohen said his own team reported "absolutely uninspired". So today Ole Miss is tied with Florida for SEC second place and a game out of the top spot.

The Bulldogs are 22-15, 7-8, and mid-pack of the standings at mid-way. It speaks much to the mighty muddle that is this year's SEC that Mississippi State is still a single sweep, and obviously sweeping of 10-5 Alabama, from catching the current leader in a single weekend. Maybe more amazingly for a Monday, the Dogs remain ranked by most pollsters including a national expert who attended the series to see the rivalry—and crowds—for himself. This reflects continued faith by observers that the Bulldogs are a competitive club on the larger stage.

The problem though with seventh place is no less than five teams are tied there, and another—Georgia—is 7-7-1 due to a clock-required tie at LSU. That leaves just three teams behind and all of them by a single game. What it adds up to mathematically is a last-place club this week could come out of series-six tied with today's second-place squads!

One of those three tail-enders is the next SEC opponent as the Bulldogs head to Missouri (21-16, 6-9) for the weekend. And these Tigers are themselves heating-up after maybe the surprise series of last weekend, when they took two of three at Kentucky. At this Monday moment though Cohen and club can't care about standings. Much less the longer-term outlook for NCAA play, something national writers have State projected for but on the road with hosting very unlikely right now.

All that matters to Cohen is today's practice. Any second-half success has to begin right now, after consecutive crushing weekends. For which the head coach is claiming blame. "Every bit of it is my fault, we've got to do a better job with our kids and it starts (Monday) with practice," Cohen said.

"It's not our players, they've got to be directed better and our coaching staff has to do a better job. And we will."

Coaches taking the heat for defeat is normal any season. Fans prefer it to blaming lack of timely hitting, locating the right or left pitches, and making defensive plays, regarded as ‘throwing under the bus' or suchlike. The fact of course is a Dog team which had been doing all the above or at least enough of it against comparable SEC squads was unable to sustain success against two of the better teams. Not that ‘better' means by a large margin, but then in this season's crazed conference even tiny advantages suddenly loom large. That is an encouraging idea for a club capable of doing better in almost everything.

But only if the Bulldogs can get better at all aspects and quickly. Or as the coach said, "We're going to do a much better job in some areas than we have been. We're not going to use injuries as an excuse any more. Our kids are going to compete or they're not going to be in this baseball program."

That was the warning referred to. Who Cohen wants to see practicing and playing competitively, he was not going to identify. The injuries are easier to ID, though only one is now a factor. State has been without RHP Preston Brown for consecutive weekends with a shoulder issue. So the rotation was reworked with game-two starter LHP Ross Mitchell opening the series, Sunday righty Trevor Fitts moved up a day himself, and game-three patched together.

Brown's status was unknown beginning the week, and his absence would keep a ground-ball producer of the sort State prefers pitching out. Though the fact he has ascended to rotation status during SEC season is a larger indication of how unsettled the staff already was. Now just as a workable trio was taking shape Coach Butch Thompson yet again is adjusting on-the-fly…though to be clear this is actually more MSU's norm in recent seasons. It has been many years and coaches since a true ‘rotation' worked here anyway, and State has managed to muddle through on the mound thanks to a deep and versatile bullpen.

But a bullpen can only win or save with a lead and in both Ole Miss losses the Bulldogs again fell behind early. "We're not executing the way we want to, especially on the mound. That bleeds into everything else," Cohen said. By everything he means, well, everything. "Not having Preston Brown hurts but you can't use that as an excuse. He's the fourth arm we've lost in the course of this spring but you have to find the right guys, the right sequences, and you have to step the thing forward. So that's what we're going to do."

It is useless at the moment to wonder the whys of all these annual arm injuries. Some victims came to campus with conditions that would have sidelined them ultimately anyway. Besides, everybody in amateur baseball has pitching injuries to some extent and by coincidence national studies show some scary statistics on this subject. All that fans know or care about is who on their own team is hurting.

Everyone also understands the strength of the staff is still the relievers, though starting Mitchell removes a massive piece of pitching-margin for expected openers. Doing so on Friday is almost an all-or-nothing gamble, too. But if he can get a regular eight or nine innings it serves about the same purpose for preserving bullpen while the opponent uses their own ace. Fitts only went four frames in Saturday's win and might have lasted longer except LHP Jacob Lindgren and closer RHP Jonathan Holder were ready. Ironically neither won as Ole Miss stunned Holder for the three runs, including a two-RBI homer, but the offense took him off the hook and made a most unlikely winner out of LHP Vance Tatum. He can now say he won the game seen by the largest campus crowd in college ball history.

In a sense Sunday's struggles were scripted by what happened Tuesday. Losing Brown shuffled the pitching at LSU and left State needing to go with two starting candidates for a few innings each to outlast Southern Mississippi in ten innings. And that was a must-win as a loss could have devastated the squad's RPI. But the cost was having righthanders Ben Bracewell and Brandon Woodruff not really rested to be ‘co starters' in game-three and it showed in how Ole Miss beat them up with the bats.

However, that bit of bad timing does put both on a schedule for next weekend again…unless something goes horribly wrong Tuesday evening as State hosts Alcorn State (6:30). Mitchell threw 122 pitches and while his style doesn't strain the arm like most starters it would seem ideal to bring him back this Saturday. And if Brown gets well, the rotation for a second-half stretch is taking shape. All of this pends what Cohen and Thompson see early in the week at practices and bullpens.

"But the second half we're going to find the right people, the right personnel," Cohen promised.

Pitching predominates all thinking since offense has been so unreliable this season. What made losing this series sting so was how well, relatively speaking, the Bulldogs batted with a .303 average. Ole Miss hit .368 but that was obviously inflated by a 20-hit Sunday when ten safeties would have sufficed. There were some solid individual averages for the weekend including from Dogs who hadn't been swinging well for a while.

But while the batting was better, scoring was about the same. Rare and poor. Save for the one amazing tenth Saturday inning the Bulldogs just could not build on the hits and runners to get timely hitting and runs, a familiar story so far this season. Emphasis on the so far part, per Cohen's comments about competing.

State began shaking up the batting order last Sunday in fact, and for the games two and three against Ole Miss put SS Seth Heck in leadoff. DH Alex Detz has stayed second but after weeks hitting fourth 2B Brett Pirtle has opened consecutive games swinging third. Regardless of slot Pirtle has stayed steady with a .556 series average, .336 for the full season.

More interesting is how OF Derrick Armstrong has delivered. Having got his starting job when CF C.T. Bradford was hobbled, Armstrong has stayed since his fellow senior's return as a corner-outfielder. And the most consistent swinger on the squad going 6-of-12 against Ole Miss to raise his SEC-average to a team best .373.

Despite setting the swinging pace Armstrong has stayed in the second half of the order. It fits the philosophy of arranging the batter to prevent having a stretch of consecutive slow baserunners. That approach would be sound on a squad that expects hits from all through the order over a game's course, but in this team's case creates too many situations of a two-out hit that leads to nothing. Or, getting a couple of good batters in scoring positions with nobody coming up able to deliver even a routine fly ball. By the way, it might amaze fans to hear how SEC opponents have actually left more runners stranded than State, 128 to 123.

The fact remains, getting guys on the paths is something the Dogs are getting better at. Moving them around is the issue, and after opening the season with some impressive stealing or run-and-hitting that pace has crashed in recent weeks. State is 11-of-16 in SEC game steals, when as Cohen said before this is an offense that must manufacture with running and putting balls in play.

"We like to run with advantage counts. And how do you get advantage counts? By hitting balls really hard and creating good takes and taking marginal pitches and getting down the line really good. All that is what creates a wave of advantage counts."

This may be why half-way into the slate everything is subject to change, on the mound and at the plate. And both aspects will determine who is in the field, too, since up to now the infield lineup was adjusted by the starting pitcher's specific style. Brown and Mitchell are ground-ball guys and that makes the glove and arm of 3B Matthew Britton valuable. A .143 SEC average means a trade-off with the offense, though he is not at all a lone example of this. OF Demarcus Henderson began SEC play well but is now hitting .207 in league games. It appears Collins is taking charge as the catcher based on his plate potential. He did struggle Sunday with the mitt but that may only reflect his lack of innings up to now as a freshman.

For all the acknowledged problems, the fact remains that thanks to an entirely-unsettled league and a somewhat promising schedule Mississippi State does as Cohen said have "a lot left out there for us." Four of the remaining five series are against teams tied or below State in the standings. That isn't claiming an advantage, just an opportunity.

The other fact Cohen noted was the trend of recent seasons. "The second half, the last really three years I think we've done a good job. But we've done it a different way every year trying to get our kids going in the right direction. It's clear to me the direction we need to go right now and how we need to handle our kids. It's take-over time."

As what direction the coach meant? "I guess you'd have to show up at practice to find that out."

Unfortunately, late news was due to the rain practice is closed. So Tuesday's home game will be first chance to find out what is, and what is not, changing for the second half.


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