Bulldogs Regain Mid-Season Stride With Sweep

It wasn't exactly what most regard as a ‘halftime talk'. But whatever the Diamond Dogs and coaches said last week after a frustrating end to their SEC season first half certainly worked well. Because Mississippi State opened the second phase of league play with a sweeping of Missouri.

Not just of, but at as well. Coming off two frustrating series and a lot of heart-and-soul discussions about which way this 2014 season was heading, the Bulldogs made a real change of direction on the road. They outlasted the host Tigers twice in extra innings, 3-2 on Friday and 9-7 on Sunday to bookend a somewhat smoother 6-2 Saturday victory. With their first successful sweep Mississippi State stands 26-15 on the season, and more importantly 10-8 SEC.

As the two ‘overtime' contests showed (and even the middle game was back-and-forth until the later innings), nothing came easily for the winners. "We just fought," Coach John Cohen said on Sunday's post-game radio talk. "I'm just thrilled with our kids for hanging in there. Everybody just kept battling and battling all through the lineup."

By winning the battles and games the Bulldogs are in much better position for the remaining month of conference series. ‘Better' still something difficult to gauge in this year's frenetic SEC squabble. Even after dropping five of six league games to end their first half, State was still in a messy five-team tie for seventh overall. Now after a sweep? They are in a three-way tie for fourth with South Carolina and Ole Miss. All trail the current co-leaders and respective Division pacesetters, Florida and Alabama at 12-6; while Louisiana State by virtue of a tie with Georgia holds third place by percentage points. And as fans always need reminding this time of year, SEC order of finish is on percentages in conference play rather than total wins; before the varied tiebreakers are invoked as needed for SEC Tournament seedings.

That remains four weekends away. For now Mississippi State is as relieved as thrilled to stand top-half of the SEC again and back in contention for a first-round Hoover bye…as well as back in consideration at least for NCAA hosting opportunity. To be sure the Dogs are on the squishy side of that ‘bubble' right now, but regaining momentum was much more important when they left for Columbia. Taking the series in two days worked, but also whetted appetite for more. Falling behind 7-3 in mid-game made it appear it would be another split…

…until State put on or pulled off its best rally of the season so far, tying things up in the eighth inning and holding serve into the 11th. When fearless freshman 3B Reid Humphreys dropped a two-RBI single in rightfield to break the 7-7 deadlock, suddenly RHP Ben Bracewell was positioned to win after a grueling ‘survival' sort of stint that began in the fourth and turned into essentially a ‘start' ending with two outs in the 11th. After a confusing pitching-change series that let Bracewell stay for out-two, LHP Jacob Lindgren entered to end it.

And, in yet another extra-inning affair. Of the four times State and Missouri have now met as SEC foes three have run long. Fortunately neither of this series' extra-framers lasted 17 innings as at last year's SEC Tournament. But in four games the teams have now combined for 48 total innings or over five games' worth. Of course these Dogs are getting used to working overtime, as in the previous week their wins over Southern Mississippi and Ole Miss also came in extra innings.

It says much for State's squad that after two painful series lost to arch-rivals, they summoned the spirit and used their skills to score this sort of sweep. "We really needed something good to happen," Cohen said. "We feel fortunate, it was really important to get the third game even though we had won the series."

What the head coach said there reinforced his prior comments about the Bulldogs needing breaks. By which he meant offense. Judged solely by average it wasn't a great weekend, with .262 team hitting. However this is nothing new for 2014 to a bunch that can't be judged by average alone. What cost series to LSU and Ole Miss was lack of just a couple or even just one well-timed contact, and help in the form of walks and mistakes. At Missouri these came. More so the timely hits in fact, which is as encouraging to the longer-term outlook as getting three wins.

And the clutch work came from all around another revised mid-season batting order. Friday night it was senior CF C.T. Bradford delivering, after SS Seth Heck reached on a double in the 11th. The two-out single was the margin of victory in a game State absolutely had to win by then because the bullpen had been gutted already. Sunday it was a Dog at the other end of the career with rookie Humphreys facing the two-on, two-out opportunity. While nothing came easily on offense, much less often-ly as the average showed, in this series State found clutch contact from a wider variety of batters under pressure.

Bradford came up biggest though; not just with his Friday game-winner but a two-out Sunday single in the ninth to tie things up. He went 6-of-14 in the series with four RBI and a run swinging mid-order. That out-did the routinely-excellent batting of State's most reliable swinger this season, as 2B Brett Pirtle was 5-of-16 with a RBI and four runs batting third. The one ribbie came on a Sunday solo home run, the only longball by either team all weekend, which extended Pirtle's current hitting streak to ten games and kept alive a string of games-reaching base against SEC pitching dating back to 2013.

Further proof average isn't everything came from Alex Detz, who was officially 0-of-12 but drove in game-two runs with a ground-out and by walking. This exemplifies the ‘breaks' Cohen talks constantly about, because on Friday the Dogs got just one walk in 11 innings. There were eleven free passes in the next two games and it showed up on the scoreboard. It also means the Bulldogs aren't yet to the point of beating-up anyone with their own bats.

But, progress is showing there and from a fresh source. A long-awaited change atop the order didn't produce immediately as OF Cody Brown was 0-of-5 Friday, then went 5-of-10 the next two games with two runs and two RBI hitting in the one-slot ahead of Detz. The coach won't say leadoff is settled yet, but the potential is here. "Cody has worked so hard, he is attacking the baseball right now," Cohen said. Brown's fast feet also make him a threat to reach on grounders, as well as prevent double-plays which he definitely did Sunday. And nothing is lost on defense with the freshman's presence.

The successful series also showed two intriguing aspects with order and defense alike. Despite his SEC-season long struggles to hit, Cohen stuck by 3B Matthew Britton and it paid off. Britton didn't hit Saturday but did his job just by making base three times (walk, plunking, fielders choice) and scoring each change for half his team's total output. From the nine-hole, too. He came back inspired Sunday with three hits in five chances and scored a run again.

Britton's contributions counted all the more because OF Derrick Armstrong had the inevitable slide, not to be confused with a slump, since staying that hot was unlikely for anyone. Armstrong still has the full-season batting lead at .337 with Pirtle at .331. Bradford is .302 and still getting back to full-speed after mid-season health issues. Heck came up clutch himself in key times too, while C Gavin Collins was an unsung Friday star at and behind the plate. As Cohen said, "On a good club somebody different steps up each night."

The most interesting move though was giving 1B Wes Rea a couple of games-off after a 0-of-3 Friday when he was pinch-hit for late. He was 2-of-23 in the prior two SEC series and has struggled with strikeouts. Detz took over at first base so Britton stayed at third base and all made the plays needed. No one is writing off the team co-captain at all and his reassuring defensive presence will surely return soon. What matters for now is others can take over his place in the order and field and the team beat comparable SEC opponents.

Speaking of moves, as noted State staked the entire series on winning game-one when starter RHP Trevor Fitts was lifted surprisingly early for Lindgren to get the last out of the third inning. Lindgren lasted 3.0 total turns before another surprisingly quick change. The Dogs put RHP Jonathan Holder on the hill in the sixth in obviously a non-save situation. Because, "We had to have him to have a chance to win the game," Cohen explained.

Holder (4-1) did it at the cost of 82 pitches in 5.1 grueling innings, keeping it tied for four frames and making the one-run margin stand in the 11th. Done for the weekend, and Lindgren not available for at least a day, all the swing-game pressure fell on LHP Ross Mitchell's skinny shoulders. It says so much about the southpaw that he was openly asked to go the Saturday distance once again…and then went out and did it with 142 pitches, seven hits and the two earned runs. Even from a fellow of whom the special is now expected, "He was phenomenal," Cohen said. And when the Dog defense flubbed a few plays with three official errors, Mitchell (6-3) wasn't flustered and made his own fielding plays.

Sunday, RHP Bracewell was another sort of star out of the pen. This week's game-three starter RHP Brandon Woodruff didn't throw enough strikes, said Cohen, and was tagged for five Missouri runs in 4.1 innings as a 3-2 Dog lead got away. RHP Myles Gentry wasn't effective out of the pen. But Bracewell (2-3) stabilized things sufficiently though he took some damage over what turned into practically a regular game's stint of six innings to get the win. Cohen practically had to pull the senior off the mound for the last out—"He just wanted to finish that game"—to let Lindgren complete things.

That Holder and Bracewell, and of course Mitchell, are asked to throw so long regardless of results reminds that injuries have bitten the State staff hard this spring. Three arms are out for the season, and RHP Preston Brown (3-1) remains questionable for a fourth-straight series with a shoulder issue. Coach Butch Thompson talked a week ago of having Brown back by this upcoming Texas A&M series, but as of today it still sounds doubtful.

In fact, when the Bulldogs boarded for Sunday's return home, Cohen was already wondering who would toe the rubber Tuesday at Trustmark Park. Mississippi State and Ole Miss have their annual Governors Cup game tomorrow and the Dogs (this year's home team) not only have a short starting staff to choose from. They already are making pitching plans for the A&M series which begins Thursday at Dudy Noble Field.

If it sounds like odd scheduling, Cohen clarified things. The state rivals and the park set this date back in November; only later did the SEC and network partners pick their Thursday-starting series. Ironically the Rebels got the early series this past weekend, at home, and so go to Pearl a day fresher…nor with any expedited series coming up.

Whereas, Mississippi State comes home for four games in five days, with some drained arms to work with. Fitts ought to be in shape for Thursday at least, and Woodruff did not throw a ton Sunday himself. Mitchell has put in two long tours his last two times out though, nearly 250 official pitches and all the warmup work aside. It will test the staff's stabilizer to see if he can be ready by Friday, should Brown not be available at all.

Or maybe, just maybe, the Bulldogs are figuring out how to score runs more than one at a time and scattered around the nine—or longer—innings. With more and better offensive support the load on available arms will be greatly reduced and those pitchers made more effective too. The pitching and defense did their parts at Missouri; the bats delivered a bit better and at the right times.

With more production at the plate, then, Mississippi State can maintain their second-half momentum and remain in the thick of 2014's fascinating and furious SEC race.

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