A&M Brings Next Challege To Revived Bulldogs

Baseball folk have debated the idea of ‘momentum' probably since the first team to win consecutive games. But if the Diamond Dogs believe in it, their coach certainly won't argue. "I think since last Monday our kids have really come together and I hope we can stay on a roll here," John Cohen said.

It's a five-game roll that Mississippi State is on at the moment, four of the five victories over conference competition. True, only the three victories at Missouri last weekend count in SEC standings…and do they ever count, pushing the Bulldogs two games better than break-even at 10-8 with four league series left. But if the fourth win won't factor with the SEC order, Tuesday's win over Ole Miss counts in all other important ways. The 8-3 triumph before a Trustmark Park record crowd has Cohen's club 27-15 and gaining valuable points in the post-season picture.

For a club that just ten days ago was coming off a 1-5 SEC stretch that cost a share of the league lead, it really is a case of coming together as Cohen said. Co-captain Wes Rea is more emphatic.

"After the Ole Miss series we put our foot down and made a statement, said hey we're not playing our brand of baseball; what are your goals, what do you want to do? We've been doing that ever since then."

This better brand of baseball has the Bulldogs back on stride heading into the last month of SEC series. And, with no time to enjoy that roll. Conference network scheduling puts Mississippi State back on the field Thursday hosting Texas A&M for ESPNU at 6:30. Friday's game is the same time with a Saturday 2:00 start.

This is the second meeting of these maroon-and-white clad clubs as SEC programs. The host Dogs certainly would enjoy reprising their 2013 sweep in College Station. The Aggies (24-17) are last in the Western Division for now at 8-10, though ‘last' is hardly their fate in this hectic conference campaign. Mississippi State just showed what changes can be made in a single weekend. Texas A&M has beaten both Florida and Vanderbilt in series so far, and nearly took down league leader Alabama three weekends ago.

Also, in a conference full of teams struggling to hit for average and score often, the Aggies are batting .283 in league play. They are second in RBI and third in on-base average, numbers State (.253 in SEC games) can only envy, and everybody in the order is an extra-base threat who can and will run the paths. On the mound A&M doesn't pitch for strikeouts, but neither do they walk many and the defense does the job.

"They're very fundamentally sound, they have really good arms," Cohen said. "In some ways they're similar to our club because they pitch and they play defense, and they're very capable offensively. And I think they are a pitch or two away from three or four more wins in league play."

At the same time, Mississippi State presents a real scouting challenge these days. Even when winning the first three SEC series the Bulldogs were juggling lineups, orders, and rotations week by week; a trend that accelerated during the slump weekends. Injuries, especially to the pitching staff, have accelerated the changes not just week by week but game by game…or inning by inning.

And now comes an early-starting series that presents even more pitching challenges, such as getting LHP Ross Mitchell (6-3, 2.13) ready for Friday. Which this series is game-two of course, Mitchell's ideal identity for this staff. The southpaw has been iron man this SEC season, throwing 49.0 out of a possible 54.0 innings; and his last two Saturday outings have required over 260 pitches. Fortunately his easy-throwing style doesn't strain the left arm as with most starters. And, Cohen said, pitching with a lead at Missouri also eased things.

Overall then, "We're probably just going to move everybody up one day," Cohen said. Which would keep RHP Trevor Fitts (2-2, 3.30) in game-one. Fitts was pulled surprisingly early last Friday at Missouri so bullpen stars LHP Jacob Lindgren (3-0, 1.50) and RHP Jonathan Holder (4-1, 3.00) could combine for the must-win. With just 2.2 innings and 43 pitches last week Fitts should be more than ready to go a day earlier. Game-three remains TBA, nothing new since RHP Preston Brown was sidelined after his March 29 start against Arkansas. The sore shoulder discovered the next Monday has been treated cautiously, but Cohen reports Brown (3-1, 1.95) as close to a return. "He threw really, really well earlier in the week and he might be available. We're going to wait and see if he's available for potentially Friday or Saturday, and we move Ross accordingly."

Should Brown return this week or even the next, it would be a huge boost to the rotation and bullpen alike. In the absence righthanders Ben Bracewell (3-3, 2.61) and Brandon Woodruff (1-2, 6.46) have been ‘co starters' on Sundays with mixed results. Cohen said today the numbers aren't really indicative of how close Woodruff is to becoming a force. And after his own struggles against SEC orders Bracewell was dominating out of the pen last Sunday for six winning innings including most of the two extra frames. Their development and Brown's hoped-for comeback bodes better for tournament time needs, too.

For that matter, the Governors Cup win last night showed two more arms are getting ready for prime times, and left arms at that. Starter Lucas Laster and reliever Vance Tatum took care of the Rebels in a spacious park, holding them to three hits. If not for six plunkings, all by juco Laster working with a freshman catcher, Dog domination would have been complete. At the same time self-created pressures helped both lefties mature faster and in coming weeks upgrades their opportunities.

Speaking of upgrades…knocking out eleven hits in eight innings against Ole Miss pitching was welcome. Yet one night isn't going to send Bulldog batting numbers up any charts, and really total hits have not been the big offensive issue. State hit well over .300 in a lost SEC series to the Rebels, yet swept Missouri a weekend later hitting just .262.

The difference? Timing, said 2B Brett Pirtle. "That's all that matters, the right hitter at the right time. We're not really focusing on our averages, we just want to win."

The right Dogs came up often enough in good-scoring games at Missouri; and Tuesday there were two-run hits from C Gavin Collins and Rea while CF C.T. Bradford drove in teammates in consecutive innings. On an order which has had more misses than hits up to now, timing truly is everything. There are a few constants in any order. Most notably Pirtle, now hitting .331 on the full season and on an 11-game hitting streak. He's also reached base one way or another in 48-straight games against SEC opponents.

And now he's doing it from the third slot, after weeks reprising his 2013 role as ‘cleanup' batter. He represents some order-shifts put into play recently. At the top of the order depending on pitching matchup is either SS Seth Heck or platoon OF Cody Brown; and 3B Matthew Britton has stayed ninth…and suddenly become a producer there to match his strong glovework on the hot corner.

It's all the in-between slots that keep everyone guessing up until the lineup is posted. Getting Bradford back to health has been a welcome boost with his extra-base talents and fast footwork. Cohen likes having the senior mid-order, often behind Collins who improves with every at-bat of his rookie season. OF Derrick Armstrong has slumped since his torrid stretch, to be expected, but does keep getting on base and keeps defenses worried what he will do from there. 3B/DH Reid Humphreys is getting worked into the order more often for his pure potential at the plate.

Besides, slumps don't automatically cost jobs. DH/corner IF Alex Detz for example, who despite a .231 SEC average is always in mind as a lefthanded substitute if not in the order to begin. The best example though is Rea, who was 2-of-26 over three SEC weekends, moved down to eighth in orders, and did not get to swing two games at Missouri.

He responded with the game-breaking hit against Ole Miss and after one completely surprising fielding gaffe handled his position as all have learned to expect. Most importantly the co-captain did not let dugout time shake his confidence. "Going through a slump yeah, you're going through a slump but you're also doing some things mechanically. I just felt I wasn't getting the barrel there." A lot of extra BP attention has been spent fixing that and two hits resulted at Pearl.

"I mean that just shows what a leader is," said Pirtle. "He didn't pout or anything, he helped us out on the bench and got his chance and got a double."

What encouraged Cohen was how many Dogs in the last four wins-five counting a routine romp over Alcorn State—have worked for fixes to their swings that work. The result, "We got some big two-out hits and that's the mark of a good ball club too. When we hit a bunch of balls to the middle of the field it makes me feel we're taking a better approach."

Better plate approaches, and results, are exactly what a somewhat-strained pitching staff needs in this stretch they play a lot of games with few breaks. Yet when a team is feeling some momentum like this, they don't really want to stop what they say started on April 14 with that team talk.

"What we said is it's not too late," Collins said. "We're doing a good job of realizing that. The second half and how you finish is what matters."

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