May Slate Is Defining Stretch For Bulldogs

It's a little too soon to come right out and say so. But with prime regular season goals slipping out of sight, Mississippi State can invest the remaining schedule putting pieces in places for tournament season. And, hopefully, put a frustrating April behind. Way, way behind.

The Diamond Dogs limped out of the month bruised in confidence and record alike, having lost three of four series SEC and fallen off the pace that had them end March tied for first overall. A 5-7 April showing now means Mississippi State (28-17, 11-10) begins May tied for sixth.

Standing above break-even in the SEC is no mean feat to be sure. And while it can't be taken for granted just yet the Bulldogs can have some confidence there will be a tournament time for them. It will almost assuredly be played away from home though, barring all sorts of end-of-schedule chaos…and both within and without the SEC this year there is plenty of that already.

April is ending with the conference picture starting to clear up at the very top. Florida's sweep of cellar-dweller Missouri has pushed the Gators two games out in front of everyone. Alabama and Ole Miss are even in second with the Tide holding that tiebreak, and a half-game ahead of LSU. That Sunday Tiger tie with Georgia back in the early season now looms much larger in Division race calculations, especially since in two weeks Alabama visits Baton Rouge. The LSU tie also keeps them a step ahead of a South Carolina club now getting healthy at stretch time.

Then comes Mississippi State, even for now with Vanderbilt. These teams don't play each other; the Bulldogs do have upcoming series though with a couple of opponents they currently lead, this weekend at Auburn (9-12) and then the home finale with Tennessee (8-13). The opportunity is here to regain the sort of momentum State had going into last weekend, a five-win streak including a sweep of Missouri and another Governors Cup victory over Ole Miss.

The problem though is Texas A&M came to campus also below State in the standings, and after a 5-1 home team win finished on Friday the Aggies took 6-3 and 6-4 decisions. Quickly as that the momentum of six-straight wins was gone…

…or was it? Because while other lost series were frustrating too this one went to another level. State out-hit the Aggies .318 to .269, matched them in doubles for the three games and even had the only home run of the weekend, by OF Cody Brown to ice the resumed game-one outcome. While A&M got maybe their best pitching of the season in this series, the Bulldogs were better on the mound in some area. Strikeouts most of all, fanning 30 batters to 17.

For that matter putting balls in play hasn't been a Bulldog issue of late with double-digit hits the last five games and 10 of the last 13. Weekly, the squad average keeps inching upwards after the frigid first two months. Yet in this fact lies the greatest of baseball frustrations, epitomized in game-three when State ripped drives all over Dudy Noble Field and fanned opponents in bunches, yet lost on the scoreboard.

"It's all about timing," said SS Seth Heck. "The last few games we've been hitting well, we just haven't been getting that hit with the runner on third base and less than two outs, something like that. It's something we've got to keep working through and hopefully balls start falling for us."

Fans loathe hearing players and coaches talk of balls not falling. It is still the core story, just as it was for opponents in 2013 when Mississippi State was making its remarkable run and leaving opponents flustered. That made the rubber-game or even game-two no less painful for Coach John Cohen and club as they lost priceless SEC position.

"We strike out four times and get 13 hits and hit a ton of balls hard," said Cohen, correctly. "Those just didn't fall for us. If we get some hard line drives, and soft line drives in key situations we score a bunch of runs, it just didn't happen for us."

The potential for bunches of scoring was obvious all weekend, more than any series so far as Bulldogs reached base in bunches. Not just one or two at a time either, but by twos and threes. To their credit this time State did manage, sometimes, to push somebody across; just not often and efficiently, and when four game-three innings ended with a Dog on third base it magnified the frustrations. Even in wins, this offense hasn't used such opportunities to the fullest.

One key might be that despite batting .326 in their last five games, for one sample-size, State isn't getting as many gifts as before. The same stretch saw just 17 walks, a marked fall-off; and only four HBPs which is something expected. Opponents either are pitching more carefully, or more likely coming right at an order and figuring despite giving up hits and maybe a run they will sooner or later find the weak link and strand Dogs. The same five games have left 46 unscored and a painful percentage on second or third bases at that.

But Cohen can't criticize his hitters for their efforts the last two weeks. Not with the quality of contact he's seen both in-person and on video review. The game-two tape in fact looked, to the coaches, like the best 1-through-9 swinging of the season so far, yet with too little to show for it. So, "It's hard to walk up to a kid who just smoked a ball and say you didn't do your job. There is some positioning issues, there's some luck to it, and everybody in our league does a good job on scouting reports and a pretty good job defending."

The fix? Keep swinging at strikes and taking balls and stay within individual identity. And, hope a few batters who struggled over this particular series regain form. Outfielders Brown, C.T. Bradford and Derrick Armstrong were a combined 2-of-23 after all three came in hitting well, for examples, and each were up in RBI settings without producing. Hoping doesn't soothe baffled fans today but is baseball at its base. "It's sequencing and everything else. It's when you're getting the hits, how guys are getting on. You've got to have HBPs, you've got to have walks, you've got to create some errors."

Speaking of which, Bulldog defense had some uncharacteristic breakdowns with five errors over the weekend. There was another in Pearl that led to a Rebel rally, but State offset that sufficiently the same as two errors in the game-one win. Realistically only one official error mattered all series, but it was huge, even decisive. In a tied game, LHP Ross Mitchell fielded a fine bunt that belonged to 3B Matt Britton in the first place, then forced an errant throw that scored the Aggie from first base. It opened the gate on a three-run inning and lead A&M didn't lose.

Nobody pins a lost series on one play or player. But for a team still struggling to score runs any big mistake is magnified. So is lack of execution on the mound and here State had more troubles. After six splendid SEC starts and throwing a lot, a lot of pitches the last two times out Mitchell was likely due a lapse; the hope is that was a one-time event for the otherwise-steady junior. RHP Trevor Fitts did turn in a solid game-one start; and with two ‘normal' weekend schedules upcoming both ought to get back into rhythm.

That still leaves the glaring need for a game-three guy. Yet here might be another glint of optimism on the mound. There are plenty of options available again with RHP Preston Brown returned after a three-week layoff. Cohen admitted it ought to have been four; Brown was given the Saturday start and lasted eight batters, five of whom reached with three scoring. The RBI hits were of seeing-eye variety and Cohen thought a couple of plays could have been made on them. Regardless it was a "horrendous start" for the team per the head coach, who took blame for giving Brown the start. Which, it needs reminding, the pitcher always has a say in, and Brown obviously wanted the chance at home.

He will get another chance soon as before the shoulder issue Brown was settling in as a solid starter. And while it could have cost a game (State did catch up in the second inning) Brown needed to get on the hill for-real again to be ready for May stints. Post-season starting, too, should the Dogs need a goodly stay at Hoover for instance.

RHP Ben Bracewell wasn't effective enough following Brown in game-three either, yet had been outstanding in long-relief winning six days earlier at Missouri. Another up-and-down Dog, RHP Brandon Woodruff, has had good consecutive outings now in relief and may be looked at as a Sunday starter again…if not needed earlier in a series. In retrospect Cohen and Coach Butch Thompson would have brought Woodruff in before Bracewell this time. Next time? There's no way to know now, though it does help coming off a stretch of four games in five days and having Sunday off for everyone.

"We just try to put the kids in the best positions we can. But hopefully we can move those guys back to their original slot," Cohen said.

Another encouraging development was how lefthanders Lucas Laster and Vance Tatum tossed against Ole Miss on Tuesday, allowing just three hits and a walk in a 8-3 win. In a big park, too, something to consider in upcoming matchups. Auburn's dimensions and layout make the fences reachable there, though the home team has just 13 home runs this season. State, only eight but that is no surprise.

A larger challenge in this matchup is how purely aggressive the Tigers are offensively, especially running from any and every base regardless of situation. That would appear to make C Gavin Collins' strong throwing arm a must as he has thrown out 18 of 27 stealers. Collins, the hitting star against Ole Miss last week, was 4-of-10 in his three starts with five RBI. He did not start game-three against A&M, partly because a freshman needs rest and partly to benefit the starting pitcher with older C Zack Randolph who went 2-of-4 himself.

There are two ways to judge these Diamond Dogs at this point of their season. Either the club is exactly what they have shown already; or it is a squad gradually figuring itself out just in time to play better ball when it matters most. Nobody, not even the coach, can say which today.

Nor need he. The scoreboard will show one way or the other. So for Cohen, "We've got three big weekends left and I'm hoping our kids are a little bit better in those three weekends."

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