Dogs Start Decisive SEC Stretch At Auburn

If the closing stretch of this conference season should really become an all-or-nothing affair, Mississippi State has a ballclub seemingly suited for the stress. Because these Diamond Dogs have gotten good at bouncing off both sides of this SEC street.

Their next chance to change the direction comes on the road as Mississippi State (28-18, 11-10 SEC) is at Auburn (25-20, 9-12). Games are 6:00 both Friday and Saturday with CSS telecast of game-two, and 1:00 Sunday.

A week ago at this time the Bulldogs were in the fast lane after sweeping at Missouri. Dropping a home series with Texas A&M swerved State back onto the other side, and any lingering momentum from a six-win streak was dissipated Wednesday with a nigh-inexplicable 2-1 loss to Jacksonville State. Now they jump back into conference competition, with post-season an increasing concern.

"No one wants to lose like we are right now," said RHP Trevor Fitts. "But we're together enough to where we can turn this around easily."

‘Easily' might be athletic optimism speaking. That's just part of college ball and these Bulldogs aren't conceding anything with three conference matchups remaining. Neither are they taking anything for granted. If the SEC Tournament was next week they would be in as of now, and almost assured of a NCAA berth as well. The league meet isn't until May 20 and State could just as easily play themselves out of Hoover.

"We've got three series left before the SEC Tournament," OF Cody Brown said. "We've just got to really lock-in as a team, as a pitching staff and as position players we have to mesh together for the last three series and pull them out."

Or, not give games away as happened Wednesday. Though only the second such setback of the season in ten chances, the JSU game painfully resembled the first when Memphis took advantage of late-game mistakes behind the plate to rally for what at the time looked like a fluke. The 2-1 defeat, when JSU scored their runs in the eighth and ninth on passed pitches, reminded how after ten weeks issues remain in this fundamental area. Just as scoring only one run, that on a solo homer by pinch-hitter Alex Detz in the seventh, showed State continues to struggle for any serious offense.

Even so, "This group to me is really, really close to breaking out and doing some special things," Coach John Cohen said. "A week ago we were talking about being 6-0 and now we haven't played as well. So think they're looking forward to an opportunity to get it going again."

To be sure everyone in the conference this year—and almost everyone in the country—has a ‘bad' RPI loss or two, or three. When the #1-ranked club Virginia is clubbed 8-1 by in-state foe Old Dominion it says something about the state of the game nation-wide. Mostly, that nobody really knows who is really good in 2014…which presumably leaves the NCAA Tournament picture wide open for everyone earning or just plain receiving a bid.

But getting said bid is Mississippi State's priority now that hosting a regional is at best a very long shot. And by schedule chance the Dogs face a couple of comparable clubs in Auburn this weekend and Tennessee the next. They probably aren't battling for the same bid at this point…but it's closer to that than the situation of just a week ago for State which is now in a tie for SEC sixth overall.

The Tigers might occupy the SEC West cellar at the moment but there are no doors much less locks on that spot this season. They've also raised their game of late, playing South Carolina three nailbiters in a split series before taking two of three at Arkansas this past weekend. Auburn had no midweek game.

Statistically, in SEC play only, Auburn is a bit behind the Bulldogs in batting average, .263 to .254; and odd as it sounds State has an edge in scoring and extra-base hits too with the teams almost identical in base stealing. Defense is practically equal as well. The only margins worth noting now are on the mound and contrary to preseason expectations the Tigers are pitching it better; 3.35 to 3.88 in ERA. Though, State has 41 more strikeouts in the same number of games and a better average-against.

Count Cohen as impressed how Auburn pitching has progressed this season. "(Keegan) Thomson is really good to do what he's doing at such a young age. (Daniel) Kroger has pitched really well, and the Friday night guy (Dillon) Ortman has done nothing but get better over his entire career. And they have a really solid lineup." As well as an aggressive basepaths approach typical of first-year coaching that tries pressuring the defense into mistakes.

Which after Wednesday's backstop breakdowns as well as a very uncharacteristic fielding mistake in game-two against A&M is suddenly a sensitive spot for a State team which until then was covering the short game and containing runners very well. Cohen knows the Tigers will push their paths-luck to the limit and the Dogs must be sharp again.

"It all starts with the guy on the mound, he by himself can control the running game. And our catchers have to be better than they were yesterday." This was addressed strongly in Thursday's practice, even during BP when the catchers got in the cage and covered bunts to end each stint. That's just how fatal the flaws were against Jacksonville State. "We played really good for seven innings and then just couldn't receive the baseball for whatever reason. Our kids are fully aware of that."

"I haven't lost any confidence in the catchers, and I think I've got something like ten wild pitches," Fitts said. "It's one of those things we've got guys on base, pitchers are trying to make pitches that are unhittable and sometimes those pitches are uncatchable at the same time. So I know they worked really hard today and they're be ready for the weekend."

Fitts (3-2, 2.90) will be readied to start another series with LHP Ross Mitchell (6-4, 2.35) again in the game-two role. This weekend both have had the usual rest after an early-starting series, and as of now no weather seems likely to disrupt things on the plains. Cohen is leaving game-three TBA, sounding today as if the choice is between RHP Preston Brown (3-1, 2.58) or RHP Brandon Woodruff (1-2, 6.32).

Brown only lasted into the second inning against A&M coming off his three-week absence for a shoulder issue. Cohen said Brown's bullpen session today was good, and review of the game-three start last week showed the sophomore had hard luck with two fine pitches just chipped into an opening. "He executed some pitches, some things just happened to him. The luxury is waiting two days you see up close what kind of club Auburn has and how they'll adjust. Certainly Woodruff, he pitched so well against A&M and he keeps getting better and better. I've said so many times he's really close to making that big jump."

Though both top relievers, LHP Jacob Lindgren and RHP Jonathan Holder, worked Wednesday it won't affect their Friday availability. The only pitcher not available in fact is Wednesday starter Lucas Laster, so that leaves LHP Vance Tatum as another option. The challenge now is for C Gavin Collins or C Zack Randolph to just catch or stop the pitches, because while Auburn only has four SEC-game homers the Plainsman Park fences are very reachable. Even that left-field monster wall is closer than it seems, as Fitts himself knows well.

"I gave up a home run there my freshman year! But I know the way their ballpark is set up and the style of hitters they have."

Which inevitably brings around the topic of State's hitters and their ongoing struggles to score runs. Wednesday with just four hits, same as JSU, was actually an exception to the recent trend. The Dogs out-hit A&M .318 to .269 and were one-up in extra base hits. This was after beating up on Ole Miss eleven hits to three in an 8-3 victory. So getting guys on bases with base hits has saw real progress at April's end.

Pushing them on home remains the great weak link. Yet there is nothing at this point the coaches are trying to change about how Dogs are swinging, because the average is up and the contact has been solid. Steady, too. Non-participants see four hits against a JSU team and assume a weak approach.

Coaches and players see the video and know better. After reviewing a solid ‘six' shot that lines right into a glove nobody is now telling any Dog to go up to the plate and swing softer. "Exactly, you have to stay with that approach," said Detz. "You hit a ball hard right at someone, you can't change anything because it will probably find a hole next time."

Yes, there is a measure of faith invoked here. But it is based on evidence from the cage and the live games that leaves everyone in the meeting room shaking heads. "What's unbelievable to me is I believe some of our kids are this close," Cohen said, holding thumb and forefinger a half-inch apart, "to hitting 100 points higher than their average is. If I could show you films of how many barrel-oriented outs on the infield, line drives, balls hit on pitchers shins that make an out at first base."

Along with repeating those good swings, the Bulldogs will try to manufacture a few other items that might give even better pitches to hit. Their running game has almost vanished of late, partly because the contact has been better…and thus making double-plays easier with a hard one-hopper right to the defender. Still it is safe to guess State will try to be even more aggressive when possible.

"We're always looking extra bases, whether it is being aggressive on a single or a hustle double," said Brown. "We're trying any way we can to get in scoring position, whether that be hit-and-runs or bunting them over, stealing, whatever. We're just trying to put the pieces to the puzzle together and see what works for us."

To be puzzling basic things out this late in the schedule reflects just how frustrating the first ten weeks have been. And yet Mississippi State finds itself a game-ahead of where they were last SEC season at this point; fourth in the West and just two games back of co-leaders Alabama and Ole Miss. If they cared to count the math, the Dogs could say they are still in striking distance of winning a Division. Equally, they are just two games ahead of Auburn and only four in front of 7-13 Georgia, first team under the Hoover cut-line.

So much then depends on the MSU mindset headed into this weekend when there is much to be won and a lot more that can be lost. Cohen called Thursday's practice "great" and said players were looking forward to the trip, even during the pressures of semester finals weeks. "Our practice was very, very energetic and I thought we got a ton done."

If the ton of perceived pressure doesn't get to them, the Diamond Dogs can get back in that fast lane and maybe stay there down the SEC stretch.

"I think there are a lot more positives than there are negatives at this point," Cohen said. "And our kids realize our whole season hinges on these next three weekends."

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