That is what sweeping a series does to and for a team's mentality at this point of a season. Mississippi State (31-18) returned home Sunday with three more SEC wins in the account and a resurrected optimism for May. The Bulldogs didn't just sweep host Auburn, they dominated with consecutive 3-0 shutouts to win the series and a 12-1 romp to complete a sweep.
Their second SEC road sweep in the last three weekends, too. So despite dropping a home series in-between and thanks to the endless wildness that is the SEC West, the Bulldogs suddenly find themselves alone in second place in the Division at 14-10. ‘Alone' being a relative term since Mississippi State is only one game in back of loop leader 15-9 Ole Miss; and just in front of 13-10-1 LSU (ties count as a half-win/half-loss) and 13-11 Alabama.
More meaningful in the post-season picture is moving into a tie for third place overall with two remaining conference series. Should State hold on or better yet improve their position they can earn one of four first-day byes at the SEC Tournament. By the same token, a berth among the dozen qualifiers for Hoover is not yet locked-up. 6-18 Missouri, the team State swept two weeks ago, cannot catch up but at 9-15 Auburn still could. So the Dogs need one more SEC win, or one more Auburn loss, to seal this deal.
If this sounds like pressure, well, what's new? Though given how this squad has responded to perceived pressures the better description is, what's the worry? Any ball club that could keep its collective cool through all those the radical swings of April and begin May with a sweep is one to take seriously down the stretch. A stretch that continues with Tennessee coming to campus for 6:30, 6:00, and 1:30 matchups.
"It's a big week for us," Cohen said on his Sunday post-game show. "And we have to prepare for a very good Tennessee club that won two out of three against I think a very good Kentucky team. And they're going to have the one extra day too." The Volunteers (28-17, 10-14) showed their own resilience by bouncing back from a Thursday blowout at home to beat the Wildcats twice. And yes, Tennessee feels their own pressures to go ahead and lock up a Hoover berth ASAP.
For Mississippi State, this spring finals week is a good one not to have a non-conference game…much as Cohen and club would like to go for a fourth-straight winning day. And speaking of studying, the Bulldogs put a lot of work into the Auburn trip. They had to, after having a six-win streak snapped in a lost series to Texas A&M, followed by a midweek collapse that let Jacksonville State steal a 2-1 Wednesday decision on utterly unearned runs. To outside observers it looked like a very fragile point in the season.
Cohen saw something else. "I felt good about our kids, because they were so focused coming into this. They know what's at stake, every single game." He saw it during film work, batting practice and other game prep. This type of work wasn't unusual but the collective intensity was. "And I'm not sure that was the case the whole year and that's been my responsibility. But I love where we are now."
As in, having regained most control over their own post-season opportunities. There is even some revived thought that a NCAA Regional host can yet be won, though that remains a long shot given the RPI and schedule strength compared to the other conference contenders. Then again 2014 has been an amazingly fluid situation. With only two weekends left a host of SEC squads can still earn a first-day bye at Hoover…and equally not even qualify for the 12-team field!
Such flux actually does seem to suit Mississippi State's temperament though. Hard as it can be on fans, these Bulldogs have made themselves comfortable with the all-or-nothing results in recent weekends and stuck to their jobs. RHP Trevor Fitts, who is establishing himself as a reliable series-starter with consecutive game-one wins, credits club chemistry.
"Chemistry is huge. Because we're a really close team and we can handle anything. That's part of the recruiting process, recruit guys to handle things that happen."
A senior squad man agrees. "We have great leadership," 1B/DH Alex Detz said. "We have a mix of younger guys, older guys, the leadership is good, the chemistry is as good as any team I've been on." This has allowed the Dogs to survive their rough stretches and unexpected setbacks with enough poise to come right back with a winning weekend. And, interestingly, on the road where they are now 8-4 compared to 6-6 on the home field. This ought prove helpful in case State does end up assigned a road Regional.
More helpful is scoring runs. True, the program is and remains founded upon steady starting pitching, strong bullpen performance, and reliable defense backing it all up. None of the above provide margin of victory, and too often this season the P&D has not been supported by enough runs. Not that in 2014 a lot of scoring is needed for most of the SEC, as with just a couple of exceptions the entire league has been in a scoring and even hitting ‘slump' of sorts.
This didn't ease frustrations in April when weekend after weekend after weekend saw Bulldogs doing what they practiced, putting barrels on bats and driving it all around ballparks…and too often right into defenders' gloves. "In 20 years I've never seen anything like this," Cohen said. "I know it's supposed to even-out but it starts wearing on your offense. To get back out there and keep recreating their swing, not getting too big, requires toughness."
And eventually, reward. It came at Auburn. Remarkably, the reward included an unprecedented-for-'14 three home runs, though by no means were Dogs swinging for Auburn's reachable fences. They used the same plate approach as produced 34 hits in three games at home against A&M, and in a smaller park some balls left. More found the sort of gaps and openings or just plain forced Tigers into tough defensive situations that State could exploit for a most welcome change.
"That's just baseball when it comes down to it," said OF Cody Brown last week, who would hit one of those longballs at Auburn. "You hit balls hard, you get rewarded, that's what we're trying to do. Just stay on that path, keep hitting balls hard and sooner or later they're going to fall for us."
OF C.T. Bradford and Brown hit their homers Friday, while C Gavin Collins had a solo shot Sunday. Tellingly, Bradford and Collins staked State to 1-0 leads; scoring fast and first, and then adding another run or two in the first-third of games was exactly the encouragement the entire club needed to stay with P&D and win. Because Auburn did throw challenges and tried comebacks only to strand tying runners on in the first two wins. Sunday's final margin was inflated by an eight-run seventh inning, for some cautionary perspective. The Bulldog offense hasn't turned into any juggernaut just yet, and Cohen did say in the first two games there were more quality at-bats that didn't get rewarded as much.
But it is progress and in May is the offensive momentum the squad seeks. "It's remarkable," Cohen mused. "So I believe it's going to start turning, we're going miss-hit a ball and it's going to fall for us. Hit a ball hard and it's going to fall for us. Hopefully those things are going to start going out way."
State shook up the order again, though always within the right/left matchups that guide most moves, by putting Bradford up near the top. It wasn't based on average, as the senior got only one hit against A&M; but his contact in the series was so strong and consistent Cohen wanted to give as many chances as possible. Bradford rewarded the faith with his first homer all season and 5-of-12 batting for five RBI. Senior 2B Brett Pirtle was 5-of-13 for three RBI batting behind Bradford or Detz, reminding how much difference it makes when the whole top-of-order is coming through.
Which can equally include the end-of-order. When 3B Matt Britton was 4-of-11 in the nine hole he not only drove in four runs but let the first two, three teammates on the lineup swing with another Dog on the paths. "When he's swinging the bat well it's such a big bonus," Cohen said Sunday. "Because he's such a great defender."
Another interesting tweak to an order/lineup that has changed almost every game-by-game since opening day, was putting Brown in the four-hole. It oughtn't be that surprising since State hasn't used a true ‘cleanup' sort of batter for a few years now. Then again the freshman outfielder might make himself one, as suddenly he is the prime source of power with homers in the last few SEC series home and away. Collins' punch is not a surprise based on fall ball, it's just that now he is getting a better read on SEC pitching to swing and maybe even slug at.
Brown, Collins, and DH Reid Humphreys combined for 10-of-20 hitting in the series, and since all are freshmen this bodes better for Bulldog batting in the future. Plus, they are allowing 1B Wes Rea to be used as a defensive substitute or right-handed pinch swinger, since the co-captain has struggled all season to find a consistent stroke. Relaxing such personal pressures could pay off in a bigger way come tournament time, where Rea certainly shone in 2013.
Overall, "We found a lot of barrels and hit a lot of line drives," Cohen said. "Our kids were patient and got rewarded. It's been a while since our kids have been rewarded, they've been expecting those line drives to find gloves. You have to have some good fortune to have that happen."
But now back at home, and with Hoover hopefully looming, swinging at fences is not an offensive priority. Staying strong on the mound is. Giving up one run in 27 innings certainly reminded why. Another piece found its place at Auburn as RHP Preston Brown returned. Really returned, compared to his brief inning a weekend ago coming off three series missed to shoulder injury. Brown got Sunday's win started under control and might have gone longer, but State didn't want to push him just yet. Not with Tennessee and Alabama series right ahead.
Plus, Brown did have a few more three-ball counts than wanted, Cohen said, though only one ended up a walking. The goal is to make him the right-handed version of LHP Ross Mitchell and get contact on the second or third pitch. Mitchell did what Mitchell does so well by going a complete Saturday win, his fourth full-route SEC start of another amazing season and this time with a shutout. He did give up hits but stranded every Tiger and most of all rested the bullpen Bulldogs who tossed late Friday on-track for Sunday. As it turned out only LHP Jacob Lindgren had to come back and he did quell one last potential comeback.
Then the eight-run outburst let righties Ben Bracewell and Myles Gentry run-out the afternoon. Lindgren did his biggest job and showed his best stuff Friday evening in support of Fitts. "Lindgren did what he's always done, he finds it," Cohen said. State was able to again use RHP Brandon Woodruff as, almost, a ‘co starter' in game three in immediate relief of Brown; again thanks to Mitchell's full-distance Saturday. It is always risky counting on a complete game from anyone in the SEC, including the unshakable ‘Rossterphobic', but as Fitts and Brown gets stronger and more efficient each weekend this makes Lindgren and RHP Jonathan Holder that much more efficient in later relief.
Plus, as one looks longer ahead, southpaws Lucas Laster and Vance Tatum have been developed in mid-week outings to the point they are ready for SEC innings. And since State is through with non-conference play until Regional time, they are now entirely available on weekends.
With the last rounds of finals ongoing Cohen calls this a "crazy week for us" and is revising schedules for practices, weight workouts, and bullpen sessions. "And we had some kids who didn't get to pitch on the weekend that need to face hitters," he said, which sounds like some scrimmaging is in store.
If it seems difficult to reconcile how a team could give away a home game on Wednesday to a non-conference club, then respond with another SEC road sweep, well, that is what the 2014 season has become. Not just for Mississippi State by any means, as everyone in the league has their own inexplicable losses; some multiple such setbacks. What it all adds up to is a couple of closing weekends with almost everyone still within reach of their goals…and equally vulnerable to end-of-season disappointment.
Count Cohen in the optimistic camp. "I still think this club has some good leadership on it and I think they can make a run. The energy they show, the way they communicate, the excitement of the kids. I just believe it's going to happen."