Dogs Test May Momentum In Tennessee Series

He was in something of a post-practice hurry. The rest of the day was free, a few hours of sunshine remained, and gear loaded up. "We're about to go fishing!" C.T. Bradford grinned.

No reports have been heard whether the fish were biting, but it was a fine way to spend the rest of a May day. And, hopefully, to relax just a little here in an ultra-intense stretch for all Diamond Dogs. Because Mississippi State's post-season possibilities will be strongly impacted by how the concluding pair of conference series play out.

Beginning with this weekend when Tennessee comes to campus. Though the actual beginning of this particular series is uncertain based on forecasts. Rain seems near-certain Friday ahead of the 6:30 start, and Saturday projects 50% chance of thunderstorms. Re-arranging in advance is not an option as of now since game-two is a 6:00 start for CSS; and Sunday is a 1:30 start for CBSSports Network.

No wonder with the weather pending Bradford was headed for a local fishing hole. That, and to unwind from the senior's final finals week, which had Mississippi State scrambling the practice schedule. But being flexible is suddenly much easier for Diamond Dogs after a sweep at Auburn put them back in the thick of things down the SEC stretch run.

Now 31-18 and 14-10 SEC, the Dogs are second in the Western Division by a single game, behind 15-9 Ole Miss. And, just a game or less in front of LSU and Alabama, who happen to meet this weekend in Baton Rouge. Saying that situation will shake-out by Sunday is dubious though. If the 2014 season has shown any trending, it is that no trends last long in the SEC West. And, that the race to secure either the Division title—something Mississippi State has never achieved since the 1992 expansion—or win one of the four first-day byes at the SEC Tournament will go down to the regular season's conclusion.

"That's the crazy thing," Bradford said. "If you would have asked me four days ago where we were in the SEC, I wouldn't have had a clue. Or where anyone else was. But I heard some things after we got a good sweep and it looks like we're in the hunt."

Mississippi State absolutely does have greater control of their SEC and ultimately NCAA fate than a week ago. Just one more win (non-conference play is over) locks up a berth at Hoover. Every other success either keeps the Bulldogs in that hunt—or fishing for—the Division as well as improves their NCAA Tournament seeding. Even, it is again conceivable, the chance to host another Regional if they storm down the stretch and through Hoover.

A long shot, true…but with all the radical twists and turns both in the SEC and around the country this spring, why not Mississippi State? Fortunately the players are keeping a calmer May perspective. Because all high hopes hinge on handling Tennessee (28-18, 10-14) first.

Coach John Cohen had only begun scouting the Volunteers yesterday but was already impressed. Most of all, he said, how they responded to a game-one rout at Kentucky by beating the Wildcats twice to take the series and get themselves back on track for Hoover. "That says a lot about who they are. They do a lot of little things well. Their on-base percentage is really good, they walk, get the HBP, they can create some havoc on the bases. They pound the strike zone on the mound and are a very good defensive team."

In fact, Cohen sees an opponent that can make itself at home on Dudy Noble Field based on both pitching and offensive styles. "So we're going to have to keep doing what we do well. And I think as a team we're playing pretty well right now."

State played about as well as they have all season last weekend in sweeping Auburn. Pitching was consistent all through with consecutive 3-0 shutouts (which earned MSU moundsmen a Wednesday stint in the batting cage as reward) ahead of a 12-1 Sunday romp. Allowing one run in 27 innings, in a small park to a host team, was exceptional, and the only Auburn run came after the only Bulldog defensive error on a failed pickoff move. "And everybody on the field made a plus, plus play," Cohen said.

Yet while those are the core strengths of this club, the coach noted something different. "I think something happens when a ball leaves a ballpark." When Bradford began the series scoring with a home run on Friday in his second at-bat, it did seem to spark the entire order. Or orders, as Cohen continued to mix-and-match some batters and several slots pending on the pitching. What stood out statistically were solo shots by Bradford and OF Cody Brown on Friday, and C Gavin Collins on Sunday.

What mattered more to the staff was "I think we took aggressive swings," Cohen said. "And some balls left the yard." Curiously, the team batting average of .296 at Auburn was down from the .318 hit against Texas A&M. But the timing turned out better for a lot of the contact, producing RBI for a welcome change. And the longball surprises did likely shake Auburn's own confidence against a Bulldog bunch that is far from a power order.

"It was definitely a change of pace!" Bradford said. "But everybody took really quality swings and had a line-drive approach." In that way Bulldog batters just stuck to the sorts of swings that produced so many good hits and contacts the previous weekend without results. This time they were rewarded for doing the same thing and, at last, getting some baseball luck with drives dropping.

There were some intriguing changes in who hit where though. After about two combined seasons swinging mid-order, Bradford (.277) moved to leadoff on game and two-slot the next. "I loved it. And if I'm not Friday, no problem, I'll do whatever he wants me to do." SS Seth Heck (.275) is the other order-topper for now, and if Bradford is second it signals a switch of either lefthanded hitter Alex Detz (.236) or righty Wes Rea (.259) at first base. And in-turn a similar matching up of DHs which at the moment are righty Reid Humphreys (.289) or lefthander Jake Vickerson (.255).

It's not new to MSU fans by now but opponents must be baffled by the ‘cleanup' batter choices again. With 2B Brett Pirtle (.346) hitting third the last 16 games Heck, no power hitter at all, has taken turns batting fourth. But catcher Collins (.315) does show punch potential there, and now redshirt rookie Brown is coming into his own with extra-base hits the last three series and a couple of homers.

"Cody is going to be a really good player, he just gets better every day," Cohen said.

Much fun as it was watching balls clear Auburn fences, being back home restores perspective. "It's a little more difficult to do that here, the percentages bear that out," Cohen said. But just the idea that a Dog can go deep does something good for offensive confidence. "And when the other team doesn't score it makes it easier to win," said Cohen. "I think we pitched as well as we have all year long."

Pitching plans don't look to change for the first two games, even if weather shuffles everything around those days. It needs remembering too that next week's series at Alabama begins Thursday, meaning RHP Trevor Fitts (4-2, 2.62) and LHP Ross Mitchell (7-4, 2.12) would have one less rest day already. Holding either for Sunday is risky. And game-three itself is suddenly uncertain for the best of reasons; there are more options available at the end of the schedule.

RHP Preston Brown (4-1, 2.28) looks to be 100% after missing three April series and is listed to start Sunday. But Cohen hinted that after evaluating Tennessee's batting there might be some second thoughts. "From the standpoint of if we feel we need to be a little more left-handed then you have Lucas Laster, whose last two outings have been pretty good. Those two guys are vying for that spot because both are throwing pretty well."

Laster (0-0, 2.00) has tossed very well in his two recent midweek starts, 5.1 innings in a win over Ole Miss and 7.0 in a no-decision against Jacksonville State. He and LHP Vance Tatum (2-0, 5.28) are entirely available for weekend work because non-conference play is done. And if anyone struggles early righthanders Brandon Woodruff (1-2, 6.32) and Ben Bracewell (3-4, 2.82) can immediately take over after weeks working as essentially co-starters.

It adds up to a starting staff and bullpen much deeper and well-measured for tournament time, obviously. When and if the Bulldogs get there, that is. Certainly Mississippi State at this moment is poised to play in both post-season events and have plenty opportunity to improve how they are seeded and sited. Yet there is just enough mathematical uncertainty left to keep some useful edge on everything, as well as keep Senior Day in perspective.

Add in the oncoming weather and, well… But this might be where a season dominated by sudden and complete changes in fortune could have prepared the Diamond Dogs to handle just about any interruption or inconvenience they come across now. The key, per old Dog Bradford who will tip his hat on the home field a final time this weekend, is staying focused on the task at hand.

"That's what we want to do. We want to take care of Friday, take care of Saturday, and move on to Sunday. But we have Friday first."

Besides, if there is any real deluge, Bradford and peers might be able to get in some informal casting-practice. But boating in DNF would be frowned upon.

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