Much better for sure. And if rest counts towards success this time of year, Laster should be primed for Tuesday evening. His last outing was the Sunday game-three with Tennessee so it will have been nine full days. Not that they have been down-days to be fair, but "I feel like it will be good for me, give me a few extra days on my arm and get a few long-tosses and a bullpen in. Hopefully I'll be pretty fresh."
Mississippi State considered giving lefthander Laster the ball Saturday at Tuscaloosa, but opted for righty Preston Brown. It's not fair now to say going another way would have worked any better and that the Dogs would surely have won, and earned a first-day bye at the SEC Tournament. What counts now is unlike some conference clubs also playing Tuesday, there is a ‘pretty fresh' arm ready for the opener.
And the timing could be very right for both Laster and the rest of the staff since conference tournament time has to be carefully pitched ahead of next weekend's NCAA Regionals. Either way, it's time to get Laster back on the mound for-real. The juco transfer has worked just 23.2 innings this season with a 0-0 record and 1.52 ERA. But his SEC relief innings, and the five-plus frames thrown against Ole Miss in the Governors Cup, showed Laster was finding his stride late in 2014.
Though, his head coach admits, that Laster is even on the SEC roster this season wasn't expected over the winter evaluations. "Every time we had a meeting Butch (Thompson) would say hey, we've got to get Laster in the game, we need to get him going. And I kept saying the guy in the fall that couldn't get anybody out?!"
Then after a couple of iffy stints, including against the Rebels at home, Laster started nine days later in Pearl and went 5.1 with two runs on three hits. Only one score was earned, except Laster plunked six Rebels trying to work them inside. Way inside, but fortunately he got out of most troubles and turned over a winnable game to lefty Vance Tatum. Then he went 5.2 against the Volunteers in relief.
Now Cohen said, "Lucas has really turned a corner and I think he's a much more confident young man." Laster has a little more reason for confidence going to Hoover. It might well be further good timing that instead of making a start in a cozy Alabama park, he throws now in a AA-sized facility.
"From what I hear it plays a lot like Dudy Noble. So it will be nothing to worry about, I'll be able to trust my outfielders, and the infielders will be ready to go."
But only after doing his homework. Remember Cohen's comment? That factored into Laster not being on the travel roster when Mississippi State went to Georgia in mid-March. "I actually didn't make the trip, so I'm going to have to watch a little extra video tonight."
BIG-PARK-TIME: Cohen said the club is "Excited about playing in Hoover, we feel we've had some recent success there." That is obvious, after the epic 2012 championship charge in the first-ever six-day format with a 5-1 record. Last year produced a 3-1 record in Hoover with a semifinals appearance, and more history as well with the 17-inning marathon with Missouri on opening night…and beyond. Though the 2011 team went out in two games, Cohen's Bulldog clubs are 8-4 in this venue.
No pun intended, there is a larger story here involving the bigger yards. Since the 2011 season, Bulldog teams have played in four professional-sized venues. These four seasons they are 7-1 in games played at Pearl's Trustmark Park against Ole Miss and Southern Mississippi; 1-0 against Memphis in AutoZone Park; and then last June's 3-2 showing at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha.
That adds up to a 19-7 record when playing in a professional park through four seasons so-far. Baseball being baseball, such things eventually balance out and a down-year or two could come. But it remains equally true, Diamond Dog teams just make themselves at home in larger venues. Because, Cohen said, it is like home.
"I think it's more that Dudy Noble plays pretty big, and in bigger ballparks you have to be more line-drive oriented. And our team speed plays well defensively, because you have to run to the ball and balls tend to stay in the air longer. But, you still have to do it. And it all starts on the mound."
Which is an interesting angle itself, as even on the home field or any sizable park Mississippi State emphasizes coaxing ground balls more than fly balls. That certainly contributed to winning eight of their last nine SEC road games in medium-to-small parks. Still, Bulldog pitchers don't mind the luxury of some extra space to play with this week.
"The advantage for us in Hoover is it does play a lot like Dudy Noble does," said senior Ben Bracewell, who knows the environs well. "It's a big park, a lot of space in the outfield and let our guys who all have tremendous speed kind of run around and make plays. That's why we generally play pretty well in Hoover so that's definitely on our minds and we definitely look forward to getting back in that ballpark."
SEEMS LIKE JUST LAST MIDNIGHT…: When the teams line up Tuesday evening, lots of Dogs either on the field or in the dugout may have at least a little flashing-back to a year ago. And while they obviously intend to repeat the winning result, none will want to spend 17 whole innings doing it.
Nor will the opponents, tournament staff, and especially a perpetually-grumpy press corps which loathes extra inning games much less one lasting nearly two complete contests and concluding far after anything but on-line deadlines. Still we who were there can also recall that epic with amusement, especially when Clarion Ledger scribe Mike Bonner reported—so to speak—that Twitter had notified him he'd reached a tweet-limit. None knew there was such a thing.
But no one had covered a 17-inning SEC Tournament tilt either. Though, current NEMDJ writer Logan Lowery did cover Mississippi State's 17-inning marathon at Oxford in 2007,which at the time was a program record-longest game. He's the only media member to have seen both games.
In the big picture that 2007 grinder meant little more than pride. The SEC Tourney meeting mattered a lot more as Mississippi State was on the proverbial ‘bubble' for hosting a NCAA Regional. Losing to bottom-seeded and season-ending squad Missouri might have cost just enough RPI points to get passed over. So there was a bit of Bulldog tension already going into Tuesday evening.
Ironically too, play began a little ahead earlier than usual for a fourth game, at 7:45. But it did not end until 12:24am Wednesday, when catcher Mitch Slauter slapped a two-out single. Kyle Hann, pinch-running for first baseman Wes Rea after a leadoff walk, scored from second. State collected 16 hits but left 19 un-scored runners on bases. Hitting hero Slauter had not long before come off a 16-game absence with a cracked hand, and was 0-of-8 in limited appearances after the return.
Will Cox got the win having entered in the top of the 15th inning as the sixth Bulldog to pitch. He of course can't throw this year after an early-season injury. Active Dogs who did pitch that night were starter Trevor Fitts (3.1 innings), Ben Bracewell (2.1), Jonathan Holder (2.2) and Ross Mitchell (3.0).
He couldn't have known it at the time, of course…and since he was speaking to media well past midnight Cohen likely doesn't remember a thing he said there. But he did offer a quote then that proved powerfully prophetic, after his team survived a real scare.
"These are the kind of wins you look back and say maybe this was meant to be," Cohen said. "Maybe it will catapult you into the NCAA."
Safe to say, it did.
WORKING OVERTIME: If this one does go beyond the scripted nine, though, the Diamond Dogs will probably feel positive about working late. They have won all six games this season which have gone into extra innings.
And the whole half-dozen have come in the last six weeks, beginning April 8 when State had to outlast Southern Mississippi 4-3 in 11 innings. The one most-remembered of course was on ‘super Saturday' when an all-time NCAA campus record crowd thought the home team was about to fall to Ole Miss in the tenth after the Rebels took a 5-2 lead. State trumped it in the bottom of the tenth with four unlikely scores for a 6-5 final…meaning every time Dudy Noble Field has moved the NCAA standard a little farther out they've also won.
Since then these Dogs have added two overtime wins at Missouri, 3-2 (11) and 9-7 (10); and then did it on consecutive days against Tennessee by 1-0 (10) and 4-3 (12) scores. So yes, they've gotten comfortable in any game that exceeds regulation innings."It just speaks a lot about our team," said C Cody Walker. "We never give up, we never give in. we have energy no matter if we're playing nine or 15."
Or even 17…
The Bulldogs are also 9-6 this season in games decided by a single run. Most of the losses came early in the season, and State has won four of the last six nailbiters.
"Our kids just feel comfortable playing in tight ball games," said Cohen. "There's no panic, our kids just keep playing. We're down three, we keep playing; we have a 3-1 lead, we keep playing. We've had pretty good numbers playing with leads in the last three or four years. But we've also had good numbers coming from behind. Our kids just don't give in and I think that has a lot to do with their workouts."
DOG EAT DOG: Mississippi State has a 7-4 record against Georgia in SEC Tournaments going back to the second such event, in 1978. State won that meeting, as they did the next one. Or two, with two matchups in the 1985 tournament in Baton Rouge. The Clark-and-Palmeiro club beat Georgia twice including the only time these programs have played for the Tournament title.
Though since the Tournament settled in Hoover, the other Bulldogs do have a 2-3 edge. Not that any of the current players nor coaches would know since the last meeting was in 2002. That game and the season before had its share of irony though; en route to the 2001 championship, State beat a Georgia team coached by MSU legend Ron Polk. A year later Polk was back in Starkville, and at Hoover in 2002 he beat the Athens Dogs.
However in the biggest post-season collision of the programs, Georgia came out on top. That was in the first round of the 1990 College World Series, when a UG team on its way to the national championship beat Mississippi State 3-0.
REMATCH: Last year, State's meeting with Missouri wasn't just the only of the season since they weren't scheduled. It was the first-ever game between the two teams. That isn't the case in 2014 for MSU and Georgia. Though, it's been a while since they played; a full SEC schedule in fact as the teams opened conference season, in Athens. The Diamond Dogs came back from dropping the debut 7-1 to take a weather-forced doubleleader on Saturday by 6-1 and 4-1 scores.
That twinbill was the first of three-straight winning weekends to open SEC season. "It was big," said SS Seth Heck. "Early in the season we had doubleheaders on Saturday so it wasn't new to us. I think that was a big contributor, we came out with so much energy."
Nine weekends later both ballclubs have taken different tracks to Hoover, and using that March series to scout by could be risky. Georgia is expecting to put righthander Dylan Cole (1-0, 4.72) on the mound. He has only started twice this senior season in 19 appearances with 26.2 innings. A transfer from Furman in 2012 he was a '13 reliever with four saves in 23 innings.
State did get a short look at him way back on March 14. Cole threw 1.1 scoreless late relief innings in the Friday win with a hit and no walks nor strikeouts.
In their regular-season series, State's Dog batted 22-of-98 with 10 walks and 14 strikeouts. Though, the walk-to-strikeout rate was balanced in the two wins; not so surprisingly it was in game-one where State was getting fanned. Georgia batted 21-of-96 on their home field with the weekend's only home run, also on Friday, and four doubles. State had five doubles though.
MEANINGLESS STAT OF THE DAY: Mississippi State is 18-11 in opening games at the SEC Tournament, going back to 1977. John Cohen's three trips to Hoover as coach have produced a 2-1 record on opening day.