2014: Frustrating Finish, Or Fresh Beginning?

He was talking directly about how the game had played out; another close call, more what-ifs? to consider. Yet C.T. Bradford could just as easily been speaking for the completed campaign. "You've seen stuff like this happen all year. It's a long season so we've been through every situation."

Including now the one which no player looks forward to: the end. Especially so when playing a last game in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. That is the situation for 2014's Diamond Dogs though, having seen their season ended at the Lafayette Regional. No matter how long the season becomes, falling short of Omaha or at least a super regional round is painfully early.

It also breaks a trend of post-season success begun in 2011 when the first stage of Coach John Cohen's rebuilding produced a surprise championship of the Atlanta Regional and near-as-darnit upset at the Gainesville Super Regional. The 2012 Bulldogs made SEC history by winning the first six-day conference tournament. And of course last June saw the marvelous run to the national championship series with titles in the first and second regional rounds.

A goodly number of veterans from those teams were back for more this spring. Their faces told the Monday night story too well. This was not what they had become used to, nor Mississippi State fans for that matter. Simply, 2014 wasn't supposed to end so soon.

Or, was it?

Before delving into details the snap-summary is this: Mississippi State was a competitive ball club in a power conference. It was not an ‘average' college club unless judged by SEC standards, and while this year's league wasn't nearly as stout at the top it remained the top-to-bottom best in the land. Of course others can argue ten NCAA bids might more reflect how relatively shrunken the entire college baseball talent pool was in 2014 than any real strength of other leagues save at the very top. And even most of them saw their best squads also upset and eliminated.

For that matter Mississippi State got a front-row seat to arguably the biggest single upset of this post-season, when Jackson State handed #6 national seed Louisiana-Lafayette a 1-0 defeat on the first night. This regional of course straightened itself out quickly and the host team won…but that single game symbolized how volatile 2014 has been from opening day.

Yet this is not really comforting for Bulldog baseball. Why? Because it's clear now 2014 was an ideal year to be either a strong team playing to strengths, or a good enough team playing better than is should. There is the chance somebody totally unexpected with no pre-season predictions hoists the trophy at Omaha in three weeks. Meaning, it would have been a great season for the Bulldogs to be very good.

The same holds true for the regular season. Yes, State went 18-12 in the top league, and it will surprise some to be reminded this was the most SEC wins by a Bulldog team since 1997. Think of that a moment…the most SEC victories in 17 years is no small feat. Which sets up the necessary ‘but…'. This was a good year to win a lot of league games since the conference was so balanced at a level slightly down from 2011-12-13.

And there's another uncomfortable qualifier. After playing what were frankly vicious schedules in the past two years, State got the slate they wanted in 2014. No Florida, South Carolina, or Kentucky who were 1-2-4 in the East; and MSU and got third finisher Vanderbilt at home for a series they did win. This was a set-up for success, and it was not maximized. One measure is that one-third of the league wins came against the two teams, Auburn and Missouri, who didn't make the SEC Tournament. Another is that in the two series against teams which finished ahead of State in the standings, and got SEC Tournament byes, the Bulldogs were 1-5.

Which is in fact a good definition of what is already said. This was a competitive club in a quality conference that finished right where it should have, as the best of the ‘middle' bunch. Nothing to be ashamed of at all…but not what was expected by the 2014 Dogs of themselves, nor from fans still celebrating the College World Series run. The ambition was a return to Omaha and another shot at the top trophy. Certainly during fall camp and pre-season players and fans alike were more excited about an upcoming campaign than in many, many, too many years.

There was just one group controlling their comments. Mississippi State coaches didn't avoid the topic but guarded their comments closely. At the time it seemed normal caution; now it is recognized as concern, and not just over perceived pressures on the ball club.

Actually there were a few clues as early as July when the handful of veterans playing summer ball were not pitching great nor hitting much at all. It could have been excused as them just needing a break which several other vets did take. Then when fall scrimmages produced little scoring it could be pinned on presumably excellent pitching.

Until opening day that is. And even that event, meant to be something of a ‘transition celebration' got disrupted when the winter's awful weather didn't let scheduled opponent Hofstra make the trip. State hastily arranged a series with Western Carolina instead…and got beaten by a not-fully-prepared visiting team 3-2. The Dogs did win the series, then literally threw away the first midweek game, with Memphis; and split the following four-game weekend with lightweight Holy Cross.

It isn't exaggerating things too terribly to say Mississippi State spent the rest of the regular season trying to make up for a stunning start. Though in a RPI sense the seven pre-SEC season losses meant by mid-March crippled chances for hosting a NCAA regional. Because none of the non-conference teams State lost to in that opening stretch would make the NCAAs. This made winning at least 20 SEC games an absolute necessity to host because again the league schedule strength wasn't high enough this year.

Hope revived when the Bulldogs won series at Georgia and with Vanderbilt and Arkansas. The resurgence coincided with a radical change of rotation. After testing both the oldest and youngest right-handed starting candidates, State committed to starting reliable lefthander Ross Mitchell either second or first in series depending on scheduling. It made sense since the bullpen was still well-stocked enough to give up a superb long-reliever. And the junior certainly did his part to either win games himself with long stints or keep it close for the bullpen staff. The gamble was being able to ‘script' relief stints more tightly than before and thanks to Jonathan Holder—once recovered from a January finger injury—and Jacob Lindgren it worked well enough to win 18 SEC games.

The disappointment was older righties Ben Bracewell and Brandon Woodruff did not have the seasons expected of veterans. Had either asserted themselves the way junior Trevor Fitts did, there might have been a real ‘rotation' here for the first time in many seasons. Soph righty Preston Brown made a brief run at rotation status until shoulder soreness arose just before State hit the meat of their SEC schedule, bitterly bad timing as it turned out and forcing further scuffling with the staff which never truly got settled.

All of that is an over-simplification of a complicated pitching situation of course. Nor does it reflect on the long-term hopes for young righty starters Dakota Hudson and Austin Sexton, as well as Fitts and a healthy Brown. And over-arching all of the pitching problems in 2014 was the unavoidable fact that even a full-stocked staff of regular starters and relievers would have been challenged to cover for an unreliable offense.

Fan frustrations that these Dogs "couldn't hit" weren't exactly accurate. In fact by SEC standards they were (that word again) competitive. In SEC-games only State was 7th in average and 6th in on-base percentage. More surprisingly, the Bulldogs had the third-most plate appearances among SEC squads for the 30-game schedule! That's because they tied for first with champs Florida in walks, which are as good as a base hit most any situation.

Unless the situation involves runners in scoring positions, or two outs and nobody on base. That is what the SEC stats do not show, how often a Bulldog made base alone and with outs already. And while officially published statistics do not list the dreaded ‘RISP' numbers, the eye-test told all one needed know. State essentially did not convert its run-scoring opportunities consistently, or too often at all. Yes, they were still 9th in SEC-games scoring; and equally yes, this was a spectacularly ‘down' year for scoring in this conference generally, which the post-season quickly proved against many regional opponents.

This doesn't diminish the painful truth that the '14 Bulldogs had to use every method available to get on base, and had no bullets left for RBI opportunities. In fact the lack of offensive firepower was often aggravated by need to back up starting pitching selections with the best defensive Dogs, and limited chances to get other and potentially better bats in the order. That is admittedly speculative based on fall, pre-season, and in-season practice observations of who could hit harder and better…but such is all any can judge by along with proven lack of production by those who did get to swing.

Not that Cohen and staff didn't seek all practical solutions, as proven by how many lineups and orders were assembled in the first 50 games. Just about everything imaginable was tried, repeatedly, with irregular results at best. As things played along many questioned what seemed an obsession with mixing orders by left- or right-handed matchups with the opposing pitchers. The deeper fact actually was they weren't so much playing by the ‘book' as playing the best possible percentages. If a matchup seemed to offer a 1% better chance to get a hit, it had to be used because Mississippi State had no margin.

They certainly had no power, though that was not at all unexpected to anyone who had seen these guys hit in real '13 games or in scrimmages. Angry fans claiming State doesn't want to hit homers are off the mark. It is proven Dudy Noble Field is not longball-friendly for anyone and structuring an offense around going deep would be irresponsible. This is something to be considered though with plans to renovate the stadium in future years, to rebuild a structure that doesn't ‘kill' high fly balls once out of the shadow of the current suites. Plus, with the minor league baseball and its lower seams coming into the game in 2015 good drives are calculated to gain 10-to-15 feet on average. For everyone, it need stressing, not just State though given the sort of contact even this power-lacking '14 order made the returning Bulldogs appear to be positioned to benefit more than most peers.

This did no good this year of course. And lack of longball potential had an under-appreciated impact on the rest of State's offensive repertoire: opposing pitchers had little to fear putting the ball in a wheelhouse. Or in RBI situations either, as judged by the infuriating frequency of well-struck ground balls turned into easy outs, or strikeouts on breaking pitches. It became a sour joke, that soon as State put runners on third base with one or no outs the inning was guaranteed to end.

What no Dog laughed about were all the teammates left stranded. Or the cold numbers that when scoring first State was 32-5; when the other team scored first the Dogs were 7-19. The trick was always getting some sort of lead and for this offense that was never easy. Further frustration arises from finding that Mississippi State was 4th-best in SEC ERA and second-best at fielding. As shown the pure hitting wasn't too shabby either.

It all came down to the bare basics of any sport, and any amateur sport most of all: scoring. Mississippi State just could not do it well and that offset outstanding efforts on the mound and with the gloves. Even the one aspect projected to be a 2014 strength didn't develop as these Dogs stole just 19 bases in 30 SEC games, compared to 14 the previous season. All that speed which was being counted on to accelerate the offense never really contributed either.

Now it is absolutely true even the most consistently talent-packed programs would struggle to replace an Adam Frazier and Hunter Renfroe. No realistic thought State could. But what this season showed was just how much better those two all-time program greats made everyone else around them, because without their production—and the threat it put in opponent's pitching—these Dogs were limited from opening day to the very last inning. Ironically the final out came from second baseman Brett Pirtle, the true success story of the season. His .363 average was 11 points higher than Frazier's last year, and done without all the ‘protection' his former teammate enjoyed in a much better offensive order.

Though calling the '13 batting ‘better' leads to another look-ahead question in itself. That team wasn't any offensive juggernaut either, and even by the current dead-bat/high-seam ball era Mississippi State has not batted the baseball impressively. Some of this arises from the philosophy of building an order to play to the home field obviously, but also reflected the need this year to use the best defenders and a recruiting emphasis in the past on speed and contact over punch and extra-base potential.

That has to adapt now, if not change outright. The low-seam ball partly dictates it. So does some hard evidence of this past season, where State was just 8-7 SEC with the supposed home-field advantage and 10-5 on the conference road. Big parks or small, this team just hit better away from home without any obvious difference in the pitching or defense. This ought to cause some serious thinking in coaching and administrative offices in coming weeks.

Not least because of who is leaving, who is here and who is coming in. Pirtle, Bradford, Alex Detz and Demarcus Henderson are seniors. First baseman Wes Rea is a fourth-year junior and can return or can turn professional. So can juco shortstop Seth Heck, one of the good offensive surprises this year. Most figure he will come back but that's no sure thing now and would be a real loss on the middle-infield. In a worst-case then the offense would have to rebuild or more realistically start-over around catcher Gavin Collins, outfielders Cody Brown and Jake Vickerson, and some sophomores who have shown power in practices but got limited live game swings. Still hopes are high for Reid Humphreys and Dan Garner when in the regular order, along with redshirts Joey Swinarski and Brent Rooker. They are also bigger bodies than the admittedly small squad State has played the last three seasons with the emphasis on speed and defense.

But nothing is so simple in baseball. Giving away gloves will be a gamble when there is no Holder and Lindgren (both expecting good draft calls in coming day) to save the day. The good news is that with Butch Thompson in charge a good and often great bullpen is annually assembled. The concern? Can he finally figure out a real rotation or at least two every-series starters, which actually is a serious question as to why State hasn't had a semblance of one for so long under any coaching regime.

That question is bound to be asked sometime in coming weeks and hopefully answered as best possible by the coach in a requested end-of-season interview. It's wise to delay a stretch not just to allow deeper evaluation of what happened in '14 and how the draft may or may not force further thinking and maybe even signings. Related to that, media might actually receive an official list of recruited players for 2015. Such a list does unofficially exist as assembled by Gene Swindoll, but for the past two years State has chosen not to publish its signing classes. It's an odd philosophy since the coaching staff often talks of how well-informed players are about everything via the web, including who is recruited to where.

But it is just something else to consider. As are speculations, and that is all it is at this point, about what will be done with Polk-Dement Stadium and maybe Dudy Noble Field itself in the near future. Big things are coming, it is a matter of tough and expensive decisions by the athletic administration. What is clear is Mississippi State is thinking big, not starting from a ‘what can we afford' baseline but ‘what does this program need' to make this venue the national standard again. And, to help future Diamond Dog teams win with practical as well as intangible home-field advantages.

So perhaps the best season summary is this. It was the year forcing everyone involved to take an unsparing view of what the program is, where it is at; then make major choices about what it should be and how to get there whether in recruiting, in development, in philosophies, as well as in facilities and scheduling. Meaning, we hopefully look back someday and see 2014 not for a frustrating finish but for a successful start to a new situation.

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