Scrimmage Season Underway For Diamond Dogs

The checklist is long, but at least it’s simple for Coach John Cohen to state his priorities. “All phases,” he says of Diamond Dog pre-season plans. “We have a short time to get ready, like everybody else does. And we’re trying in all phases.”

Since there’s no practice which can imitate most aspects like real competition, Mississippi State is doing just that. Cohen’s 2015 club held a pair of scrimmage contests for the first weekend of preseason. Observers may not have been watching for aspects as much as how many new faces were throwing and catching and swinging; of for more familiar faces in different places than 2014.

How many? No less than 19 members of the 37-man roster are new freshmen, redshirts, or transfers. Yes, over half the official preseason team has not played in a college game. So Cohen and staff have less than three weeks left to evaluate everyone.

Sunday, which was mostly sunny and didn’t get really chilly, was exactly what the coaches wanted. Cohen took advantage with a four-plus inning scrimmage won 8-4 by the Gray-jersey lineup. Saturday, a Maroon team had won 2-1.

“It was a great day because we got a little bit of everything,” Cohen said. Including high sky and sharp winds to challenge catching anything in the air. The field itself is not exactly game-ready either with soft and hard spots creating some interesting bounces to challenge infielders. Lots of those were won by, well, the game with plenty errors ruled in just a few innings. Even that plays to the coaching plan too, a reminder of reality.

“We’re getting a lot done,” Cohen said. “But like everybody else we have a long way to go in terms of preparing.”

Sunday, the Gray let an early lead get away before storming back in the top of the third inning to score five times. The Gray drew first and fast blood as OF Reid Humphreys crushed a ball beyond leftfield in the opening inning. Humphreys, who moved from third base to outfield in the fall, started in leftfield for his side and added another RBI in his afternoon.

Junior transfer C Josh Lovelady didn’t go yard but did collect a pair of base hits for the Gray, including a double, and totaled three RBI. Another pair of new Dogs, infielders Ryan Gridley and Matt Spruill, accounted for half their team’s total runs. Gridley was 1-of-3 hiting and Spruill walked his way on twice.

C Cody Walker played a pair of runs for the Maroon on his double, while the other RBI came from transfer OF Michael Smith on a seeing-eye single up the middle; and a hit by OF Cody Brown. Brown would score as well later.

The Gray fell behind 4-3 after two innings. It took shutout relief work from freshman RHP Aaron Dominguez and redshirt RHP Levi Mintz to hold the White to that four-run outburst in the second.

Cohen cut the second scrimmage a little short, having started it later than scheduled. But this made up for working longer on Saturday in a six-inning contest.

Five Maroon batters collected at least one hit while Smith, from Walters State CC in Tennessee, made a big debut impression with a 3-of-3 showing and missing the cycle. He didn’t get a homer his first scrimmage to go with the triple, double, and single.

Transfer 3B Luke Reynolds resumed where he’d left off in an impressive fall by going 2-of-2 with a double and walk. Both Maroon catchers, Gavin Collins and Walker, had hits as well for RBI singles. It was Collins breaking scoring ice as he drove in OF Jacob Robson, who had bunted his way on in leadoff and stolen second base.

OF Joey Swinarski made it 2-0 in the third inning as he doubled, took third on a grounder, and scored on Walker’s hit.

The lone Gray run came in the fifth frame as Smith doubled and was scored on redshirt IF John Holland’s single. LHP Lucas Laster started for the Maroon and worked two scoreless innings with three strikeouts. Touted LHP Daniel Brown backed that up with 1.2 scoreless innings and RHP Trevor Fitts struck out a pair in the sixth.

Seventh-season coach Cohen has been pleased with the first two scrimmage days, as well as the lead-up to team practices which began this past week. “I think we retained a lot from the fall. Our older guys are doing a great job coaching the younger guys through certain situations.”

It is far, far too soon to get a gauge on whether the 2015 team will make the most-needed upgrade of all. Even the examples of good individual hitting in the first two scrimmages aren’t definitive. The new-for-15 NCAA baseball, with lower seams supposed to take some edge off pitching and increase driven-distance, should affect every program the same. Still the sight of some Dogs spanking the ball already has to be encouraging.

The coaches of course are more focused on getting a pitching staff set for the opening weeks. Yes weeks, plural. Unlike many peers though Cohen and Coach Butch Thompson are confident a rotation will take shape over time. It is the other end of the game which now is of interest and even some concern, with Jacob Lindgren and Jonathan Holder moved on to professional pitching.

Plus, after a SEC season starting, moving Ross Mitchell back to long relief is the goal. On paper it would seem starting jobs are entirely open; the fact is State clearly counts on Preston Brown, Trevor Fitts, Austin Sexton, Dakota Hudson, and a couple of others to battle it out for those starting jobs.

“The biggest thing is for us to put as many guys in the role of 7-8-9th inning guys who can spin a breaking ball and make people swing and miss. That’s the one thing we think is going to make us and break us. I think we have as much depth in the starting rotation as we’ve had in a while.”

Cohen did report that RHP Myles Gentry is slowed by a winter shoulder issue for now. Countering this is higher hopes to get redshirted sophomore RHP Paul Young into action this spring. He won’t be rushed after his long rehab of course.

It’s a fine line though of between pre-season caution and the early-season urgency. Scrimmaging won’t settle everything, either. So, “I like playing a lot of games early in the year for identifying everything we can about those arms.”

Cohen said Sunday that other than Gentry and a few sore arms coming out of the winter break the team’s health is good. Now they have to survive a vigorous scrimmage schedule with, Cohen said, eight or maybe nine more left to play. Because these are better ways to find strengths and expose weaknesses than any practice.

”Our young guys need to work. And we’re going to need some new guys to step forward and replace some pretty valuable arms we lost,” Cohen said. “The neat thing is when you play as many intrasquad games as we do it allows you to keep evaluating. And usually these things answer themselves. Coaches don’t make out lineups, players do.”

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