Opening Day Arrives For 2015 Diamond Dogs

Talk about mixed-motivations. Nothing typifies the paradox of early-season college baseball like John Cohen’s ambitions for this opening weekend. “You have to win the games. But you also have to find out as much about your club as possible. And hopefully you can do both.”

So there you have it. Win the games, figure out who and what the 2015 Diamond Dogs are. Oh, and do it fast. It isn’t all that much to ask of the round-robin weekend Mississippi State has scheduled, is it?

Seriously though, folks… Between Friday’s debut, 4:00 with Cincinnati, and Sunday’s final out the Bulldogs will have played four games against two opponents. The scheduling has adjusted from original times, with Cincinnati and Miami-Ohio playing at noon Friday now. Saturday is still a Mississippi State twinbill, against Miami at noon and again Cincinnati at 4:00. The Bearcats are staying around for the extra Sunday game at 1:30.

Bulldog fans are used to seeing these round-robin events to begin new seasons; in this year’s case the 125th of baseball on campus. Where most of his peers prefer standard three-game series, Cohen wants more. He treats the opening weekend of a year as a version of what happens in June.

“It really simulates tournament play. You get a chance to observe teams play, formulate a scouting report on what you see. And it’s more than a three-game SEC weekend and takes on more of a tournament flavor. I like this. It also forces you to use your personnel. You can’t have one catcher catch five games. You can’t have a three-starters for five games in five days on the mound. It forces certain things to happen.”

That’s right, Cohen said five games. Because the Bulldogs are back on Dudy Noble Field next Tuesday afternoon as well. Mississippi Valley State is not part of the weekend officially, but might as well be the way MSU is scripting this February schedule.

“The neat thing about playing five games in five days is you’re going to play a bunch of people,” Cohen said. “They’re going to get the opportunity to make a statement with their actions.”

Forecasts for Coach John Cohen’s seventh squad are varied if based on polls only. Baseball America ranks State 14th in preseason; USA Today 25th. Then the SEC’s own coaches pegged the Dogs fifth not in the league but the Western Division.

Before Bulldog fans get riled, there are lots of questions. Both of 2014’s all-star late relief pitchers are playing in the Yankees organization this spring. The two returning rotation regulars are supposed—if plans hold up—to be bullpen pitchers.

Then two weeks before opening the all-conference candidate catcher Gavin Collins was lost for three to five weeks for a hand (catching) procedure. Besides losing the only returning Bulldog who batted .300 for a while, absence of a familiar backstop can’t be good for the revamped pitching staff early on. Of course only three batters were at or better than .300 last year anyway, so offense is once again an obvious unproven.

Unproven really means opportunity to prove places in rotation, relief, and order. And to be fair, State has not had a real ‘rotation’ in the classic SEC sense for many a season. For that matter Bulldog offense has been unreliable for so long that there truly is only one direction to go. Based on fall and scrimmage swinging, there is reason to see general progress at last and not reliance on just a couple of batters to produce.

Thursday, Cohen confirmed expectations that RHP Preston Brown (4-3, 3.00 in 13 appearances) to get the fall Friday. Brown’s 2014 was interrupted with shoulder issues but he was throwing again in May, and in fall and pre-season has been sharp. Dominating, even.

The coach will only name Friday’s starter as of now, though. “And then we have the luxury of being able to watch both these teams play. So having that luxury we’re going to wait and see what order we want to go on Saturday. Certainly if we need Ross (Mitchell) on Friday night that might chance plans a little bit.

“If Ross didn’t pitch in any of the first two games he might be available to start on Saturday. We know (Lucas) Laster is going to pitch, we know Jesse McCord is going to throw sometime during the course of the weekend. We know Austin Sexton is going to throw at some point. So we have some flexibility, we’re just not sure what the order is.”

Nor overly concerned at this early point. Certainly it says something about expectations for Brown and lefthander Laster (0-1, 2.60) who alternated starting and subbing last year. Pitching Coach Butch Thompson says these seasoned hands have earned the earliest opportunity.

A larger statement though is the anticipated, make that hoped-for, move of lefthander Mitchell back to the long-relief role he made famous, and funny, in 2013. Mitchell (8-5, 2.53) was forced into full-time starting status when 2014 SEC season began though, easily the SEC’s most unique ‘ace’. For two months Mitchell was outstanding, and steady the rest of the way before all the innings just added up.

As Cohen indicated, for now Mitchell still looks like a starter in these four-game weekends. Once into more routine weekend schedules? It would be ideal having him as the sure-thing long reliever again when a starter inevitably struggles. Plus, Mitchell’s style is a heckuva pace-changer after any starter, as well as before more typical closers.

“We’d love putting Ross in the bullpen, I’m not sure if we’ll have that luxury,” Cohen said last week. State can if sophomore righthanders Austin Sexton (2-0, 5.16) and Dakota Hudson (1-2, 4.67) hit their stride this second State season. Freshman RHP Jesse McCord is a new name in the mix after preseason tests--“He has pitched lights-out,” Cohen said.

Freshman RHP Aaron Dominguez was paired with P.Brown in scrimmage starts, and transfer LHP Daniel Brown got a lot of fall buzz as well. A mid-season wild card though is RHP Paul Young. The 2014 juco transfer missed all season rehabbing from 2013 surgery. Before coming from Central Alabama CC, Young was regularly clocking mid-90s fastballs and piling up the strikeouts. State took no chances rushing his recovery and hopes are he can be in the mix by March.

State has another returning starter of course. But for his senior season RHP Trevor Fitts (5-3, 2.58, 16 starts) is making a complete change of identity. Fitts is moving to the pen where, Cohen figures, both stuff and style ought work even better than when paced over beginning innings.

“He has a power breaking ball, his fastball really plays into a ‘sprinter’ role for 10, 15, 20 pitches. I just thing he’s made for it. And he likes to have the baseball when it matters most, that’s usually the 7-8-9 innings.”

Even while redshirting in 2014, RHP Jacob Billingsley was mentioned as an eventual closer candidate. With the departure of Jonathan Holder and Jacob Lindgren the job is entirely open. LHP Vance Tatum (2-0, 4.87) had some interesting 2014 moments out of the pen that bode for better. RHP Levi Mintz worked relief innings in scrimmages, and there are several true freshmen on the roster as well.

“We’ll have competition for those spots,” Cohen said. “But we’ve also been able to piece-together a bullpen really well. So hopefully all those pieces come together for us.”

Mississippi State has quite a lot of defensive pieces to play with as well. Losing 42-game starting catcher Collins isn’t to be lightly dismissed. Though it’s also fair to think forced down-time now may leave him fresher, later. Collins started 14 of the final 15 games in ’14 remember, and as freshman. An All-Freshman SEC at that.

Senior Cody Walker had five starts as a transfer so there is some experience to call on. More likely it will be transfer Josh Lovelady catching Brown’s first Friday pitch. “We think he’s going to be a really dynamic leader and defender,” Cohen said, adding that Walker has improved his offense after .222 batting last spring. But Collins is the man who needs to wear the mask most. “Gavin is very capable of being one of the best catchers not only in the league but in the country.”

He never planned being in a Bulldog uniform by 2015, nor did anyone else expect it. Things just haven’t bounced Wes Rea’s way ever since the 2013 national championship series. Though it wasn’t the leg injury against UCLA that made his ’14 season so disappointing.

“I was kind of pressing last year,” he acknowledges, one reason why his batting fell from .291 to .245 and the SEC average to just .209. There were other good reasons though. Rea more than anyone was hurt not having protection in the order to either side, and pitchers pounced on the big Dog demanded to carry a whole club. “I felt a huge amount of pressure to fill their role.”

Such pressure ought be off now. Not that he or anyone knows if there is better protection at the plate this year; that is entirely unproven. What helps Rea today is the weight of the Bulldog-world is off his broad shoulders and he can be himself again. And being Wes Rea at his best is a big deal indeed. There isn’t a better glove-man on first base in the country when Rea is relaxed, nor a bigger sense of security for the rest of the infield to throw at. While again it has to be done in real games, in scrimmages Rea seemed to be swinging more like ’13 when his strength was used to make contact and drive RBI-singles and gap-doubles. If anything should leave the yard, so much the better. But it isn’t a priority any more.

It’s a lot to ask of any freshman coming into Dudy Noble Field. But Cole Gordon, a first baseman and righthanded pitcher, could provide some fresh punch in the order. Transfer Trent Waddell has worked as the other scrimmage first baseman opposite Rea this preseason.

On the other corner, a strong signal was sent when 37-game-starting third baseman Matt Britton was moved to his original second base spot. It probably isn’t a full-time change. Britton’s glove and arm are sure things on that side of the infield so he’s likely to take turns. At the same time, juco Luke Reynolds showed in fall ball he can play third quite capably, thank you.

“Luke’s done really, really well,” Cohen said. “It’s certainly a transition but he has the characteristics. He can run, he has arm strength. But it’s not going to happen overnight.” Or it can if Reynolds bats for average, something entirely lacking from the third base slot last season. Another juco, Matt Spruill, has third base skills as well and will get his own chances with glove and bat in these early weeks.

As for Britton, an unquestioned athlete and even an emergency catcher now, his coach has said for two years that in time hitting (.233 last year) would come. Cohen is still saying so. “Matthew has come a long way, especially with the bat. He’s worked on his swing and he is much better.” He has to be, like so many others in the veteran roster. Mississippi State simply can’t afford the sorts of holes in the order of seasons-past this year, especially not early in the schedule.

The surprise of 2014 undoubtedly was Seth Heck. After eight games trying everyone else first, State finally gave Heck shortstop…and he never gave it back. He not only had the best SEC-game fielding average of all league shortstops, he batted .299 on the season and .302 in league play.

Now? “Heck is a much improved player,” proclaims Cohen. “Bigger, stronger, and faster. The ball comes off the bat differently.” In a good way, he means. Britton of course can play shortstop; that’s where he began 2014 after all. But going into the schedule freshman Ryan Gridley is the backup, which obviously gives him a jump on 2016 starting status. On the other side of second juco John Holland, who played 41 games at Florida State in 2012 before missing ’13 with injury and transferring, is giving Britton a healthy push. He got 13 starts in Tallahassee as a designated hitter, after all, and that has to offer more hope for making a more offensive infield at State.

At one point that was supposed to come from Reid Humphreys. After investing many, many hours working to become a third baseman, the sophomore is still on the left side of the field. The outfield. There’s no mystery to the move, Humphreys might only have had 58 at-bats as a freshman alternate with a .241 average but the plate potential is obvious.

Yes, he could DH, but playing every day is a better way. So far, “Reid is doing well moving to the left field spot,” Cohen said. “He will have some designated hitter opportunities, he’ll have some leftfield opportunities. I just think we have to get Reid in there because he’s such a dynamic hitter.”

Fortunately Humphreys doesn’t seem to give away any glove-work either, having adjusted nicely in fall and preseason. “I’m getting more and more comfortable every day,” he said. Though, he wisely adds, “There are a lot of guys out there that have been there a while.”

Yes. To be sure a lot of guys are no longer here—C.T. Bradford, Demarcus Henderson, Derrick Armstrong. But there is a good measure of experience to call upon. Cody Brown started 30 of 47 games, mostly in rightfield where he projects as the opening day Dog. His .248 average doesn’t look too hot on the stat sheet, but first-hand fans saw as ’14 went on the potential Brown brings with the bat and on the paths.

Jacob Robson has shown plenty patience and resilience in two seasons. He played more than expected as a true ’13 freshman and wasn’t really ready as a .206 average showed. Then he got hurt in ’14 with just 18 games. Here he is though, back and better and ready to take centerfield for his own. Count Cohen impressed with the progress.

“Jacob has really made a jump for us, both as a power and strength guy and as a runner.” Oh yeah, the running… Robson doesn’t just have outfield speed, he can burn the basepaths. That depends on reaching base of course, and besides trying to sting the ball better Robson has worked on bat control for bunt-hits and the like. With success he could be a fixture in one of the top two order slots now.

Senior Jake Vickerson (.264) was a regular corner outfielder last season. He produced some sparkling defensive plays, and at times flashed a fat bat with fast feet on the paths. If past early-season trends hold he’s likely to alternate starts, likely in leftfield. Plus he like Brown and Robson is a left-handed hitter and Mississippi State is committed to matchup orders.

For righthanded options there are redshirts Joey Swinarski and Brent Rooker, the latter another potential source of power to an offense in desperate need of it. And there’s a newcomer to the right-side mix in transfer Michael Smith. “He can really run and has power,” Cohen said. “I think fans are really going to fall in love with the dynamic athleticism he brings.”

So much talk about power is a bit misleading. Cohen is committed to pitching, defense, and speed as long as Dudy Noble Field keeps its spacious dimensions by SEC standards. But college baseball folk who feel the game has gotten too far in the direction State’s staff likes are looking for ways to bring back home runs. Nothing like the absurdities of the 1990s to be sure, or even the big bop numbers of the 2000s even.

At the same time college baseball now will use a minor league-type ball with lower seams that reduce drag, limit how much a pitch can break, and allow longer flights when hit well. Cheap home runs, no. “But there will be subtle differences,” Cohen said. “In certain parks it’s going to play out a little more dramatically than in ours. But again I don’t see it making a dramatic impact.”

Still State could use a longball or two more than last season’s 16 total. If only to have a threat in the minds of pitchers, at least. Because in 2014 opponents weren’t much afraid to pay any price for coming after Bulldog batters. Now?

“Certainly you talk about a Reid Humphreys who can become a guy that can provide some power in the middle of our lineup. Wes Rea is somebody we need to have a great year, he’s very capable of that and he’s worked hard on his swing. He wants to go out on top. Gavin Collins down the road is going to be very productive. And I think we have some new components also that are going to be really good players as well.”

In the excitement of opening a new season, it might come across harsh saying the Bulldogs need a strong start. But last spring State found out the high summer price early-season losses. Going into SEC play the Dogs were just 13-7, and as it turned out none of the opponents made the NCAA Tournament. In fact only one non-conference club on the entire ’14 schedule, Jacksonville State, did get a bid.

So even a 18-12 SEC record, the most league wins since 1997 (!), could not make up for early RPI-hits. State did not host NCAA play and lost in the Lafayette Regional. The point is that regional rights aren’t won in February/March but can certainly be lost then.

At some level Cohen has to consider this, and the necessity of winning games now. But it’s that same coaching contradiction that opening weekend(s) are for figuring a ball club out for the longer haul. Cohen does have a few specifics to watch for in the first series.

“I really want to learn how we handle left-handed pitching. That’s a huge key, left-on-left. And how our right guys handle soft stuff with another guy pitching. Playing somebody different it’s a little more of an adjustment. And the kids who make the best adjustments are the ones getting the most at-bats during the course of the year.”

And that actually summarizes Mississippi State’s ‘gameplan’ for opening weekend. Cohen believes lineups, rotations, orders ultimately settle themselves. It begins Friday for this 2015 team.

“When you play five games in five days both are going to play. So you don’t have to make a ton of decisions.”

VIDEO: Preston Brown (left) and Lucas Laster (right) discuss opening-weekend pitching.

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