Diamond Dogs Ace Opening Tests

If one wants to look really hard sure, there are things to question. But why? Mississippi State’s opening weekend offered just about everything a Diamond Dog could ask. Especially those who wanted to see scoring again.

Mississippi State put on an offensive show to begin their 2015 season. They opened up beating Cincinnati 6-2, which was the closest contest all weekend. From there the Diamond Dogs poured it on with a 7-1 win over Miami-Ohio, and two more outright poundings of Cincinnati by 19-5 and 16-7 margins.

Coach John Cohen wasn’t merely surprised how easily these first four wins came. “I’m shocked we didn’t have a couple of close games. But you’re happy you scored a bunch of runs.”

A big bunch. The 48 total tallies were most by a Bulldog team through four games since 2007, a year that ended in Omaha just for reference purposes. Where this squad finishes is obviously to be answered over several months…but the initial trend is awfully encouraging.

Just not surprising, claimed OF Jacob Robson. “Coming into this we knew we were going to be an offensive threat. It’s going to be the same going into the following weekends. We know we’re really deep and really strong offensively, so we’re going to keep doing that.”

Keeping up this same scoring pace might not be practical of course. The real point is that for one weekend at least, the bats are back at Dudy Noble Field.

“Our kids competed through this and put up some runs,” Cohen said. ‘This’ being Sunday cold conditions that ought have favored visiting Cincinnati. Friday wasn’t exactly balmy either, though Saturday’s twinbill was reasonably comfortable for February. Whatever the thermometer said, State’s box scores were hot reading.

For the weekend, Bulldogs batted .343 with an on-base rate just under 50%. Actually the latter mattered more than ordinary average, and reflected pitching problems for the visiting teams. In 32 offensive innings, State received no less than 31 walks and ten hit-by-pitches. Opponents gave unintended help too with eight errors charged and other unofficial mistakes in the field.

All contributed to Mississippi State success. But then Bulldog fans have seen previous teams struggle or stumble in opening weekends against lesser visitors. So sweeping the four games was worth cheering. Doing it in big-scoring style? That’s cause to celebrate.

“And in this park it’s not easy to do,” Cohen said. Overall then, “I thought we really defended the field well. We made a couple of big-time plays. Any time you’re defending well and throwing strikes, for the most part you’re going to have a chance to win.”

The record was unblemished. The squad wasn’t unscathed. 1B Wes Rea took a pitch off his left knee Saturday evening—his second plunking of the game—and while he continued playing that game a trip to the doctor was necessary. So was a procedure for swelling around the joint. “Hopefully we see him again this weekend,” Cohen said Sunday.

OF Mike Smith was the other health question. He came up gimpy in the opening game running the bases and missed the rest of the weekend. But Smith did dress out again, so he ought be back soon. With, in fact, the team’s top batting average as he hit safely in the only official appearance with a double and RBI.

Actually, that isn’t correct. Ross Mitchell tops the stat sheet this week…not the pitching chart either, but the batting list. His RBI-single in senior Mitchell’s first and only college at-bat, on Saturday evening, has him hitting 1.000 where he’s likely to end the year also.

“It feels good to see all that hard work pay off,” Robson said. “Myself and the rest of the team put in countless hours leading up to this weekend. I’m just glad it kind of paid off for me and I know it will for other guys, too.”

What else stands out for Robson was where he swung in the order; fifth, which seems against conventional wisdom with his speed and contact skills. But of course Bulldog fans have seen before how Cohen and staff don’t work off the same batting-order book as most peers. The difference then was sheer necessity.

It’s early but this season it might be out of opportunity. SS Seth Heck took care of first-slot just fine. The senior batted a fine .563, including a 4-of-5 opening game; and was on base two-thirds of his total chances. Heck’s hitting wasn’t really a surprise after a steady 2014.

Nor should it surprise any what transfer 2B John Holland has brought to the batting order. The former Florida State regular is back at the senior college level and showing why hopes were so high when State secured a signature. Holland hit ‘just’ .286 for the weekend but looked better than the numbers. Three games he batted two-slot; on Sunday when he moved to first base in place of Rea it was seventh and all Holland did was go 3-of-5 with four RBI and two runs.

For his part Rea batted sixth his three starts, with a .375 result and seven RBI. Four of those came on one great big hit, Rea’s first grand slam. That first-inning blast got the Dogs going against Miami-Ohio, and showed the senior is getting back to his form of 2013. Not that he is looking to go deep, exactly.

The cut was easy, smooth, and not muscled-up at all. The one time Rea seemed to load-up, he crunched it directly to a Cincinnati shortstop who just couldn’t handle it. Otherwise Rea seemed relaxed for a welcome change.

“That’s a swing I’ve been working on, trying to put it together on the field.” If contact leaves the park, so much the better Rea said. “For sure. Of course a big guy like me that needs to be a part of my game, I need to have that threat.”

The interesting aspect really was by having Robson, with his speed and contact skills, in front of Rea and all but one time on base, the big Dog saw better pitches to hit. The same should hold true higher in the order. That’s where LF Reid Humphreys can be a game-changer batting behind Heck and Holland, or whoever is ahead of him. Humphreys was 6-of-17 for five RBI, including a solo home run against Miami.

Alternate LF Jake Vickerson had State’s other longball, a solo shot in the same game; and was 3-of-7 with some clutch contact Sunday when Cincinnati was trying to make it a real game. In fact, it should be noted that the Bulldogs trailed UC in all three games; 2-1, 4-0, and 1-0. Each time it was a Bearcat home run for the early deficit.

So State didn’t just coast against anyone but had to show a little early-game grit as well as confidence in the pitching. RHP Preston Brown did his part in the opener, settling down for five good innings and a career-tying best seven strikeouts. It was exactly the type performance wanted from a Friday…or if past trends hold, on a SEC swing-game Saturday.

It’s tougher getting a real read on other starters. If he could do it over again Cohen might have left RHP Austin Sexton in more than 2.0-plus Sunday innings, as other than a single home run swing the sophomore was sharp and ought to make a bid for a place in the three-game series rotation. As for Saturday’s starters, LHP Lucas Laster and RHP Jesse McCord?

“Neither one were at their very best,” Cohen said. “And we feel they’re going to be better down the road. Lucas wasn’t as sharp as he’s been. And for the first time out McCord wasn’t able to throw the ball in the strike zone as we now he’s going to be able to do. But we believe in both of those guys.”

True faith is in the bullpen, nothing new at all. Mitchell rescued the Miami game with 5.2 scoreless innings to get the decision. And yes, he entered with bases loaded and less than two outs, to produce a double-play on the first pitch. Not a soul at Dudy Noble Field was surprised to see it, either. The RBI single in the later game, yeah that was another story.

When true freshman McCord couldn’t find the zone, LHP Vance Tatum took over for 4.2 scoreless innings of his own with four strikeouts. He was tagged for a RBI-double in his first batter, which went on McCord’s account. Otherwise, “I just got the first-appearance jitters out of the way and got everything I’ve been thinking about since August.”

Now maybe Tatum’s thoughts include a chance to match Mitchell’s plate prowess? “Maybe one day I’ll get an at-bat, and we’ll see a pitcher hit a home run!”

Of their 24 innings of work bullpen Bulldogs didn’t give up a run in 22 turns. Cohen used a mid-inning explosion worth 12 total runs to get Friday throwers LHP Daniel Brown and RHP Zac Houston a second stint each. Houston in particular was impressive out of the bullpen with changed speed and spots. And for good Sunday measure, starter-turning-reliever RHP Trevor Fitts was given the last three innings after UC scored some runs.

“You can’t play four games without getting Trevor involved,” Cohen said. About the only pitcher State expects big things from who did throw was RHP Josh Billingsley. There was never a ‘close’ situation to test the redshirt though.

Maybe the under-stated State story was lack of problems behind the plate. Not that real trouble was expected, but losing All-SEC catcher Gavin Collins to a hand procedure two weeks ago did cause some concerns. Then C Josh Lovelady and C Cody Walker took care of business, and a still-gelling pitching staff, without a hiccup in 36 innings. Lovelady even hit .300 with four RBI out of the eighth or ninth slot.

Not having Collins at all, then losing Rea and Smith temporarily did force some lineup and order shuffles over the opening weekend. But then that’s what Cohen was likely to do anyway. 3B Matt Spruill and 3B Luke Reynolds split the starts on that corner; 2B Ryan Gridley got his turns, and veteran 2B Matt Britton played sub-duty all four games. Had Smith stayed healthy he and OF Cody Brown would have been matchup men as right- and left-side hitters respectively.

Besides, Cohen said, “Any time a guy goes down it opens up an opportunity for another guy.”

State would just prefer divvying-out opportunities with a fully-healthy roster. The gimpy and recovering Dogs do have a little longer to rest than planned. After winning all four games and with weather not looking good, Tuesday’s home game with Mississippi Valley State will be rescheduled. If necessary that is, since playing the Delta Devils is good for a record but bad on the RPI.

At the same time, the weekend forecast is even less promising. Fans will be watching updates as closely as coaches to make their plans. State is booked to play Marshall at 6:30 Friday; a double-header with Alabama A&M (2:00) and Marshall (6:30) Saturday, and a rematch with AA&M Sunday at 4:30.

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