Third Weekend Brings Latest Dog Challengers

The record is unblemished so far. Still the Diamond Dogs know they are as far from a finished product as, well, as from finishing the season. So they welcome this weekend’s step-up in competition quality. “Absolutely,” said Ryan Gridley. “I mean, no untested team is going to go out there and win the whole thing.”

Winning the whole thing will await June. For now Mississippi State (9-0) wants to end February and begin March with another batch of victories. The third weekend certainly brings a better class of visitors to Dudy Noble Field in Arizona and Samford.

Much as in the first two weekends weather is shuffling the game times. The guests square-off at noon Friday before State takes on Arizona at 4:00. Those same teams play Saturday at 11:00am, then the Bulldogs and Bulldogs meet 35 minutes after conclusion. After Arizona-Samford play Sunday at 1:00 it is State and Samford again at a projected 4:30.

“It’s fun to get to play a West Coast team,” SS Seth Heck said. “We played last year and it didn’t really go our way. So it’s nice to be able to get a second chance here at Dudy Noble.”

Arizona is returning a trip Mississippi State made last March for a round-robin in Tucson, when the Dogs and Wildcats split their games. State and Samford last met in 2013 with MSU winning at home, a year after the Birmingham-based Bulldogs took two meetings in the ’12 Tallahassee Regional.

“This is two really good clubs,” Coach John Cohen said. “I don’t necessarily think we’ve played against competition that is sub-par in any way. But when you talk about an Arizona, they are another level, they’ve won a national championship. In some respects our kids are excited about that. But in baseball the minute you think somebody is not good just because of name recognition they’ll bite you.”

With no insult meant to five clubs State has played to-date, this weekend looks like the test(s) Gridley refers to. Something even a freshman infielder knows is necessary for long-term intentions.

“You’ve got to battle, you’ve got to have games where it’s to the very end. Those are the games that you know you have tough team. Like you know you have a team that can take it all the way.”

The Bulldogs have felt some degree of early-season tension. They’ve had an odd habit of falling behind first, usually on a solo home run served up by the State starter. Only one deficit was serious and the Dogs did roar back in style that time.

As far as late-game drama, only Alabama A&M made MSU make really clutch plays in a 2-1 win. Gridley delivered the go-ahead RBI in the eighth and new closer RHP Trevor Fitts made it hold up with his third save in as many chances. Otherwise, this team has only been really ‘tested’ by the endless scrimmage and practice jams Coach John Cohen scripts.

“Our intrasquad games are like that every day, it’s a 2-1 game and tying run is on third. We train for this moment. I think it’s why we’ve been so good in ninth innings, really for the last four years.”

Though the head coach means in all aspects, it is Bulldog relief pitching that has stood out. Fitts is clearly staking a claim on the door-slammer status of predecessors Caleb Reed, Johnathan Holder, Jacob Lindgren, In 5.0 innings Fitts has allowed two hits with no runs, five strikeouts. Four walks is more than he’d like but some of this is the by-book bouncing of curveballs and erratic umping.

Moving Fitts out of starting status is something of a risk. But, “Trevor wants the baseball, he wants that job,” Cohen said. “We feel very comfortable with him in those situations.”

Last week Cohen announced RHP Jacob Billingsley, a closer candidate, is out for the year with bone chips. State is developing a lefthander for end-game jams with transfer Daniel Brown. Working twice so far Brown has ten strikeouts against a run in 6.0 innings with one walk.

Cohen confirmed RHP Preston Brown (2-0, 2.45) starts Friday. From there, “One of the great things about playing these four-team tournaments is we get to watch both teams, then make a decision on who will face them.”

”Arizona is a little more left-handed than Samford, so if we feel a lefthander in game-two on Saturday is more effective we’d probably go with Lucas.” As in Laster (1-0, 2.16). “If we feel a righthander with a changeup is a better matchup we’d probably go with (Austin) Sexton.” Sexton is also 1-0 with a 2.25 ERA. “But we’re going to wait a little while just to see exactly.”

Regardless of which opponent and day, Laster and Sexton know they will start sometime this weekend. As of now Cohen’s thinking is if LHP Vance Tatum (1-0, 0.84) does not have to work in relief earlier he could get the Sunday start. First-weekend starter RHP Jesse McCord threw six innings Tuesday to get the win against Alcorn State.

“We thought all of our starters pitched pretty well last weekend. We need those kind of performance again because we’re playing really good ball clubs this weekend.”

P.Brown has led off both weekend pitching schedules and draws this Friday’s start as well. The righthander (2-0, 2.45) has been finding the zone consistently with just three walks. But 15 hits isn’t what Brown wanted, even if he has the same number of strikeouts. In fact, that is key to his correcting.

“I’m trying to make guys hit the ball to our fielders. I keep getting in trouble and have to work out of it and get some punchouts. But I’m definitely not trying to do that in any shape, form or fashion. I’ll take some strikeouts! But I’d rather have a couple more innings at the end to work with.”

For the first time this season, Cohen did not list LHP Ross Mitchell as a possible starter. The goal all along of course is keeping 2013’s long relief star in reserve, and so far Mitchell (2-0, 0.00) has made all four appearances out of the bullpen. But, the left arm stays loose for starting calls, just in case…

The bullpen is about to get deeper as RHP Myles Gentry returns to active status. Cohen even said Thursday that RHP Paul Young, yet to throw a varsity inning since his 2014 signing with a long rehab process, is just about ready for activation too. That would big a big boost to the starting staff options as well.

As for other health questions, 1B Wes Rea has taken two pinch-hit turns and is available again to start after missing four games from a pitch off his left leg. In the first three games he did play Ray was 3-of-8 with seven RBI, most on his first career grand slam. Opening-day RF Michael Smith hasn’t played since his first at-bat, a double, with a leg injury.

“Wes actually practiced today and I thought moved around really well,” Cohen said Thursday. “So we’ll wait and see how he is tomorrow. We’d obviously love to get him back out there and there’s a very good chance. Michael was running around pretty good, it’s either going to be this weekend or next weekend. But I think he’s really close also.”

And every week brings all-conference C Gavin Collins closer to activation, after pre-season hand (catching) surgery. Cohen reports that Collins caught a bullpen practice session Thursday without any pain.

“When we get Gavin back and I think we will going into conference play it really adds to a pretty solid lineup,” Cohen said. Not that the backstop corps is struggling. Transfer C Josh Lovelady has been excellent behind the plate with nine shoot-downs of would-be thieves. C Cody Walker for his part looks a much, much improved receiver as a senior and a capable batter too. Collins’ return will make this the deepest position on the defensive roster.

In Rea’s absence transfer John Holland moved from second base after three starts to open the last six games on first base. Heck has started all nine times at shortstop, of course. The defensive spot with the most turnover is third base. Matt Spruill has opened five games and is the only corner-man to start consecutive games. Transfer Luke Reynolds and senior Matt Britton split the other games.

And there may be a fourth name in the mix soon, because of what is about to happen on first base. “As soon as Wes comes back we’re going to have to make some decisions,” Cohen said.

Because it isn’t as simple as giving Holland back second base. Not with Gridley hitting .591 with 10 RBI and 12 runs scored in his eight games. Gridley has also handled the defensive duty at second just fine. So, “Gridley is playing well enough to deserve at-bats,” Cohen said. But how to keep Holland working daily?

It isn’t that the other third basemen have set the sticks on fire. Spruill is batting .267, Reynolds .158, and Britton .077. Britton and Reynolds have also had their share of early fielding lapses, not unusual on the hot corner but still something to think about.

Cohen won’t commit to any set third baseman just yet. “We’ve discussed a lot of options as to who to move around. We’re going to make the best decision for our ball club and I wouldn’t be shocked if some guys on the right side of the infield get moved to the left side, possibly.” Meaning, without using his name, Holland. Cohen did almost, almost rule out any chance of returning LF Reid Humphreys to third base since the soph has played well in the field since the move out.

“We’ll wait and see how that unfolds,” Cohen said.

The third weekend and new opponents should also help see just where the overall offense stands. The stats so far are greatly encouraging after 2014’s struggles, with a .336 club average and .479 slugging. There really has been some slugging too, and if six home runs in nine games isn’t blowing the books open this is also huge progress from last year.

If the bats, and for that matter the whole Bulldog ball club, can somehow stay warm in this weekend’s weather, the confidence quotient will just keep improving as February turns into March. “It will be interesting to see how it goes,” Heck said. “Every week is a different team, we’re just excited to play two more teams that may bring something different to the table.”

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