Diamond Dogs Host Final Pre-SEC Weekend

OK, so the midweek saw their first stumble. The Diamond Dogs are still perfect in weekend play…which is where the real regular season action is, right?

Mississippi State (13-1) tests that big-picture proposition again, as San Diego (4-6) comes to Dudy Noble Field. It is the first-ever meeting of the programs. Friday’s game time has been advanced to 4:00 in light (or dark) of muddled March weather. Saturday (2:00) and Sunday (1:30) remain as originally scheduled, unless of course conditions dictate further adjustments as has been the case all previous weekends.

What else has been the case, besides winning all the 12 opportunities and working around rain and/or cold? The first three weekends were three-team affairs of four matchups each. Now Coach John Cohen’s club shifts to a true series format. And with Southeastern Conference play only a week away, it makes this series an obvious opportunity to tune-up.

It is also an opportunity to put Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to Arkansas-Pine Bluff behind. Way, way behind. Cohen made no attempt to mute his frustration with the game. Not that he expected to stay unbeaten, of course. What got to the coach was how a team which played hard and mostly well for 13-straight wins, the fourth-best start in program history, suddenly came up flat for no obvious reason.

State will spend the rest of the regular season undoing the RPI-damage…unless of course UAPB turns out to be one of what looks like several low-regarded clubs out there able to rattle bigger conference cages these days. Mostly though, “In some ways if you let it these things can help you,” Cohen concluded Tuesday. Meaning, if the Bulldogs remember what happened and how in their first loss it can help prevent other such letdowns.

Without diminishing what UAPB did to win, the Bulldogs did some things to lose that were out-of-character compared to the previous games. State pitching had lasted five-to-six innings in nine consecutive starts, for excellent example. Not all starts were dominating but several were and the rest strong enough.

In fact, Bulldog pitching ranks in the NCAA’s top-10 this week in no less than ten categories, including first in strikeouts, fourth in batting average, and sixth in earned runs allowed. Reinforced by mostly-reliable defense, there is little to question about State’s 2015 staff. Even in the loss, it was one bad decision by a true freshman starter that dug the hole; and two odd-hop hits against one of the program’s greatest-ever relievers that scored the losing run.

Meaning, what did go wrong in that game shouldn’t be signs of any serious issues. State’s staff also has handed out just 46 walks in 13 games, a great rate any point of a season and more impressive in this early stage. Nor has the bullpen failed to hold a lead. His fastball hasn’t been truly tested by enough top-flight batters to be sure, but RHP Trevor Fitts is making efficient use of the breaking pitches in his new identity as closer.

Of course the obsession this time of the season is setting a rotation. Mississippi State might just have one, a real change of pace compared to previous years. For the fourth Friday Cohen and Coach Butch Thompson will put RHP Preston Brown (3-0, 2.12) on the hill. Brown is already the first Dog to win three-straight weekend openers since 2006.

Brown is not exactly blowing everyone away, though he does have 22 strikeouts. He’s allowed 16 hits, but that reflects the fact Brown is throwing strikes. He’s only walked six opponents in 17.0 innings. And just five reaching runners have been able to score.

The point is, Brown doesn’t go after strikeouts. Not unless someone hits their way on first. “I’d rather have low pitch counts and more innings. But when it comes down to it you have to bear down and finish them off.”

Cohen and Thompson have some bearing-down of their own this week, with just three starts to give instead of four. It’s no surprise RHP Austin Sexton (1-0, 2.63) goes out first again, after last Saturday’s 10-strikeout, no-walk domination of Arizona. Or near-domination, as a Wildcat good-guess swing did account for all Arizona scoring with a two-run homer.

Otherwise, soph Sexton made a statement. “He makes one 0-2 pitch that leaves the yard,” Cohen said. “Outside of that I can’t remember another mistake he made. He doesn’t’ walk anybody, he’s pitching inside, he does a great job controlling the running game. He’s really throwing three different pitches in the strike zone.”

If plans hold up, and the weather too for that matter, LHP Vance Tatum (2-0, 1.45) will start Sunday. The only hitch would be if State suddenly needed him to relieve an earlier game, something Tatum is well-proven at. But as Cohen said, Tatum’s ambitions going into 2015 were higher.

“He said he wanted to be starting on Friday night for Mississippi State.” Even after opening the year still in the pen, Tatum kept pushing for the starting status. Given his chance ‘Moonlight’ produced. “He has just made a statement,” Cohen said.

“I think he can do both. But certainly the way he’s starting, he was economic but he was striking people out, he was getting to both sides of the plate.” That was in his 12-strikeout, two-walk stint of 8-plus innings last Sunday against an admittedly free-swinging Samford squad.

The only bullpen Bulldog likely not available for game-one at least would be LHP Daniel Brown after working 5.2 frames Tuesday. Both LHP Ross Mitchell and Fitts had short stints and are rested by now.

Per their media relations staff, San Diego will likely throw right-left-right in starting roles. Game one goes to David Hill (1-2, 4.15), with P.J. Conlon (1-0, 1.59) Saturday and finally Gary Cornish (0-0, 4.38).

Up to now all pitching has been caught by either Josh Lovelady (10 starts) or Cody Walker (3). Transfer Lovelady has already been the Most Valuable Newcomer on the club, what with soph Gavin Collins sidelined a week before the season by catching hand surgery. Now Collins is back on the active roster, having pinch-batted Tuesday. There’s no need to rush him back behind the plate but getting his bat in-tune is a must for SEC season.

1B Wes Rea returned last weekend from a sore knee, as did OF Michael Smith who was sidelined after an opening-day start with a leg muscle strain. Cohen also expects to have RHP Myles Gentry activated, meaning the roster is up to full-strength even if some of the players are still getting back to playing-prime.

“If we can get all our personnel out there, we feel we can have a pretty good club,” Cohen said. “But it’s good for all our roster guys to get an opportunity to step in there and play.”

Of course this also sets up that many more decisions, since those who stepped into the temporary openings kept winning games. Smith means another right-hand hitter along with Reid Humphreys in a left-handed outfield of Jacob Robson, Jake Vickerson, and Cody Brown. Given State’s propensity for matching-up the batting order this counts.

SS Seth Heck is the only Bulldog to start every game at one position. Third base has been in flux and by extension second base, since some of the latter have been tested at the former. It is a convenient way to keep 2B/3B Ryan Gridley’s bat and speed in the order, for one. He started seven times at second and five times, out of the last six games, at third.

But that corner has also been the one weaker link in the overall defense, and time is running out on pre-SEC season. Designated hitter is interesting as well, the obvious matchup slot in the order. But it might prove where State can put a productive hitter without giving up another bat who plays the same position. Or, not. It is still a young season after all. And as past seasons have proved, there is always the injury factor. What does appear clearer is that this roster is much, much better equipped to replace hurting Dogs if it comes to it.

It is also clear that the offense remains oriented to contact, reaching, and running. The first weekend rash, relatively speaking, of power was over as soon as the wind shifted back to normal early-season patterns. But the Bulldogs don’t count on longballs anyway, or shouldn’t until Collins, Humphreys, Brent Rooker, or more prove otherwise.

Instead State to-date has made liberal use of the running and bunting game. Maybe more than even expected and that’s saying lots. There is plenty bunting-for-hits, which given the weekend weather has been a clever call anyway with tricky turf. Even on dry days though the Dogs will put the ball down and dash for first, and defenses know it. They just have to decide if they want to play for the short game and leave room for base hits, or back up and…you get the idea.

“That’s the skill set,” Cohen said. “No matter what is going on a game your hitters have to use their skill set. In large portion, what you’re doing depends on the personnel at the plate at that moment. It doesn’t matter what the score is or what part of the game, that’s what we’re going to do.”

Bulldog batters also take pitches, and a 95 walks to 80 strikeouts rate is the result. That ratio will surely change come SEC season, but for now it works just fine. And Cohen even hopes to see a little more power potential. “When we get Gavin back and I think we will going into conference play it really adds to a pretty solid lineup.”

The Friday and Saturday games are local radio only on 106.1fm. Sunday’s game is on the full MSU Network.

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