Diamond Dogs Take Stock Ahead Of SEC Season

They would rather have used it as a tune-up for the serious series about to begin. But if core items still need work, better Coach John Cohen and Diamond Dogs find them before opening SEC season.

That was Sunday’s takeaway after Mississippi State dropped their rubber game to San Diego. In their first true three-game series of the schedule the Bulldogs lost Friday 2-1 and Sunday 9-6 around a 4-2 Saturday win. It was certainly not how they planned to prepare for conference season.

Nor for that matter was last Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to SWAC squad Arkansas-Pine Bluff. That surprising setback spoiled State’s perfect 13-0 start to the season, the fourth-best beginning by any Bulldog club. Now they are 14-3 with losses to a couple of sub-.500 visitors.

Panic time? Not if these early-March stumbles exposed areas in need of immediate attention ahead of the Alabama series. Cohen didn’t focus on specifics Sunday; the coaches were about to tear through the entire week’s video for that.

He did have a general and blunt pronouncement. “The game just beat the daylights out of us. We did some things you can’t do to the game, because the game is going to win.”

If that sounds too generic for baffled fans, the Bulldogs understand. Nor do they believe the 13-0 start was a fluke or too easy, now that the losses have hit. “I don’t know if a whole lot has changed,” SS Seth Heck said.

“It’s baseball. It’s tough to win every single game. But there’s been times the past week we haven’t executed the way we wanted, or finished the way we wanted.”

State surely did not finish Sunday as they should. As players pulled the tarp post-game in advance of weather forecast to complicate much of this week, it was as if they also wanted to cover the scene. A 5-0 lead through two innings became a startling setback as San Diego, by no means any offensive power, batted-around in both the eighth and ninth to score seven combined runs and snatch victory away from stunned State.

The breakdown wasn’t as dramatic, but Pine Bluff also scored an eighth-inning run to deny the Dogs. For a program that over three-plus seasons owned the late innings those losses were a rude reminder about taking any lead or situation for granted regardless of opponent.

“We obviously have got to get better,” Cohen said. “There are areas we need to improve.”

Losing three of four did not tumble State out of most polls or even drop them too far. Baseball America has the Dogs 15th today, compared to 7th last week when unbeaten. Another useful ‘read’ on the 2015 team is comparing the 12-7 record of last year’s club going into SEC-opener week.

Comparing the opponents list is useless though, since a year ago everyone thought Western Carolina, Memphis, Arizona, Santa Barbara were quality clubs. None made the NCAA Tournament. Maybe come June names like Arizona, Alabama A&M, and San Diego are in the ’15 field. It’s a moot point for now. Even the early blow Bulldog RPI has taken with just three losses can be offset with SEC success.

But that means fixing, fast, some issues of sudden interest. While everyone else will naturally focus on a batting average that has shrunk by 40-something points in two weekends, the coaching staff as always looks first at pitching. Not because it is suddenly bad; just that the mound-work is not quite as sharp as things seemed in February.

And it is at the far end of things where concerns are cropping up. A bullpen that has been the program’s trump card for three seasons is not a strong. Sunday showed it in, well, spades.

“I’m counting eleven three-ball counts,” Cohen said. “And I’m counting six walks and a HBP. I felt we were just giving them opportunity after opportunity. When you have a lead you’ve got to throw strike-one and we didn’t do it.” There weren’t many strike threes, either; only two Toreros struck out in 44-faced.

Game-three wasn’t the only letdown, nor was the bullpen solely at fault in the week. All San Diego scoring Friday came on wild pitches with runners at third base, and rotation-leader RHP Preston Brown on the mound. UAPB was competitive because Tuesday starter RHP Jesse McCord was hit hard and early for two runs.

Even on Sunday with the fast lead, starter LHP Vance Tatum was shaky. “Obviously Vance wasn’t the Vance that was the SEC pitcher of the week last week,” Cohen said. The real shock though was how LHP Ross Mitchell and RHP Trevor Fitts were very vulnerable in mid- or late-relief. Mitchell (3-1, 2.49) took Tuesday’s loss and allowed San Diego to tie the game with a four-run eighth inning.

Fitts (0-1, 0.90) took the Sunday relief loss on just four pitches, all balls with bases loaded. Nobody thinks they will lose their roles of course. Mitchell’s career is just too consistent, though of course by now everyone has a ‘book’ on the loose lefty and is adjusting accordingly. Fitts’ situation is more interesting. His shot-put style fastball has to hit spots to be effective in conjunction with a good curveball that is tough to block. SEC batters typically can out-wait a breaking ball guy a pitch or two longer than what State has seen so far.

The good news is how soph LHP Daniel Brown threw in Saturday relief. Teammates tease about some faint physical semblances to Jacob Lindgren, but there is also evidence Brown (1-0, 0.75) can indeed develop into that exact role. Maybe sooner than expected, and give a left/right late game option in the process.

Nor is anyone thinking P.Brown (3-1, 1.93) is going to leave the rotation. He deserved better than his first Friday loss by allowing just the two runs, albeit on his own pitches missing the mitt. A 3/1 rate of strikeouts to walks and 21 base hits in 23.1 innings proves Brown is throwing strikes. The question really is, will he stick to Fridays? This coaching staff’s past tendency has been to have the ‘steady’ starter going on Saturdays to either clinch a series or square it, as circumstances dictate.

It’s a legitimate thought because after three starts RHP Austin Sexton (2-0, 2.61) has the look of a ace-in-making. He didn’t dominate in Saturday’s win as a week before, but did adapt to a different sort of opponent. That may mean more for his long-term development.

“It’s getting the ball down and being able to adjust,” Sexton said. “I don’t want to get caught in a pattern.” Other than a winning routine, that is.

The third starter is probably back up for question now. If the Western Kentucky series gets played mid-week around weather LHP Lucas Laster will have to work, meaning a return at-earliest on Sunday. So Tatum (2-0, 1.99) should have the edge still. But again, starting is not so much the story for now as getting relievers back on track.

“We need our bullpen to throw strikes,” Cohen said.

Sunday differed from the other two losses in a key way: State had a big lead to protect or as it turned out blow. Against UAPB and in game-one, and for that matter Saturday’s win, offense was hard to find. Now to be fair, the 8.8-run average of the 13-win streak was not going to last a lot longer.

Nor was a team average of .330, which today is .298. The worry though is whether this offense can even average that once league play begins. Certainly a lot of the February runs were ‘cheap’ in that they came on walks, hit batsmen, errors, etc. They all count the same on the board of course.

But there is a real difference in scoring on mistakes, forced or otherwise; and pushing runners around and across by hitting the baseball effectively. And that early Sunday lead? Most came without batting anything outside the infield.

So, for another year, nobody truly knows what the Bulldog offense is or is capable of going into the acid test of SEC season. Cohen might have said something Friday without really meaning to.

After San Diego’s first pitcher threw seven shutout innings, the MSU coach said “He’s a SEC-looking pitcher. He’s the guy that will prepare you to play in the SEC and I didn’t think we had enough competitive at-bats.”

The uncomfortable inferences stems from this: the arms State is about to face don’t just look like SEC, they are SEC. What does this imply for an offense and resulting lineup which all understand is not a finished product, nor will be for more weeks of truer tests?

What is clear, is Cohen downplays a drop in runs and average per se. “As I look at the scoreboard you start to see that around our league, people aren’t executing offensively the way they want to. Then again I don’t care what anybody else is doing.”

He does care when Bulldog batters don’t make use of hard-earned chances. State ought have put game-three away in the middle innings but left runners in scoring positions. It harked back to 2014 in uncomfortable ways when bases would get loaded and stay that way too often. For the first two weekends this season the trend was much more encouraging.

Being held to two runs by SWAC pitching, and one run by San Diego, showed everything hasn’t changed just yet. Maybe it will, and after 17 games evidence supports claims this is a better bunch of batters overall. How much better, that’s the question.

”But that’s the game of baseball, and it’s going to happen sometimes,” said Heck, the only all-game starter so far and leadoff Dog every day to-date. “You have to find a way to stay focused.”

Cohen has not hidden disappointment with the collective plate approach lately. “You really have to have in the neighborhood of 28 to 30 really good at-bats. I’m not saying you get hits on all of those but you have to have competitive at-bats. But they’ve faced some guys who located and done a great job with some pitches. Baseball works in cycles and I know it will come back to this club.”

There certainly will be hours invested this week. With spring break there is much more free—ahem—time for everyone to get to the batting cage, however the Western Kentucky series plays out. And, while he’d rather not need the rude reality check, Cohen does agree that extended winning can hide some flaws which only losses uncover.

“We’ve got a ton of areas to improve in. but I don’t know anybody in our league who’d say anything otherwise. The great thing is it’s spring break so we’ll have that opportunity.”

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