Cohen: "Keep Moving Forward"

No one can accuse John Cohen of falling back on coach-speak. Nor, really, can anyone argue with the coach’s plan for fixing what has gone wrong with the Diamond Dogs. “You work your ass off and keep moving forward, that’s what you do.”

His blunt, ahhh, assessment came in the post-game passion of another late-game collapse. In that case, it was Sunday’s 8-4 loss to Alabama which cost Mississippi State (16-6, 1-2 SEC) its first conference series. The game-three defeat was too similar to giving away a 5-2 lead in game-one to lose 10-5. Sunday, it was a 4-3 lead frittered away.

This was exactly not the way Mississippi State needed to begin league play. Yet without a gutsy and full-route performance from RHP Austin Sexton in the middle game, the Dogs were frighteningly close to being swept at home. By, it must be noted, a visitor which does not even have a campus field of their own this season.

The weekend thus was of great credit to gypsy squad Alabama. For the Bulldogs? The series extended an uncomfortable stretch that has seen six losses in nine chances. A couple of national polls still show State in their top-25 but ranking is way, way down the list of current concerns.

Getting back to a ball club which won its first 13 games, in all sorts of fashions, tops every list after Sunday’s frustrations. As CF Jacob Robson said, “It’s just one of those things where you can learn from it and go off the good aspects.”

There have been good aspects in the slump. First and by-far foremost, starting pitching. A group topping all pre-season worry lists has turned into the squad’s strength. In fact, for the first time since at least the 2008 season, Mississippi State has a real rotation taking shape. RHP Preston Brown (3-1, 2.15 ERA) threw well enough to win game-one, and Sexton (3-0, 2.12) made a huge statement with his full-route win. Then LHP Vance Tatum (2-0, 2.73) gave the sort of start which should assure a Sunday win in this conference.

Certainly getting a combined 22.0 innings out of three starters, with a 19 strikeouts to six walks ratio against one of the SEC’s older batting orders, set State up to not only take a series but sweep it. Cohen and club will take those numbers any weekend, any opponent.

But handed leads in all three games, just like the Sunday before against San Diego too, the Bulldog bullpen lost it all. “When you have the starters doing great and we’re not keeping their wins, that’s something we’ve got to work on,” LHP Ross Mitchell said. “That’s something we take pride in here and obviously we’re not performing the way we’re capable of.”

It spoke well for senior Mitchell that he was willing to talk for the bullpen. Yet it also epitomized the situation. For two years Mitchell has been as close to a sure-thing on the State staff, starting and relief, as possible. Until Saturday’s work by Sexton, he had the last complete-game win by a Bulldog.

For a proven performer in SEC and NCAA tournament play to suddenly struggle shows the degree to which Bulldog bullpening, for so long the proudest part of the program, has taken a wrong turn. All of them. Against Alabama the three starters allowed seven runs; the relievers gave up 12 runs in just 5.0 official innings.

And the really infuriating fact is, the bullpen wasn’t hit often or hard in the two losses. They put Alabamans on bases with walks, plunkings, a couple of defensive mistakes, everything that could go wrong. Things which for most of three years had regularly gone right, as in that stretch Mississippi State owned an amazing record of holding late leads.

Cohen was equally blunt if less colorful commenting on the obvious issue. “We’re just not challenging the strike zone,” he said. Cohen tried to describe how tentative relievers are pitching as trying to walk through raindrops without getting wet, then the head coach tried taking responsibility.

That will read well with frustrated fans. Realistically coaching responsibility stops after preparation and scouting. And heaven knows what Bulldog baseball never, ever lacks for is either practice time invested and information provided.

A step-away look does remind that the 2015 bullpen is not quite the same as previous bunches. Mitchell is the central figure of course but he spent all SEC and NCAA season as a starter. He’s re-learning how to work out of the pen again and that might explain why he seems to miss the strike zone by wider margins than before. Or, that after 88 career appearances opponents at last have a read on the loose lefty’s style.

In Sunday’s decisive eighth inning, Mitchell had loaded bases and a tie game. After throwing two strikes down the chute to the #9 batter, he missed wide-right on three pitches and left the full-count try low. “I was trying to be too perfect,” he admitted.

Maybe the real reason was Alabama, as did a few teams last year, recognize Mitchell’s forte is getting a first-pitch swing that up to now had become an incredible rate of double-plays. If they out-wait him, as well as other MSU relievers, they will find something better to hit harder. Or just get one of those walks Cohen spoke of.

So, Mitchell said, “It’s throwing strikes and making them beat you with base hits.”

But this must not be read as a critique on Mitchell alone. Cohen and Coach Butch Thompson must give the entire bullpen roster an intense re-evaluation. Moving Tatum from relief to starting has been a hit. After a promising beginning as a late-man this year, former starter RHP Trevor Fitts (1.50, 1-2) is running into trouble. His two losses are more a matter of timing to be fair, inheriting serious jams. State also now puts Fitts in matchup settings with games on the line rather than working whole innings.

The return of RHP Myles Gentry after preseason health issues might be what the bullpen needs to round-out the right side. Nor should RHP Zac Houston be written-off too soon, as he’s just a sophomore getting used to regular weekend work. And while LHP Daniel Brown was hit hard by Western Kentucky and didn’t locate well against Alabama, the soph transfer’s stuff is just too good not to win with in time.

So it might be only a matter of figuring out when to use them and against whom, instead of radical changes after one SEC weekend. Or, maybe not. Cohen clearly sent the message no job is safe now.

“We’ll go up and down our roster. Because the options we’re using right now aren’t working, and that’s my responsibility. We’ve got to find that guy who can throw it in the strike zone. And in this ball park if you throw it in the strike zone you’re going to get people out. Our ballpark will stop people from getting hits if you challenge the strike zone.”

That statement should puzzle San Diego, Western Kentucky, and Alabama. They hit and scored some in State’s park. Yes, it is fact that in six losses Bulldog pitching has given up 22 runs in the last three innings. That’s going to lose a lot of games.

But…the Bulldog offense can’t escape responsibility. In those same 7-8-9 innings they have scored just two runs in the losses. Two. This isn’t a case of playing things safe in the late going, it is failure to push people across the plate and give that beleaguered bullpen just a little more margin. And nobody claims State hitters have faced shut-down relief staffs so far.

Even when runners reach, they much more often than not never come home. In the Alabama series alone 37 Dogs were stranded. Worse, 19 of those were left on second or third base. There were 22 Dogs who got to third base and just 13 of them went on to score. Just bring four or five more home, and the weekend ends with a happy home team.

The really worrisome fact is there seems no one or two weak links in the order. Six games aren’t a huge sample size to be clear. But in the losses the top-three in MSU’s order, substitutes and pinchers included, have hit .213. The bottom threesome, whoever they are game by game, have hit .273.

This is not a signal to invert the order. It just reminds that lack of overall offense makes bullpen struggles that much more damaging. Going into SEC play, it was noted here and elsewhere that so much of State’s scoring in the 13-win streak came without hitting it well. Walks, HBPs, bunt-singles, infielding errors did as much to bring Bulldogs home as ‘driving’ them in with safe contact.

The obvious concern was what it would mean once State ran into SEC pitching and defense. The first weekend did nothing to ease anxieties about this offense, with a .269 average and .333 slugging. It had to be a bitter irony how a Crimson Tide club which plays its home games in homer-proof Hoover this year walked into Dudy Noble Field and knocked three balls out. No Bulldog hits left the yard, though six doubles (to three for Alabama) did show some are capable of real drives.

Also, in what might be an encouraging sign, by Sunday there was less ‘taking’ of first strikes. More Dogs came up ready to swing. They weren’t rewarded a whole lot this time yet contact was clearly sharper than when waiting four, five pitches deep for a do I/don’t I? offering.

“I think more than hitting approach it was just to be aggressive in all aspects, and compete really hard,” Robson said. “Despite the loss I think we all did a pretty good job of that today. At least there was an improvement from yesterday and kind of lately.”

After a two-week slump Robson seems back on his February pace. He hit .556 in the series and is up to .419 on the season, and still leads in runs at 23. This, despite moving farther-down in the order. OF Cody Brown was just .273 on the weekend but deserved much better based on contact. By contrast OF Jake Vickerson (.400) was right time and place batting at the end of the order.

Also, OF/DH Reid Humphreys might just be finding his plate-groove at last. He was 4-of-9 and had other drives directly into gloves which another day should find green. “I’m really pleased with Reid, he hit some balls right on the button and didn’t get a ton of hits,” Cohen said. “We have some good things happening.”

This even included a .100 average for 1B Wes Rea, an entirely-misleading number. Rea walked five times and went full-count almost as many other turns, an on-base rate State will take. His one hit also drove in two runs.

And really the challenge is not batting or on-base averages. It is the over-arching issue of putting a ball in play when runners are in scoring spots. For every RBI-walk State is earning there are two or more strikeouts, fly balls, just failures to drive teammates around and home. It is true that Bulldogs are told to bunt a lot. A whole lot. Some see it as standard situational baseball; others as sheer necessity with unproven hitting. And others as giving too much weight to percentages and not enough opportunity to let a lot of still-developing batters swing away.

There is no simple answer, beyond a lot of guys getting hot at the same time. Of course no one gets hot by sacrificing an at-bat, either. So maybe the weekend sent a signal that Dogs will be turned loose a little more often? Whatever, Robson is convince his club can hit it.

“I think it’s almost 100% mental. Because everyone has the skills physically to make it to this level,” he said. “You’ve got to seize the moment and be aggressive.”

The Bulldogs finally end their marathon home-stand Tuesday, hosting Eastern Illinois at 6:30. LHP Lucas Laster (2-0, 2.49) gets the start, though if the game develops well there are other arms—such as RHP Dakota Hudson—who need innings too.

Tuesday should also allow C Gavin Collins another chance to play. The soph has started once game behind the plate since February catching-hand surgery, and two others at DH as well as done some pinch-hitting. Collins didn’t pick up glove nor bat for the first SEC weekend. Every game he does play leaves his hand sore,” Cohen said.

“It’s day-to-day with his hand.”

Also, Thompson should have another pitching option available soon. In fact the hope had been for RHP Paul Young to make his long-awaited debut by SEC season. The 2014 transfer has spent over a year rehabilitating, and is supposed to take the hill any week—or day—now.

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