“You have fun on the road. It’s fun, you’re flying and guys like that. You get in the hotel and have a little different vibe. Honestly I think it’s going to be a good thing for us, different scenery and getting to do some different things.”
This certainly is a change for Mississippi State (17-6). Since opening day all 23 games have been played on Dudy Noble Field. Now they venture abroad to take on Kentucky (13-7, 0-3). Game times (central) are 5:30, 1:00, and noon.
Considering every pitch and at-bat so far have been in friendly confines, the Bulldogs might actually be eager to test themselves in another venue. Rea even compares it to opening day, especially for freshmen and transfers who’ve yet to wear road uniforms.
“It’s a huge jump for guys, so the nerves start kicking a little bit,” Rea said. “And we haven’t played away from this place all year so they step on foreign soil for the first time and kind of get those same feelings. And I think we have a lot of guys ready to do that.”
Strange as it seems, taking their act on the road might help a few things recently ailing State. After a 13-0 start they lost six of nine games, including two-of-three in their SEC opening series with Alabama. Allowing that they were playing one of the more ‘veteran’ teams in the league this year, it wasn’t a successful beginning.
Not only do the Dogs have some ground to make up immediately. A realistic look at the schedule shows State really needs to emerge from the first three weekends with seven or at bare minimum six victories. Because after this weekend and the home series with Auburn, leading league contenders start showing up.
If State’s SEC start was frustrating, for Kentucky things were more so. They were swept at South Carolina, snapping an eleven-win streak, by 10-1, 4-3, and 6-4 (10 innings) scores. The Wildcats also struggled Tuesday in a 10-7 home loss to Ohio. Though when UK struggles they score runs, something Mississippi State has found difficult lately.
Now, conventional SEC wisdom is Hagan Stadium is a sure cure for any batting order, particularly those short on power. This isn’t entirely correct. Rightfield is official 310 away but that wall isn’t short, and as Cohen has pointed out wind direction knocks down more high flies than not. So lefthanded hitters must resist the allure. For that matter so do righthanders with opposite-field swings.
“It’s different,” said Rea, speaking from experience. “That’s kind of the rumor of the SEC, people go to Kentucky and want to hit home runs.” Not only does temptation get the better of visitors, they often take bad habits back to the home field as a result.
The siren call of rightfield is more dangerous to MSU than usual. With just seven home runs in 23 games, at home, the Bulldogs are a bit ahead of their 2014 pace. But that’s more reflects the different baseball of 2015 than any new punch in the order. State has given up 15 homers to opponents, after all.
Where the Dogs have had the edge is in extra base hits which stay in the park. State has almost double the doubles, 34 to 19; and five triples to zero. OF Cody Brown is the ‘slugging’ leader with six doubles and two triples on his .333 average. It’s an encouraging sign that lefthanded hitter Brown has ben staying in the order rather than rotating for matchups as before.
State is also sticking with righthander OF Reid Humphreys, or at least keeping him as DH when the perceived need is another lefty in leftfield. Not that results of a matchup-oriented order seem decisively better, but that is a debate for another day. Humphreys is still at .261 on average but he is on an uptick. Even his outs are getting more impressive. Humphreys had a RBI-single Tuesday yet his best contact was a line-shot to a well-positioned rightfielder. Other days, that drive should drop.
“It’s funny, when we break down swings my favorite swings are the ones they get out on,” said Cohen. “Because they’re all about results and I’m all about the process.” That statement probably could have been expressed better for fan-comfort, but the idea does break through. On average, so to speak, Bulldog batters are making more and better contact.
And when Humphreys and Rea make really good contact, they are threats. “Those are two guys who can really frighten you in a smaller ball park. But when they’re going to right side and right-central they’re effective.” Against Alabama several Dogs came up swinging and not working counts quite as much. This will result in faster outs but also does put a bit of thought into opposing pitching plans, hopefully. So does running the paths when possible.
“That’s just the name of the game, pressuring the defense,” Brown said. “We’ve got a ton of speed on our team and speed kills. That’s a big plus for our offense.”
All the same walks and HBPs remain key to getting Dogs on bases. OF Jacob Robson is the only NCAA player in the top-ten for on-base rate, walks and steals, yet he’s just one walk ahead of Rea at 22 to 21! SS Seth Heck in leadoff all 23 games has 15 walks and a team-high seven plunkings.
It is what happens after Dogs make base, and all the more so advance into scoring positions, where the breakdowns come. State stranded nine runners at third base last weekend alone, and average a baffling 9.3 left-on-base for the season.
There is hope to get a good bat back in the daily order once C Gavin Collins’ surgically-healed hand stops hurting. He’s played in six games, starting one at catcher and two as DH. Soreness after each action is the limiting factor now.
”That’s the nature of the injury,” Cohen said. “He’s going to have some good days and some bad days but I feel he’s going to be able to contribute.” Getting Collins back 100% will force interesting calls. C Josh Lovelady has been excellent behind the dish, a better receiver and blocker than Collins most think, but he’s hitting .255. If Collins is DH what then to do then if Humphreys is not starting in the field? Of course State will love the luxury of such choices.
Choosing the weekend’s rotation is easy now. RHP Preston Brown (3-1, 2.15) gets the ball Friday, followed by RHP Austin Sexton (3-0, 2.12) and LHP Vance Tatum (2-0, 2.73). Cohen can even book next Tuesday’s starter after LHP Lucas Laster (3-0, 2.35) went the distance this week to beat EIU.
But it isn’t who starts that has State on edge. It is who finishes. Unless of course the starters do it too, as did Laster this week and Sexton against Alabama. Since complete games are a lot to ask on any regular basis the focus falls on a beaten-up Bulldog bullpen which has lost leads and games.
It has been a painful blow to a proud relief staff used to sealing deals. It is certainly a startling change for a program which led the nation over the past few seasons in holding 9th-inning leads. “We just have to be better,” LHP Ross Mitchell. “That’s pretty much it.”
That is pretty much it. They have been better before. Mitchell owns relief-appearance and win records after all. If many of his ’15 cohorts are all- or relatively-new to specific relief roles they have either other experience at State or the talent for this task. Or mostly both. Cohen does not doubt that part.
“When we have guys attack the strike zone I feel we’re going to play good defense and get deep into a ball game,” he said. “Our problem has been not throwing enough strikes to engage our defense and let them work.” Walks have indeed done-in late game pitching, setting the stage for back-breaking hits and big innings.
While not projected as a relief option when signed a year ago, there could be this sort of role in store for RHP Paul Young. Then he could work his way into starting status as expected as a transfer. Either way, Young is supposed to get on the mound at long last. He even warmed-up Tuesday, the first time fans have seen the touted righty in the bullpen.
Cohen thinks the long wait is nearly over. “He’s dying to get out there. He reminds us daily that he’s ready to go. He has the best right-handed breaking ball on the team, a power breaking ball. His fastball is going to come, I’ve seen 87-90 in bullpens but I think it’s better than that. We can get an inning here and there.”
All pitching options have to be ready all the time in this series. The programs only met once last season, with Kentucky winning at the SEC Tournament in extra innings. Several Dogs remain from the 2013 club which won a Friday game before dropping both ends of a doubleheader by a run each time. That was the last time State visited Lexington, where a Bulldog club has not taken a series since 2004; Cohen’s first year as Kentucky coach in fact.
Bouncing-back from a lost home series by winning on the road is the tough way to go. There is some precedent though. Last season’s Bulldogs went 10-5 in SEC road games, with sweeps at Missouri and Auburn. They were just 8-7 at home.
There is one other group glad to see the Dogs leave home now. The long home stand, frequent use of a damaged tarp, and lots of practice has taken a toll on DNF turf. Just as Rea, who gets to field throws and grounders on fresher grass this week.
“I think our infield could use a little away-trip, too!”
Attached: Catcher Josh Lovelady interview.