Lucas Laster has certainly helped Mississippi State answer some of its midweek issues. Starting the last two Tuesdays, the senior southpaw has earned wins over both Western Kentucky and Eastern Illinois. More than winning, Laster has covered for his Bulldog bullpen cohorts.
After working 7.0-plus innings to top the Hilltoppers, he came back with his first complete-route outing last week. Laster did give up eight hits in the 9.0 turns with two runs, but struck out seven with no walks. In fact Laster has been staying in and around the strike zone ever since a bit of a sputter on the second day of the season.
In the 27.1 innings pitched in the last four starts, he’s walked only two batters with 22 strikeouts. Laster has been hit, and scored on. It hasn’t fazed him a bit. Getting a ground ball is almost as good as a strikeout and usually more efficient.
Because, “I believe we’ve got some of if not the best fielders in the country,” Laster said last week. So if pitching to contact isn’t blowing people away, it has let Laster build a 3-0 record in five starts with a 2.35 ERA. The stats and more importantly style could be setting the senior up to take a weekend role, either in long-relief or left-handed matchup for a bullpen that has unexpectedly struggled.
Laster is optimistic the relief staff will settle down. “I think we can always get better on certain things. But we keep filling up the zone and we’ve got some good defenders behind us.”
For at least one more Tuesday it is a non-conference order Laster will face. And, one which might be heating-up after a slow February. The Golden Eagles (13-8-1) have won six of their last eight games and split a two-game CUSA set at Louisiana Tech shortened by weather. With the wins has come better batting, now up to .266 as a club.
Power probably won’t come into play in Pearl, but with 33 doubles and five triples the extra-base potential is there. Southern Mississippi also will swing away, as 136 strikeouts against 84 walks shows. And the man on the mound will have motivation, as senior righthander James McMahon (4-0, 1.31) was signed by Mississippi State out of high school before abruptly transferring to his home-town college before the fall semester.
Mississippi State is 18-8 after losing a second SEC weekend series, this time at Kentucky. The Bulldogs needed a surprising Sunday batting barrage to stave off sweeping and leave 2-4 in league play. The lone bright spots coming back from Lexington were another complete-game pitching performance, this one from LHP Vance Tatum; and having six hits leave the yard. An admittedly cozy one, of course.
But when a team once ranked in the top-ten is now sub-.500 in SEC action, and with the best opponents still ahead, hitting home runs is a positive point. So was avoiding a road sweep, for Coach John Cohen.
“I wasn’t clean and it wasn’t pretty, but it was a win,” he said on the post-game radio show. “Our kids barreled some balls up and getting rewarded was what we needed.”
State got homers from 1B Wes Rea, his second of the season; IF Matt Britton, his second-ever in college; and both OF Jacob Robson and C Cody Walker, their first(s) period. But the break-out weekend belonged to OF Reid Humphreys. The sophomore slugged a pair over the wall Sunday for five total RBI, giving him four shots for the season. Humphreys began slowly and still has just a .280 average.
But in these last seven games, six SEC, he’s hit .423 with at least one safety each time. What made the Kentucky trip bigger wasn’t just launching balls beyond walls, it was how Humphreys had people on base to drive in for a radical change from everyone’s solo shots.
Cohen showed what stock State is putting in the sophomore by A) moving him to the outfield this season and B) keeping the right-side swinger in lineups when the program’s preference is for matchups. Humphreys had been hitting some balls hard before already, mostly drives directly to outfielders. Now the hits are falling or even leaving.
“He’s starting to get a little swagger,” Cohen said. “And we haven’t had a ton of that swagger mentality you need in this league.”
Rea’s homer was the exception in his recent batting slump after a strong March stretch. But the senior isn’t having to hit his way on base all the time. In the last eleven games Rea has earned 17 walks, most of them on full counts at that.
A Dog to watch in terms of projecting a game’s outcome is OF Cody Brown. He too has cooled-down at the plate the last week or so. Or maybe not cooled so much as his hitting runs either hot or cold. Brown is either on or he’s not in SEC action, with three 0-fer days and a couple of 2-hit outings. It’s probably no coincidence that both multi-hit games were wins.
What brings increased hope for offense is the return, albeit intermittent, of C/OF Gavin Collins. The February hand surgery still hampers him, more so receiving than swinging but even hitting can cause pain. So his availability is a day-to-day affair.
But playing consecutive weekend games Collins went 5-of-9, and Sunday he scored twice with three RBI. Two his hits went for two-bags, also. “Obviously the swings Gavin took was what we needed,” said Cohen, reminding though that the hand is still not 100% and causes post-game pain.
OF Jacob Robson is back on the fast pace of early-season, with an eight-game hitting streak where he is 14-of-28 with nine runs scored. State even got some timely hits from Britton in a Saturday comeback that fell short. Then in Sunday batting practice Britton ‘popped’ a knee according to Cohen and missed the game. His status this week is uncertain.
It has to be repeated, that Kentucky’s park plays to offense. AA-field Trustmark Park doesn’t as much, unless teams have gap-power and lots of speed. The Bulldogs have thrived there in recent years against both Ole Miss and Southern Miss teams built for cozier home fields.
But the Golden Eagles will come to town on something of a roll…and with a sizable chip on the shoulder after six-straight losses to Mississippi State since a late-season game in 2010 at Hattiesburg. That was also the last campus meeting of the programs for the foreseeable future with the Pearl matchup having begun in 2009. State is 4-2 in these games.
Last year’s reunion took eleven innings to settle with State surviving by a 4-3 final. Attendance has been strong by both sides since moving to Pearl and Cohen expects another good Tuesday crowd for the 6:30 start time. There is no telecast of the game, which will be carried by the full MSU radio network.
“It’s just such a great venue and is always a great event with Southern Mississippi there,” Cohen said.
USM is taking its turn as the designated home team this year.