Better Batting Improves Bulldog Fortunes

For a program proud of endless, even obsessive analysis, what Cody Brown said sounds almost heretical. Yet the offensive results speak for themselves. “Just going back to a Little League mindset,” Brown said. “Just see ball, hit ball. Not overthinking things. Just playing the game, letting it come to you. And it’s really paying off for us.”

An apparently simplified approach did pay off with the first conference series win of Mississippi State’s season. Taking two-of-three from South Carolina stemmed a SEC skid, and has the Bulldogs (21-13, 5-7) breathing just a bit more easily. Just a bit.

“I think we’ve kind of found it,” Brown said. “We’ve hit our groove and the bats are waking up. The pitching has been there. So I’m excited to move forward.”

State needs to. It took four series to win one, meaning the Dogs begin week-five in a three-way tie for third SEC West and an even larger mob even at seventh overall. That would be safe in SEC Tournament terms on the face of it. Except that State is five games behind overall leader Vanderbilt and only one game in front of four four-win squads for last place.

Also, the Bulldogs are on the road all week beginning with a Tuesday trip to AutoZone Park. There they meet a Memphis team which just knocked off Houston. And the weekend sends State to West Division leader Texas A&M, which would be tied with Vandy for first overall if weather hadn’t shortened their series at Kentucky.

So by no means is Mississippi State anywhere near in the clear for SEC Tournament play. Last week also wasn’t nearly as productive as possible, as a 5-0 lead at South Alabama was wasted in an 8-7 loss. At the same time the Bulldogs believe they’ve turned a corner of sorts, and at last.

Why? Because they hit for average, for extra bases, and scored more runs. It’s as simple as that.

For all the insistence that pitching and defense are what wins at Mississippi State, the fact is nothing encourages a club like offense. All last week the bats showed up to a degree not seen since the season-opening games against lightweight opponents who couldn’t pitch.

How? “We just went back to a more simple approach at the plate. More a simple mindset all the way around,” Brown said. “We’re just taking a lot more swings, getting in Palmeiro, working harder. I think it’s really paying off for us.”

For comparison, in the lost series to Auburn the Bulldogs batted just .196 and scored only three runs. A weekend later, still on the same home field, State swatted the ball around at a .363 rate and scored 27 runs…or one for every inning. Five Bulldogs batted .400 or better.

OF Jake Vickerson led the way with a career sort of weekend, hitting .583. “We’re all trying to get our best swing off, whether you get a hit or not is not in our control but if you get your best swing off that’s all you can do.”

Keeping up the best swings with more scorning obviously is the best answer to State’s early-SEC issues. Pitching, starting pitching at least, was more than up to the challenge in previous weekends and even many mid-week losses. Relief work has been sketchier as shown at South Alabama. And as the head coach noted, a couple of defensive breakdowns likely kept State from a much-needed sweep.

Still the trends are far better here in early April than how March ended. “We have a lot of things working for us,” said Coach John Cohen. “And we’re capable of playing this way. But we’ve got to keep it going in a positive direction.”

Along the lines of keep it going… Call it coincidence or call it consistency, but State took the lineup from last Sunday’s win over Auburn and rode it the next four games too. Maybe a five-game starting stretch isn’t long in a season context. But at Mississippi State, with the understood obsessive with mix-and-matchups, maybe it signaled something.

Or, probably not. After clinching the series in game-two Cohen said changes were considered to get more righthanders in the order that day, except numbers showed the Gamecock pitcher was just as vulnerable to lefties anyway. So assumptions a winning lineup/order is now ‘set’ are almost certainly wrong.

Not only because sooner or later guys--especially C Gavin Collins—will need a day off, and batters inevitably cool down; but because tinkering is just what State does. Then again, if Brown and Vickerson are correct about this simplified attitude at the plate, why shouldn’t other State swingers also pick up their own paces?

It wasn’t just average that jumped last week. Extra-base hits from series to series more than doubled. Literally in the sense that State hit a dozen two-baggers against good Gamecock pitching. Nothing left the home park, though some shot came close, but DH Reid Humphreys whipped one out at Mobile. Nor was this a case of using a small park as with their non-sustainable slugging at cozy Kentucky. When the Dogs are doubling the ball around, good things happen.

“That’s just getting the barrel where you want it, getting the bat head out there and taking your best swing,” said Brown, who is thriving now at the top of the order. “In the past couple of weeks we’ve been barreling-balls up but just right at the guys. I think now it’s kind of paying off for us.”

Not just for the batters. Every additional run puts pitching in a better position. It even helps the defense out, Cohen said, by pressuring opponents to try harder and swing worse. The key though remains throwing strikes, just not grooving them, and letting the Dog defense work.

“It’s a bigger deal if you’re walking people,” Cohen said. “And it’s amazing how balls find gloves when you don’t walk people.”

RHP Preston Brown (4-3, 4.18) isn’t doing it too often now. Nor did LHP Lucas Laster (4-1, 2.53) in his first regular-season SEC start. Moved from midweek regular to series-starter, the senior southpaw threw a complete-game win to open the set. “Lucas really put our club on his back,” Cohen said. In the process Laster likely locked up a spot in the rotation for the foreseeable future.

Then again for a stretch LHP Vance Tatum (3-1, 3.83) had that spot. Maybe moving him up a day, for the early-starting series, took some of his edge off. And he paid a price for two defensive decisions and mistakes that let South Carolina take control. Cohen isn’t about to assign Laster a lesser place, though.

For that matter changes for the one series will ripple into all this week. RHP Austin Sexton (3-2, 3.20) missed his turn so lefty Laster could start. He did throw Saturday bullpen to stay on some sort of schedule, and will get on the hill Tuesday in Memphis. Depending on how long he throws Sexton might could be ready again by the end of the weekend.

In the relief of winning a SEC series, it can’t be forgotten that State has got to win some midweek matchups after too many losses have left a triple-digit RPI at the moment. Had they completed a sweep? The situation would be far better for both RPI and SEC standing.

Certainly MSU’s new momentum is about to get challenged with a week on the road, especially traveling to the best of the West and the last team in the country to lose a game. This is a far, far different Aggie squad than the one State swept at College Station two seasons ago.

But the bottom line is that the weather is warming up, and Bulldog bats are heating up. At last for both. “It’s nice to put the whole package together,” 2B John Holland said.

At least it all sound simple…

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