That’s the Diamond Dog dilemma as they return from a frustrating week on the road for four home games. The first is Tuesday evening as Mississippi State (22-16, 6-9 SEC) hosts Northwestern (La.) State. Game time is 6:30 at Dudy Noble Field on the SEC Network+ on-line feed.
Sure, in light of their overall and league records, the team’s 2015 goals begin with qualifying for the SEC Tournament. At the moment the Bulldogs are in, if by an uncomfortably tight margin of a single win given how packed things are 7th-through-14th. So for the following five weekends priority must be staying out of 13-14 places.
As for the immediate, Coach John Cohen’s club can stop another troubling trend. One which makes SEC success all the more important, too. Mississippi State has lost the last three Tuesday games, and is just 3-5 in all midweek contests this season. Those setbacks have taken a brutal toll on more than the overall record, it has left the Bulldogs far outside the RPI range needed to earn an at-large NCAA Tournament berth.
There aren’t many chances to fix the non-SEC record left. Just two in fact; Tuesday’s visit by the Demons, and the annual Governors Cup contest with Ole Miss on April 28. Yes, it’s true. Thanks to the front-loaded cold months scheduling, these Bulldogs are just about out of non-league games already. Of course with the recent record that might not be a bad thing.
What would be good is gaining a little confidence again, Cohen thinks.
“Hopefully we get into a situation where we start playing (better) in the middle of the week,” Cohen said Sunday on radio at the end of the Texas A&M series. “That’s another maturity issue, our kids have to get up for midweek games and we encourage them to do that.”
Setting briefly aside questions of getting a club up for non-conference games, State will stay with the same Tuesday pitching plan as last week. RHP Austin Sexton (3-3, 3.52) was shuffled out of the SEC rotation two weeks ago, when the South Carolina series began a day early and State wanted to use a lefthander too. Results of his first midweek work this season were mixed at Memphis.
Sexton did go 6.2 innings, doing what he could to save bullpen for the weekend. He also allowed four runs on seven hits and three walks, with a couple of strikeouts. Most of the damage was done on two big Tiger swings, in a big ballpark ironically, as the Bulldogs were beaten 7-1.
Now Sexton gets another Tuesday chance. Barring a lot of early scoring and very, very high confidence level mid-game, this will keep Sexton out of plans for the Florida series. One potential benefit of ending non-conference games would be a chance for him to get back in weekend work eventually.
It should benefit every Bulldog being back home for mid-week, since the previous three losses were road trips. It also ought help that Northwestern State (20-15) doesn’t look like an offensive powerhouse. Under the former MSU assistant, Lane Burroughs, the Demons are hitting just .263 and slugging at only a .369 pace. Then again, their conference stats are markedly better in both regards.
The Demons are 12-5 in Southland Conference play and coming off a sweep of New Orleans. They are right behind 11-4 Southeastern Louisiana for first place. Righthander Evan Tidwell (2-3, 3.44) will start against State.
“Lane’s really turned that program around and has done a great job,” Cohen said. “We look forward to seeing him.”
What Cohen and club really want to see is a win. The Dogs did avoid a sweep at #1/2-ranked Texas A&M, and even scored some sort of pride point by knocking off the Aggies 3-2 in game-two. It was the program’s first win over a top-ranked team in eleven years. Though, cooler heads could look at that as more a comment on where Mississippi State baseball has been for more than a decade now. Once upon a happier time it was State getting upset, not doing the upset-ing.
And nevermind nostalgia of any sort; Bulldog teams aren’t supposed to struggle so in midweeks. There aren’t a lot of surface consistencies in losses to Southern Miss (3-0), at South Alabama (8-7, 11), and Memphis (7-1). What does jump out for anyone familiar with how State is structured is how poor the offense was in games played on pro fields Trustmark Park and AutoZone Park.
At South Alabama’s campus field, then over the weekend at College Station, the Bulldog batting was markedly better. The runs total wasn’t what it could have been but Dogs reached bases regularly. And more of the hits left the yard, too. Suddenly State is slugging some home runs. Though, that might have led to a little over-swinging as well. Cohen noticed it at A&M when repeatedly bases were loaded and, usually, left that way.
“We got big and tried to swing too hard,” he said Sunday. Still on the whole offense is making mid-season improvement. And had team-leading batter OF Jake Vickerson not woken up Friday with a stiff neck, and been limited to a couple of pinch-hit chances, the weekend could easily have gone a better way.
Vickerson’s status for Tuesday will be learned later. The rest of the lineup seems to be taking a semi-solid shape at last, though given the program’s penchant for matchup-tinkering that might not hold up. As for the bullpen, that just about demands more tinkering. Midweek or weekend, State still seeks the best combination of relievers and closers.
There have to be technical reasons of course, which presumably can be addressed. Increasingly though Cohen talks as if the real solution is time. Maybe a lot of it, based on another Sunday comment related to the non-conference struggles.
“We have good practice and preparation, our kids are trying real hard,” Cohen said. “It’s just not a mature group that really understand college baseball because so many are going through it for the first time.” By first time, he means either as new senior collegians or new starters or new in positions.
“Our older guys get it, our younger guys are struggling with it. All those guys have bright futures, they just have some bumps in the road before they figure it out.”