Not just lost, but swept away. Florida spoiled Mississippi State hopes to use Super Bulldog Weekend as a turnaround time by taking all three contests, with scores of 6-3, 2-1, and 10-5. It was the first home-field SEC sweep suffered by a State team since 2010…and apparently the first-ever on a SBW.
The historic aspects don’t mean much for now. What really matters is where Mississippi State stands in conference terms. Rather, doesn’t stand. Because at 6-12 the Bulldogs today are 13th, thus not in the SEC Tournament field. To be sure that can change in a single weekend as State is one win from passing three teams; and a successful series from jumping into the top-eight.
Coach John Cohen isn’t panicking. Stresses are showing though with seven losses in the last eight games, and only one series won of six this SEC season.
“We just need to take some deep breaths and move forward,” Cohen said.
The Diamond Dogs (22-19 overall) must have needed to exhale and more after being swept. Their team meeting lasted a good 15 minutes or more before DH Brent Rooker came out to speak for the squad. What was discussed?
“I’m going to keep that between us players. What happens in the locker room is our time, our space. Just we’re going to come back, work really hard and get it going back in the right direction.”
There is time to change the direction with four SEC series left. The problem, or just one of them, is who State faces. First they visit a hot Arkansas team which just took a road series from top-ranked Texas A&M. A week later brings LSU, now tied for the league lead, to Dudy Noble Field for the final home games of the season.
The rest of the schedule sends State to rival Ole Miss and finally Tennessee. The last weekend is obviously the most promising since the Volunteers hold the SEC cellar today. But if that matchup is to mean anything more than who finishes 14th in ’15, the Bulldogs have to start winning both games and series.
Put another way, season goals now consist of qualifying for Hoover. Though at least one Dog is thinking beyond the SEC Tournament. “I think we’ve got ample time to put some wins together and get an at-large bid,” RHP Trevor Fitts said.
Putting wins together means putting games together. State has struggled mightily with that. When the starting pitching shows up, the bats disappear. When there is hitting, moundsmen start struggling. And reliable relief pitching has been mostly missing, the strangest aspect of the year for this program. The net result is a 5.64 staff ERA in SEC games, second-worst of the 14 teams; and the worst batting average against too.
What has been consistent is defense, as only LSU and Florida have fewer SEC-game errors. “We played three games without making an error,” Cohen said of the swept series. Dog defenders didn’t just play without serious gaffes but made their usual quota of outstanding and even great plays. But, defense only impacts the other team’s line on a scoreboard. This is where Mississippi State is frustratingly flawed.
It will surprise some that this offense is not last in league-only game play. They are 10th in both hitting and runs after 18 games. So saying State can’t score is not accurate. That they are not scoring enough, is. Maybe one clue is a lack of RBI, versus outright runs. And as all know, the decent on-base average is inflated by how many walks the Dogs draw…which is actually impressive considering opposing pitchers can’t be that scared of getting hit hard.
But this only frustrates further since so many free passes become left-on-bases. It isn’t from being struck-out either as Bulldogs have fanned just 92 times in the 18 games. That’s exactly 100 strikeouts less than the league ‘leader’ in fact. Here comes another clue: State has grounded into 17 SEC double-plays, second-most.
Cohen seems to seize on that stat as reflecting his own evaluation. Bulldog are batting balls right at defenders when it matters most to produce. Or, “We’re not earning the fortune this game can provide to you.” The coach even talks now as if such stuff is in the team’s collective head.
“I really feel we have to earn some things,” Cohen said Sunday. “But our kids believe every time we hit a ball hard it’s going to be right at somebody. When the other team miss-hits a ball it’s going to fall somewhere.”
If true, this attitude doesn’t bode well. But maybe the coach was exaggerating in the moment. Because there is no woe-is-us talk from players speaking to media. “We have a bunch of good guys on this team, a bunch of really good hitters,” Rooker said. “So whenever you get in there you have to do your best to help out the team.”
Fitts pointed to what he saw from the dugout as very close offensive calls, well-hit balls that if struck just a little sharper would have changed at least one and likely two games. Fitts even went metric on media.
“They say baseball is a game of inches. It’s more like a game of centimeters. That’s just the way it happens and we’ve got to be better, we’ve got to put some runs up and keep their runs lower.”
One would naturally improve the other. If State can score more then pitching has more margin to work with; opposing pitching gets tense and defenders make mistakes; and on and on the cycle goes. The obvious challenge is bringing more Dogs home, and something else Cohen said reflects why this remains a concern.
“We’re doing some things well. It’s just not sequenced and we’re not able to put together big innings.” This truth is partly because big Bulldog innings involve singles, walks, plunkings and with luck a gap-double. When C Gavin Collins knocked a ball out of the home park Sunday it was as if State had struck gold. Florida easily countered with two home runs in the same game, and by a Gator who hadn’t hit anything out all season to make the irony all the more bitter.
Sequencing can include how Cohen and Butch Thompson now try to string together relief pitching. This month Bullpen Bulldogs have delivered in brief bursts, only to get beat-up after a couple of outs. So, their stints are being cut shorter and shorter. The theory is getting more matchup opportunities, and having relievers ready for the next game or two. Like most theories it sounds better than it looks on the field but this seems to be the plan.
“We just feel with this young and inexperienced bullpen if we can keep them short we might have more success with them,” said Cohen.
The larger issue is at this perilous point of the season, Mississippi State needs any success it can scratch out to first stop the slide and then maybe reverse it. And asking about Hoover these days is useless. The only up-side to a down-trend is how it can focus a club on the immediate and nothing else.
“I still believe we’re not that far away,” Cohen insisted. “Talking to our players, I said it’s really unfortunate some things didn’t happen for us. But we still have a lot left in the season and I know everyone is going to give us everything they have.”