Bulldogs should be rested, even a little more relaxed. With exception of next Tuesday’s Governors Cup there are no more midweek games on the regular schedule. So players have been able to get ready for next week’s spring exams, and the whole pitching staff dial it back a bit.
“It also allows us to work on some things,” Coach John Cohen said, such as plate approach. Because “The last thing you want is your kids thinking about their swings when you’re playing games. I think we used our time.”
Speaking of time, there are four SEC weekends remaining. At 6-12 they are one rung outside the twelve-team SEC Tournament bracket, a win ahead of last-place Tennessee and a half-win behind Georgia. And working their way to Hoover has become State’s only real priority for the regular season.
For now they play the SEC’s streaking squad with a 10-3 April record and four-straight series wins. Arkansas (24-17, 9-9) handed #1 Texas A&M the first series-loss of their season, and climbed to third in the Western Division. They feature the country’s home run leader in Andrew Benintendi with 14 longballs. Two other Razorbacks, Tyler Spoon and Brett McAfee, have been hitting at or near enough to .500 lately.
MSU did take the 2014 meeting at Dudy Noble Field. The last State squad to win a weekend in Fayetteville was back in 2007. MSU still holds the all-time series lead at 48-40, but since Arkansas joined the SEC they are 37-35 including Hoover meetings.
“They have some really good arms, they have the national player of the week, they’re doing some things very well,” Cohen said. “They can score runs and they know how to play in their ball park.”
As for his own team, “We have defended really well. At times we’ve pitched really well,” Cohen said. “We need to put together some solid offensive ball games to have a chance to win.”
Offense indeed is the object of frustrated fascination these days. Yet the statistics aren’t as clear as the impression. Though State has been out-hit in league play .295 to .258, the average difference in scoring is not so lopsided at 1.6 runs. Nor are on-base and slugging rates too far apart. What is missing, simply, is the classic clutch hit. Cohen himself explains it as inability to finish the ‘process’ this offense relies on; getting guys on paths, moving them around, and then bringing enough home.
It is that last, decisive step where State stumbles. However order and lineup are arranged, there are inevitably weak links good pitchers can get to without too much damage done. It will surprise fans to hear that the left-on-base totals in league games are almost identical: 139 for State, 134 opponents.
At least this reality does offer hope. Getting guys on is the necessary first step after all, more so for a lineup lacking power to score from the batters box directly. If opposing pitchers keep throwing strikes with runners on bases sooner or later somebody has to get the big hit, or force a timely error, or something.
“If you look at on-base percentage, if you look at strikeouts to walks and things of that nature, it’s solid,” Cohen said. “We just haven’t gotten a lot of breaks. And we haven’t been able to use everybody. And we just need to grow, we have some kids that need to grow into what we think they can be.”
The real breakdowns have come on the mound. Bulldog pitching has taken some surprising shots and more to the point has become too inconsistent to read week-to-week. The SEC staff ERA is 5.64, nearly double last year’s 2.99.
State’s staff is striking people out often enough and not walking many, though HBPs are oddly up. Throwing strikes might actually be the issue as batters figure pitches are going to be in the hitting zone. And when they don’t throw strikes intentionally, too many pitches go wild; 23 in 18 games compared to just 11 for opposing pitching.Cohen said the plan is to stick with LHP Lucas Laster (4-3, 3.11) in the opener and RHP Preston Brown (5-4, 3.71) Saturday. “We’re going to TBA Sunday,” he said. “We’ll make a decision on the left-right part of it.”
No decisions this weekend will take into account next week’s rivalry meeting with Ole Miss in Pearl, though. “If you think you have a chance to win any game then you’re going to use whoever is available.”
The Bulldogs were to leave for Fayetteville first thing Thursday morning and practice at Cole Field in the evening.