Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Junior Righthander Expects 2016 Turnaround for Bulldog Baseball

Set aside a moment the notion of a consensus top-twenty team, owning the rich history of Mississippi State baseball, needing some ‘chip’ on the collective club shoulder. Dakota Hudson certainly shouldn’t require any extra decoration on his talented (right) throwing shoulder.

Not with what he sees as the Diamond Dogs prepare for 2016’s opening. “The atmosphere here reminds me of how it was my freshman year. I feel like there is an environment of winning.”

That winning can begin around 4:30 Friday when Mississippi State takes to Dudy Noble Field. And it will be Hudson holding the ball for first pitch against Florida Atlantic. The first pitch of what all expect will be a turnaround season for the Diamond Dogs, and a triumphant campaign for junior righty Hudson.

It’s not accidental or coincidental Hudson will toe the rubber first from among a talented starting staff. Sure, he did not start a single game in 2015. All his 17 appearances were out of the bullpen and added-up to just 16.2 innings.

Forget all that sophomore stuff. This is the Dakota Hudson projected as a top-100 national prospect out of high school in 2013, and a ’14 freshman who did start five times in six stints. A year in the pen actually turns out to have been crucial to developing Hudson’s repertoire, which now he should display as a weekend starter.

As the first weekend start starter, that is. Not that Hudson reads too much into this apparent ‘ace’ exposure so early in the junior year.

“I’m just taking it a game at a time. I have been in different situations and gotten different experience under my belt.” All of which hopefully have Hudson primed for the larger opportunity. He spent last summer tuning-up and leading the Cape Cod League in strikeouts with a 1.69 ERA for the regular schedule.

Coach John Cohen and pitching Coach Wes Johnson essentially declared Hudson as their opening day arm when he began all three scrimmage weekends throwing the Friday games. Instrasquads only cemented this February status. Maybe he remains top Dog, maybe not. Hudson is not concerned which turn he’ll take in rotations anyway.

“It has been interesting to see. That [competition] is making everyone sharp. It pushes the next guy in front of you. This year, more so than any other year, we know if we are not on our game someone else will easily be able to step in. That is a good feeling to have. We have five or six guys that can throw on Friday night in the Southeastern Conference.”

True, what with Austin Sexton, Daniel Brown, Zac Houston, Craig Tatum, and more available arms. Though only real competition can prove it, this 2016 list could and probably should become the first true ‘rotation’ at Mississippi State since…when? The mid-2000s maybe?

Notice too that all the above names are veterans, when there are some pretty gifted young arms now in the program as well. Still it’s the veterans who plan to get the season started, so to speak, right. And, to put the frustrations of 2015 behind. Or perhaps they already have, per Hudson.

“Once last year was over, a lot of us went out and had great summers. That built us up into the fall. We have had a lot of leadership roles develop into the spring.” And guess who has been called on to become one of those leaders?

Why, Hudson himself, tabbed as a team captain by club consensus. That might mean more to him than preseason selection as an all-American by various outlets.

“I’ve just backed off and tried to invest myself in our team. I want all my attention to reflect back on the team. That’s how I focus on day-to-day stuff.”

Just in time for what ought be his breakout starter season, Hudson’s focus has been re-set a bit. He is under new management. Long-time pitching coach and recruiter Butch Thompson now is running Auburn. Yet much as they’ll miss him in their dugout, Diamond Dog moundsmen like Hudson feel like winners in the exchange.

Because Johnson brings a different arm-approach to Mississippi State, one which seemingly suits this 2016’s staff skills beautifully. Johnson is a ‘velocity’ coach. Hudson has a strong right arm. Do the math…

“He has such a physical program,” Hudson said. “That’s helping me sustain what I can do and sustain it for a long time.” Not just Hudson, either, as “pretty much everyone on our staff touched 90 mph during the fall.” For several Dogs make that mid-90s or better. Hudson himself was routinely 92-93 in scrimmages from the windup by the way, with his breaking stuff also moving along faster.

“I’ll have learned from two of the best pitching coaches in the nation,” Hudson said.

Still it is Hudson his own self responsible for development to this promising point. Hudson says he saw “flashes” during some series last spring. Then making a 12th-inning appearance against #1-ranked Louisiana State he left the sacks stuffed and picked up a corner-turning decision.

“I was able to build off of that and know that I always had a moment in my back pocket to mentally prepare for the next one. I think I just needed to get some experience and know that not everything is going to be a strikeout. Some guys are going to get hits at this level.”

Hudson said his personal trick is not fretting perfection and just getting production. It’s a mindset for a guy who wants to work on deep into starts and hand a winnable game over to others. Not that he’d mind going a full-route or two of course, but with so many capable pitchers settling into their own roles Hudson can relax and roll.

It’s also part of growing up, the hard way maybe but maturing all the same. “I feel like we have more experience. We know what to expect and how to approach the game. I think a lot of guys have picked up key pieces and are starting to put it together.”

“I expect us to have a great season. We’re going to be competitive no matter where we go, I expect us to be a serious competitor for Omaha. We have the guys, and I think we’re going to be a team that gets there.”

And if some need an emotional ‘chip’ to motivate at Mississippi State? Well, it takes all types these days. Though in Hudson’s case, he clarifies it isn’t a chip. “It’s a Bulldog that we keep, on our left shoulder.”

OK, that’s much better.

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