The threat of afternoon storms led Mississippi State and Memphis to scratch their scheduled game at Dudy Noble Field. The annual non-conference meeting has been rescheduled for April 12 and a 6:30 first pitch. This midweek weather is an after-effect of sorts from the unseasonably warm conditions the Diamond Dogs enjoyed in their opening weekend.
The play itself, was not quite as enjoyable. The Bulldogs split four games, evenly, taking wins from South Dakota State 17-4 and 15-5; but losing both meetings with Florida Atlantic by 10-6 and 4-0 scores. So missing a midweek game, against a Memphis team which lost two of three to Tennessee in their debut, means Mississippi State will be 2-2 going into another four-game weekend.
Scratching a game also cost a chance to test a fifth starter as well as work-in relievers who either did not throw in the weekend or only got a limited stint.
Starting pitching was expected to be the squad’s strength. It could still be, because the age is there. The four games were started by four juniors, and even if only a couple were regular starters in 2015 experience is still experience.
But a combined 5.00 era for the starters is not the strongest, ahem, start to a season. A positive was the 24 strikeouts against ten walks in 18.0 total innings. But 28 base hits isn’t positive. Even in the wins, the starters got hit. In the case of season-opener RHP Dakota Hudson this was literal, a hard liner by the second batter faced off the pitcher.
That shot probably contributed to Hudson allowing two runs in the first inning of 2016, the first on a balk as his new and unusual stance led to a wrong shift on the rubber. But Hudson recovered for four scoreless frames with seven of his eight strikeouts as his stuff and seasoning took over. “He recovered well,” Cohen said.
By contrast RHP Austin Sexton started well with a couple of scoreless innings, then gave up a run in the third turn and three more in his fifth. Hudson and Sexton are supposed to be the core of the first real rotation of Cohen’s tenure, so giving up so many hits even to a quality FAU club is a concern. Then again, they were good for 14 strikeouts so the stuff is there. Plus they did not issue many free bases meaning the pitches were in and around the strike zone.
LHP Daniel Brown is transitioning from reliever to starter and did get the team’s first win going, albeit allowing eight hits in 4.2 innings with three runs. A slow worker, Brown also hit a couple of Jackrabbits extending already-long innings. And full-time reliever RHP Zac Houston is also making the move to starter. He had an outstanding preseason, then got stung Sunday for five runs…three on one big SDSU swing that left the park.
However, “We didn’t see the real Zac Houston today,” Cohen said. “I believe in these guys, they’re juniors and they need to be ready to do it for us.”
“We have to do a better job with our starting pitching. And I think we have the right guys to be able to improve on that.”
Ready or not, the relief staff is going to get tossed into action early and often. The ‘or not’ is no reflection on talent, but their ages. No less than nine Bulldogs threw their first senior college pitches over opening weekend. And a ninth, junior Paul Young, had a single inning’s work all 2015 in his long recovery process.
Speaking of young, it was incredibly ironic and a little scary that when finally back on the field Sunday he took a line-shot off his elbow and could not continue. Fortunately, Cohen reported the elbow was not damaged; “He couldn’t feel his fingers, just as a precaution we took him out.” In the couple of batters faced Young was 92-to-94 with a sharp breaker and improved location.
Not surprisingly the longer relief work was by the one real veteran of the lot. Junior Vance Tatum, who remains a viable starting candidate too, went 4.1 innings without any damage on four hits as he struck out six. Mostly though it was the newest arms shuttled in and out over three days.
“What you try to do the first weekend is get their feet wet and get that nervousness out,” Cohen said. Results were mixed and not necessarily matched by stats; some of the relievers who didn’t allow runs or many hits were not especially sharp, compared to a couple who threw well but got hit by good batters. Maybe this was inevitable, Cohen implied.
“Everything changes when the lights come on. But we need those guys to do better.” Especially, the starters. Cohen’s disappointment was how after they dominated scrimmages against what is being shown as a good Bulldog batting order they allowed .329 hitting.
Offense was the unchallenged strong point of the first weekend. Bulldogs hit .356 and reached base at a 46% clip with 23 walks and five hit batsmen. Strikeouts were not a big issue, either.
“Overall I thought we had some really good at-bats,” Cohen said. “We have a lot of guys off to good starts.” None more so than transfer catcher Jack Kruger. He wasn’t able to play his position and might not for a couple more weeks with an arm issue (see Sunday feature), but the bat was just fine. Kruger hit .563 and slugged at a 1.063 rate thanks to five doubles and a home run. He also walked his way on four times and only had two strikeouts in 20 total trips.
Kruger’s brilliant debut was just one of several excellent beginnings for Bulldog batters. Both old and new Dogs, as Cohen pointed out.
“I think Reid Humphreys has been incredibly productive for us, he’s really eliminated the swing-and-miss and average fly balls. Ryan Gridley has been great. And how about Luke Alexander going up and putting good swings on the baseball?” Yes, how about the freshman slugging a solo home run on opening night of his own career?
Humphreys hit an even .400 and tied Kruger with five doubles out of his six base hits. Outfielder Brent Rooker had four doubles of his own on a .462 weekend. And on and on. Even if by comparison third baseman/catcher Gavin Collins (.364) and new first baseman Nathaniel Lowe (.286) did not have big weekends, they had excellent contact and no strikeouts between them.
The one drawback on offense was in the shutout loss, where eleven fly ball outs came of the contact. “We’ve stressed that so much it’s really disappointing our older guys hit so many balls in the air,” Cohen said. At the same time many of these fly-outs were not exactly ‘routine’ but were caught on great running grabs by outfielders. So there was not a lot wrong with the way Bulldogs swung their bats. New bats, it is worth noting. State’s orders in the four games used Rawlings, Louisville Slugger, a couple of DeMarinis…and not a single adidas was seen in the batters box.
The defensive results were instructive. Not because they were great; six official errors were charged and several more plays were not-made without a E ruling. However, this reflected Cohen opting for the better offensive lineups, as best that can be told at this early point, rather than playing it safe with the presumably-stronger fielding team. If this philosophy holds up, it might put more pressure on the pitching…but will be a commitment to offense fans find encouraging. Exciting, even.
With the midweek washout, the next look at lineups is Friday at 4:30 when State hosts Massachusetts-Lowell. Saturday’s twinbill starts at 11:00am with Nicholls State, then a rematch with UM-L at 3:30. These games will be played around Mississippi State’s 1:30 basketball game and hoops parking will take priority.
Sunday’s gametime is 3:30 with Nicholls State. The pitching schedule is to be announced later in the week.