“It was great,” said outfielder Jacob Robson after Mississippi State finished a four-win weekend at Dudy Noble Field. “Nothing’s better than winning and our confidence is high. And we’re going to have some more wins this year.”
Two weekends into the season Mississippi State stands at six wins, against a pair of early losses. That’s enough to keep the Bulldogs in top-20 and top-25 of this week’s polls, though as always baseball rankings are good for little more than p.r. talk and twitter chatter. Winning games, that’s what counts, and after a couple of first-act stumbles State found a better stride.
“Yeah, we got a lot done this weekend,” Coach John Cohen said. “And we sorely needed to put some things together.”
The pressure is indeed on as Mississippi State prepares for a serious pre-conference test. After one more home game Tuesday evening against Alcorn State, the Bulldogs fly out Wednesday for Los Angeles. There they visit both UCLA and Southern Cal for campus games Friday and Saturday; then on Sunday the Dogs are at Dodger Stadium to face Oklahoma.
“It’s going to be a good test,” said squad co-captain Robson, in obvious understatement.
To the coach, the week begins with another sort of test. That’s assuming the Alcorn State game (6:00) gets played in the first place. “The weather doesn’t look great, but we’ll see,” Cohen said. Normally State wouldn’t mind missing a SWAC contest but after missing a midweek game with Memphis last week the Bulldogs can use the seasoning. Plus, as last year showed, SWAC squads like Arkansas-Pine Bluff are capable of winning at Dudy Noble Field. LHP Vance Tatum (0-0, 3.00) will start if the game does.
“Hopefully we’ll get to play on Tuesday,” Cohen said. “I really want our kids to be focused on that and not the trip we’re going to take this weekend. It’s something we’ve talked about and to their credit I didn’t hear one person talking about a trip to California. They were focused on the task at hand.”
Well-focused. State scored two-game sweeps of both Massachusetts-Lowell (4-2, 4-2) and Nicholls State (5-0, 8-0). It was the turnaround Cohen had hoped for.
“Last weekend we just fell out of synch and didn’t play our best baseball,” Cohen said. “Certainly our starting pitching was a big part of that. I think we’re starting to get a little more in rhythm offensively and some sequences. And you have to put together big innings to win four in a row.”
Starting pitching was everyone’s concern after a, well, less-than-sterling start to the schedule. Against a good Florida Atlantic team (still unbeaten through two weekends) and South Dakota State the Bulldog starters worked just 18.0 innings with a 5.00 ERA and batting average well over .300. They did strike out 24 against ten walks, but also allowed 28 base hits.
“Last weekend we weren’t really where we wanted to be,” Sunday starter RHP Zac Houston agreed. “I think we turned it around this weekend, and everybody did what they needed to do to give us a chance to win.”
The quartet of starters did just that. First, they worked longer with 26.2 combined innings out of the 36.0 thrown. Mississippi State would likely be thrilled come SEC season if the starters could go 74% of all innings.
On top of that, they worked better. Starting pitching allowed zero, as in none, runs on 13 hits. And while Cohen is not exactly the strongest advocate of strikeout pitching, these four fanned 34 batters. “I thought we did amazing,” Houston said.
“I’m just overall pleased with our starting pitching,” said Cohen. “That’s something that was a concern from last weekend. I thought our kids went out, all four of the guys and had a quality start.”
State used the same rotation as week-one, with RHP Dakota Hudson (1-0, 1.64) on Friday. His six scoreless innings resulted in two hits and four walks, a lingering issue with seven free passes in two starts. But Hudson has struck out 17 in 11.0 innings, and has the mindset of a series-starter.
RHP Austin Sexton (1-1, 2.63) certainly solidified his status in the rotation as well. He blew Nicholls State away with a nine-inning shutout, scattering three hits and a walk around 11 strikeouts. “Austin did amazing, any time somebody throws a nine-inning shutout it’s special,” said Houston (1-0, 0.93). Who himself made a Sunday statement with 10 strikeouts in six innings.
The lefthander of the mix, LHP Daniel Brown (1-0, 2.61) worked 5.2 frames against UMass-Lowell. Add in the bullpen, and State scored a pair of shutouts over the weekend; after failing to blank anyone in 54 games last season.
“Everybody really stepped-up this weekend,” said Houston. “And it’s easy when you have run support like this team can provide.”
This weekend’s work with the bats was not quite as strong as in the first. After hitting .356 on opening weekend the Bulldogs were good for .288 this one, with a comparable difference in on-base rate. The real drop was in extra-base hits, though nobody figured State would knock out 20 doubles on consecutive weekends.
This time there were just six two-baggers, but there were also three triples—two by OF Cody Brown—and a pair of home runs. Strikeouts were notably up, too. However, the Bulldogs kept working walks, getting plunked, and finding other ways to either reach base or advance runners.
“Walks, HBPs, dirtball reads, steals, that’s all part of our offense,” Robson said. Plus, the senior centerfielder said, when the starting pitching is working the offense also seems to show up when needed.
DH Jack Kruger, who may be able to catch before SEC season starts, continues to set the plate-pace at .517 though this is off his torrid opening weekend rate. It was interesting, too, how Sunday with State in a RBI opportunity and leading 6-0 Cohen took Kruger out and let Brown bat. The result? A RBI triple, and Brown scoring too with the next batter’s contact.
That signals that after all the offensive agonies of 2015, the Bulldogs are just more comfortable and obviously more productive at the plate. Kruger still is second in NCAA doubles and 13th in total bases. As a team State is in the NCAA’s 20-30 range in walks, hits, and on-base rate.
To be sure it’s still very early, and Mississippi State hasn’t seen truly top-tier arms yet. That is one benefit of playing three of the game’s headliners. Though, UCLA is off to a 3-4 start after losing a series with North Carolina and splitting with Cal Poly.
Southern Cal is 4-3 having lost twice to North Dakota on their first weekend, and splitting with Wake Forest. And Oklahoma is 3-5, having lost a series with Northeastern and getting swept by Sam Houston State. So Mississippi State’s 6-2 looks pretty encouraging by contrast. Maybe.
Whatever the weather Tuesday, on the flight to L.A. the coaches will be scouting everyone before making pitching decisions. After consecutive four-game weekends there are just three starts to settle now, so somebody has to step aside.
“We’ll have to get down from four to three,” Cohen said. “And we’ll see how left- or right-handed those clubs are that we play in Los Angeles. But each one of them is trying to make a statement to pitch on the weekends.”
One of those candidates, Houston, knows it will be a close call.
“We’ll play it by ear and whoever we put out there they’re going to compete and give this team a chance to win.”