Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

State Still Evaluating Lineups and Rotations Ahead of SEC Season

You win some, you lose some, and you get a few…clocked out?

Yes, it can happen in college baseball. When Mississippi State made the last out of the ninth inning, all the Diamond Dogs and Oklahoma could do was shake hands and head to the airport. They had to accept a 5-5 tie to conclude their weekends in Los Angeles due to Sunday flight schedules.

In Mississippi State’s case, the deadlock meant leaving with a 1-1-1 worksheet. The Bulldogs opened with a 2-1 loss at UCLA, rebounded to win at Southern Cal 8-7; then had to settle for a tie that felt more like a loss. State had led 5-1 in the third inning before Oklahoma battled back to even it up after six, then neither could scratch the rest of the way.

So the Bulldogs go into this fourth week of the season 8-3-1, and looking at the toughest four-game stretch so far. Yes, likely tougher than the past weekend’s competition, and fortunately all on Dudy Noble Field. State hosts old regional rival South Alabama at 6:30 Tuesday, with good weather projected. The weekend forecast is a bit iffier for not, maybe no coincidence considering Ducks are coming to town. Oregon and MSU play at 6:30 Friday, 2:00 Saturday, and 11:00 Sunday in the first true series for the Bulldogs.

It’s the sort of inter-league series that mirrors a super regional matchup, too, which shows some clever scheduling by Coach John Cohen. The past weekend was something like a first-round regional with different opponents every day. It also is State’s last chance to settle some items ahead of SEC play which begins next weekend at Vanderbilt.

One area which seems closer to finalizing is the early-season rotation. Though Cohen and Coach Wes Johnson said they would set starting pitchers by matchups on the trip, it turned out to be the same trio as had begun the first three games in previous four-game weekends. RHP Dakota Hudson went first, RHP Austin Sexton next, and LHP Daniel Brown third.

Hudson absolutely looked like a Friday ace, even in defeat. He worked 7.0 innings at UCLA with two runs on five hits. Only one of those runs was earned, as the Bruins scored on a safety squeeze play set up by a couple of miscues that advanced the runner to third base in the first place. The other run was on a RBI-double in the fifth inning, a score State matched with a RBI-double in the ninth.

Hudson (1-1, 1.50) made an impression on scouts in his start, and seems primed to take the ball this Friday against another Pac 12 club. In 18.0 innings he’s struck out 23 against ten walks, and only one of the dozen hits allowed has been for extra bases.

However, after that strong start, the other pair of openers struggled. Sexton (1-1, 4.91) and Brown (1-0, 3.95) allowed nine runs, all earned, in their 8.0 combined innings with two strikeouts and two walks. This may have been as much due to playing better-batting opponents in Southern Cal and Oklahoma, of course. And every hurler, all teams, were dealing with a tight strike zone.

Still a 10.1 ERA for these two starters in a matchup of peer-programs means issues to address this week. However, those troubles did give a lot of relievers chances to show their stuff…and most delivered. The bullpen Bulldogs had a combined 2.45 ERA for their 11 innings with ten strikeouts and three walks. And as the final scores showed, all the relief pitching was done under win-or-lose (or tie) pressures.

LHP Vance Tatum (0-0, 1.54) has been in the mix for a starting job, but in the crunch State called him from the pen to keep Friday’s margin at a lone run; then to last 3.2 innings on Sunday as well. Using him twice in a weekend could indicate Tatum’s best role as not just left-handed but long-relief. He’s struck out 13 against just four walks in his team-most five appearances already.

It’s an intriguing bullpen bunch, too. Tatum and RHP Zac Houston (1-0, 1.80) are the veterans, and of course Houston had starts in each of the first two weekends. RHP/OF Reid Humphreys is a junior too but new to college pitching and is filling a matchup role as a hard-throwing righthander.

After that is a long list of talented newcomers. One of them, freshman LHP Kale Breaux, closed out the USC win by stranding a pair of Trojans in scoring positions on a strikeout and comebacker. Transfer RHP Blake Smith (2-0, 0.00) is establishing himself in both short and middle relief situations too and has the stuff to become a real SEC closer.

There are more of course, and Tuesday looks like an opportunity for Cohen and Johnson to get work for some of them against a quality South Alabama squad.

Offensively, the Bulldogs didn’t just leave L.A. with a balanced record; the scoring was dead-even also with a one-run loss, one-run win, and tie. When the averages were calculated though, State not only hit better on the whole at .272 to .221, but also had a better slugging rate of .378 to .353. Coincidence or not, both longballs were swatted by a couple of California natives playing for State. DH Jack Kruger crushed a crucial three-run shot in Saturday’s win; and 3B Gavin Collins had a Sunday solo shot which proved pretty important too as it was the fifth and last Bulldog run.

 

Now both averages were down from the first two weekends, but that’s due to much better pitching competition. And it really wasn’t a big drop from the .288 rate of the second weekend anyway. Mississippi State is averaging .323 as a club with a 42.4% on-base rate. That reflects 59 walks in 99 innings, not far from breaking-even on strikeouts at 63.

Slugging can be a dubious statistic to be fair. But there’s no doubting these Dogs are attacking pitches more in 2016. Six home runs is encouraging this far in, and half of those have come off Kruger’s bat. The junior has half as many longballs as ’15 team leader Wes Rea did over the entire season in fact. And Collins knocked his ball out of Dodger Stadium, remember.

But home runs are secondary, if that, to this coaching staff’s ideas on offense. What has Cohen excited is 37 doubles in 12 games. True, the pace of extra-base batting has dropped since a huge opening weekend. Still State is hitting drives into gaps and corners for doubles, even some triples now. It’s worth adding that State pitching has allowed just 14 doubles and five homers, and no triples so far. So the offense seems well-suited for large fields, exactly as this coaching staff favors.

Kruger (.511, 9 doubles, 18 RBI, .600 OB%) continues to set the pace swinging either second or third in the order. Leadoff man OF Jacob Robson is next at .385 and a .556 on-base average. State did some tweaking for the third weekend, moving Kruger back a slot so SS Ryan Gridley (.289) or OF Jake Mangum (.286) could bat behind Robson. This puts more speed in the first two slots. IF Luke Alexander is batting ninth and was 3-of-12 on the series, dropping his average to .296.

As for the ‘power’ spots RF Brent Rooker went hitless in two games but was 2-of-4 against USC batting fourth. But, in all three games Rooker was pinched-for, twice left-hander OF Cody Brown and then switch-hitter Mangum. It’s not just for matchups but also to have faster feet on the paths in the late game.

Defensively, the catching job shuffles since a pair of freshmen—Elih Marrero and Hunter Stovall—are sharing the job and neither is ready to catch complete series. Not yet. Collins can always catch too.

And State is still figuring the best infield combination for the long haul. Gridley starts at second base and shortstop; Alexander at short and third base; and of course Collins on third base.

The weekend in southern California did not go completely well, nor was it a major letdown for the Diamond Dogs. It was, well, a wash on the scoreboard and overall. The benefit is evaluating how Mississippi State played against quality clubs. They’re about to see more. South Alabama is 9-3 and took a set from previously-unbeaten Southern Mississippi last week, before losing a series to Middle Tennessee State over the weekend. Oregon is 8-2 after taking two-of-three from UC-Santa Barbara.

At the same time, reading too much into an 8-3-1 record is risky. The six teams State has beaten now have a combined 21-44-1 record, though that’s inflated by Alcorn State and South Dakota State. So the upcoming four games will further clarify how State stands heading into SEC season.

They’re on the clock, one might say.


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