Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

State Stays Focused Ahead of Vanderbilt Trip; Rooker is SEC's Player of the Week

The Diamond Dogs already felt good about themselves. Now, after sweeping a high-profile series? “It’s huge,” said OF Jacob Robson. “I mean it’s a huge deal going into SEC play next weekend. Our confidence hasn’t wavered at all but I think it’s even increased after this series.”

It should. Mississippi State has made a strong statement about readiness for conference play by dominating Oregon in three confidence-building victories. The sweep makes State 12-3-1 as the schedule transitions to SEC season.

Not immediately, of course. Coach John Cohen’s club has two more home games to take care of, hosting Eastern Kentucky on Tuesday and Oral Roberts Wednesday with 6:30 starts. Keeping attention might mean some effort, these games falling between the anticipated Oregon series and a road trip to Vanderbilt.

Or, maybe not a problem at all? Not the way OF Brent Rooker sees this season, this squad. “It’s not even about winning but competing,” Rooker insisted. “It’s about competing.

“But when you compete really well and everybody contributes and you compete with teams as good as Oregon and USC and Oklahoma and UCLA, it’s a big confidence booster going into the competition we know we’re going to face in the conference.”

It’s also a boost to Bulldog status in the eyes of SEC competitors. The polls, too, which have raised State back into the teens-rankings this week. Cohen cautions against forming unfavorable opinions of the Ducks based on a road weekend, too. “We did not see the best of Oregon. They’re going to win a lot of games.”

They won none at Dudy Noble Field. And, largely for a most unexpected reason. The touted Ducks pitching staff was out-shone by Bulldog arms. ‘Touted’ actually under-states the matchup. “Their numbers are scary before they got here,” Cohen said.

Those stats aren’t as shiny today. The Oregon staff was beat-up with a combined ERA of 7.28…and their star starters were worse. They had an ERA of 14.3 over only 11.2 innings, nothing like what was expected from that trio which included a couple of #1 draft round choices and a Pac 12 star.

This meltdown wasn’t all about inefficiency, either, though the Bulldogs didn’t mind scoring five first-inning runs Saturday on bases-loaded walks and a plunking.

“Our offense had a little something to do with our success as well,” Cohen commented. More than a little, with a .333 batting average, 44% on-base rate…and slugging average of .515. That may have been the real series surprise. Of the 33 Bulldog base hits five were doubles, two triple…and three balls left the home yard.

Two were off Rooker’s hot bat, the other was a pinch-hit grand slam by OF Cody Brown on Friday. Seven Dogs hit .333 or better on the weekend led by 2B Ryan Gridley’s .600. Brown was 3-of-5, all off the bench and usually as a defensive replacement for rightfielder Rooker. That fact alone ought open eyes, because not only did Rooker slug two two-run homers but he batted .545. It says something about taking one of the biggest and best bats out of the order for defense, and not only getting plays with the glove but more offensive from his backup!

“Our offense this weekend was great,” Rooker said. “If they were throwing strikes we hit them, if they threw balls we let them walk us.” State had more walks than strikeouts, 15 to 12.

Compare that to Bulldog pitchers striking out 32 Ducks against 16 walks, and allowing just .196 hitting. Oregon was not expected to bring a strong offense to town in any case. Scoring just nine runs in 27 innings? That spoke volumes about how ‘on’ the Bulldogs were for a weekend.

“I thought we defended the field really well,” Cohen said. “And our pitchers threw it in the strike zone.”

State starters definitely did, with a ludicrous 0.96 ERA over their 18.2 innings. RHP Austin Sexton and LHP Daniel Brown even had shutout stints, and while RHP Dakota Hudson gave up a couple of first-inning runs Friday that was all. Oregon managed just a dozen base hits off the starting three, with ten walks and 25 strikeouts.

Sunday starter Brown admitted, State’s starters had heard enough about how good their Oregon counterparts were. “Seeing that you want to compete. They’re different pitchers than us. But definitely we thought about it and wanted to show we’re a pretty good staff, too. It worked out well.”

Relief work wasn’t too shabby, other than maybe some inevitable let-off late in games that were under control. Eight bullpen Bulldogs threw, though it is still tough to tell this early exactly where everyone fits into the SEC series schemes. Maybe the only ‘obvious’ roles are RHP Blake Smith and OF/RHP Reid Humphreys as closers, and most others in matchups of varying lengths.

The exceptions are RHP Zac Houston and LHP Vance Tatum since they are proven in long-relief work. But even as Brown has made great strides as game-three starter those two remain realistic options for Sundays. The larger point is that after some early scuffles the starters have looked like SEC starters for consecutive non-conference weekend.

“I know how good our starting arms can be,” Cohen said. “And I don’t think we’ve seen the best yet, and we have a couple of other candidates we’ll entertain in that rotation as well.”

At the same time two more Dogs have to throw first-pitches Tuesday and Wednesday, and still be ready for the Nashville trip. The scheduling seems odd under the circumstances, playing two midweek games ahead of Vanderbilt. But it also makes sense. This is spring break week, the town is nearly shut down. And as Cohen said, the guys would far rather play real games than just practice now.

The Bulldogs certainly want to keep swinging. Rooker is the SEC’s Player of the Week for his big weekend, but he’s far from the only batter doing damage. 3B Gavin Collins dominated last Tuesday’s 7-3 win over South Alabama with two two-run homers. In fact, through 16 games State has half-as-many home runs, eleven, as the 22 hit in all 54 games last season.

This even as February scorcher DH Jack Kruger has cooled from his over-.500 pace and is at .410 now. Cohen predicted this of course, as opponents get a ‘book’ on the (irony) Oregon transfer. But Kruger is a fine fixture in the muscle of MSU’s order along with Collins. They are where Rooker aims a lot of his credit for recent success, especially after moving to second in the order.

“A pitcher looks on-deck and sees Jack, in the hole he sees Gavin, the last thing he wants to do is walk somebody for those guys to drive in,” Rooker said. “It’s a credit to them I’ve got some pitches to hit and take advantage of a couple of mistakes.”

Mississippi State tries to avoid midweek mistakes now against competitive Eastern Kentucky and Oral Roberts clubs. Yes, they are already being asked about Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs are politely trying to stay on focus.

“We’ve got to take care of business Tuesday and Wednesday, two good teams coming in,” Rooker said. “We have to keep playing hard and the grind starts with the SEC.”

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