State Visits #2 Vanderbilt to Begin Conference Schedule

Preliminaries are played. Now the Bulldogs get down to real business as SEC season opens.

For league lidlifting Mississippi State (12-5-1) has drawn a trip to Vanderbilt (16-1).

Game times are 7:00, 7:30, and 1:00. Friday is part of the SECN’s ‘Bases Loaded’ telecast swinging around the league games, and Saturday has this game on the Network exclusively. Sunday is an on-line telecast, though the MSU radio network has all three games.

Mississippi State had expected to take plenty of good momentum into their SEC opener, after sweeping then #10-ranked Oregon last weekend. Midweek losses to Eastern Kentucky and Oral Roberts have upset that idea with everyone…except the Bulldogs themselves?

That’s what CF Jacob Robson insists. “I’m excited, personally. And I know the team is very excited. They’re one of the better teams in the SEC and it’s going to be a great opportunity to compete against those guys. We think we can beat them and it’s going to be fun to see how it goes.”

Losing non-conference home games was not fun at all. It also raised questions about the wisdom of playing twice, or even once, between a high-profile home series and a major road test to begin conference play. Coach John Cohen did have a point saying players would rather be in real games than just practice on spring break days.

What Cohen now counts on is forgetting midweek missteps and focusing fully on Vanderbilt.

“This is a game you play with great frequency and you have to have a short memory,” he said. “But I do feel this is a group that will bounce back and play better this weekend, for sure.”

SEC play in general and Vanderbilt in particular demand better. With the conference schedules beginning no less than five league squads are ranked in the various top-tens; and three more including Mississippi State are among the next ten. A three-game sweep of visiting Oregon, then ranked around #10 depending on poll, boosted the Bulldogs to #15 or so. That will likely take a hit of course.

But if being top-15 is good, look at Vanderbilt; #2 in both D1Baseball and USA Today and #5 by Baseball America. The Commodores, along with consensus national #1 Florida and Texas A&M, are all top three or five here in mid-March.

State and Vandy haven’t met since March of 2014 and Bulldogs like that memory. They took the home series with two wins over the eventual national champions. The last trip to Nashville wasn’t as fun as Vanderbilt swept in 2013 and won a SEC Tournament rematch too. State shook that off nicely with a run to the College World Series title round. Starting with the 2011 season Vanderbilt has an 8-6 lead in the series.

Midweek losses have revived concerns of State’s preparedness for conference competition. Some of this is natural over-reaction, and in most aspects the Dogs played well enough to win each game. Starting pitching has been a strong point since some opening-weekend scuffles, as expected. The offense has shown serious improvement from last year, and using the better batters has not taken much if any toll on defense.

Co-captain Robson likes how, especially in the Oregon series and prior weekend in Los Angeles, something has carried the club game by game. One day hitting and scoring suffice, next day the starting arms and relievers are in charge. So he isn’t reading too much into these awkward losses.

“If the pitchers give up three runs I’m going to say more than not we’re going to win because we’re good enough to score more than three runs. And our pitching is not going to give up 16 runs every time. It’s tough losses against teams we know we can beat. But at the same time it’s not fazing us.”

State left for Nashville with two of the three starting jobs set. Not surprisingly RHP Dakota Hudson (2-1, 1.90) goes on Friday, as he has the previous four weekends. RHP Austin Sexton (2-0, 3.70) has Saturday again. Sunday depends on who doesn’t work, or work long, in the other games. LHP Daniel Brown (2-0, 2.61) has started all weekends before but with Tatum (0-0, 4.11) struggling Cohen may be keeping him available for left-handed long relief if necessary. RHP Zac Houston (1-0, 1.50) would be another starter/reliever option from the right side.

But the pressure on starters to stay strong, and long, has become magnified. In their last five games starters have a 1.50 ERA. The bullpen, 9.14. And this is not from taking over big jams left by the starters, either. The relief staff has simply struggled, win or lose.

Midweek stats for relief staff can deceive in early season, simply because coaches want to get guys work or see them perform for first times. That too was why State scheduled a pair of games for spring break. In retrospect Cohen might have left the starters in longer to get wins needed for post-season status.

Still, these transfers, healthy veterans, and freshmen just have to be tested at some point. All of them have shown talent, most of them real velocity too unlike prior relief groups. “But when these kids can mesh their stuff with command they’re going to be really special,” Cohen said. “And they don’t get opportunities if they don’t get out there. “

Vanderbilt has set their rotation with righty Jordan Sheffield (3-1. 1.09), lefty Ben Bowden (2-0, 4.50), and righty Kyle Wright (3-0, 1.76).

Early-season statistics are often as meaningless as baseball rankings any time. Still the numbers indicate an even matchup at the plate as Vanderbilt bats .320 to State’s .317. If the Commodores have been much more active on the basepaths with 35 steals to 22 by Bulldogs, they also have struck out much more often so far, 130 times to 96.

Team pitching is where things spread out. Vanderbilt’s ERA of 2.53 is lower than recent star-studded staffs, but the Dogs are at 3.60 and trail somewhat in strikeouts per game.

This is the first facing of SEC arms by State’s top hitter. For his first month DH Jack Kruger is batting .415, though he’s certainly cooled off from a blazing February start. A re-shuffling of the order last week, putting RF Brent Rooker (.367) second ahead of Kruger, 3B Gavin Collins (.306), and now 1B Nathaniel Lowe (.288) or LF Reid Humphreys (.317) has paid off with both production and power.

Particularly, in extra base hits. State already has 13 homers in 18 games, compared to just 22 longballs in all 54 games last season. The 45 doubles are just as far ahead of that pace compared to 87 in ’15; and after hitting eight triples all last spring these Dogs have six three-baggers. Robson (.391) is on a base 47% of the time for some of those to drive in.

Even a one-run Wednesday showing doesn’t diminish what Robson believes this offense is. “We’re going to bounce-back and sharpen up offensively and be better against Vanderbilt.” The sharpening is something of a trick, Cohen agrees; staying aggressive with the bat without biting on big breaking balls outside the strike zone.

Because, attacking pitches is exactly how State has succeeded swinging. Vanderbilt pitching is a whole ‘nother animal and can mix breakers with serious stuff. But sitting back and working counts is a risky approach in this matchup. So, look for the Dogs to look to swing early and often. “I still think we have the right guys to get this done and be a good offensive club,” Cohen said.

Oh, and forget the momentum idea, stressed Robson.

“Our confidence is still really high, as usual. And we’re going to be prepared for this weekend going into Vanderbilt.”

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