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New Parts Finding Places in State's Relief Rotations and Lineups for SEC Season

True, the whole week’s work showed a net-loss. But that’s why conference competition counts for so much. Because whatever else happened Mississippi State started SEC season with a stout statement.

The #15-ranked Diamond Dogs walked out of Nashville with a series victory, taking a pair from #2 Vanderbilt. The successes also came in exactly the intense fashion to be expected of such a clash. Mississippi State pushed home a run in the top of Friday’s 13th inning to take a 2-1 final; then emerged ahead after repeated Saturday lead-swaps 5-4 to seal the series.

When Vanderbilt took out their frustrations Sunday 12-6 it wasn’t a huge surprise to either side. And even in defeat the Bulldogs kept the home team on edge, rallying from 8-1 down to make it 8-6 in mid-seventh inning.

So coming home with a series in the season-bank already, and at the expense of a consensus national contender, is a win by any calculating. Including that of the perfectionist skipper.

“I think it’s a great weekend for our club,” Coach John Cohen said on post-game radio.

Then, he added, “I hate the sentiment of two-out of three. Because I think we could have done a couple of things to sweep one of the best teams in the nation in their ballpark. It didn’t happen for us, but wining two is big.”

Any notion Cohen was downplaying the weekend is misleading. Winning some road SEC series is always part of the plan, Cohen said, recalling classic Ron Polk championship formula. The other is defending the home field which Mississippi State (14-6-1, 2-1) gets to do this weekend hosting Georgia.

The real point for now though is that expectations for Bulldog baseball are back on a higher track. After a couple of years hoping to avoid sweeping and if possible steal isolated series, State is playing to win again.

Or maybe it should be said for now, to win weekends? Because as noted the entire week was not a success. Coming on the heels of sweeping then-#10 Oregon, the Bulldogs had two painful midweek lapses. They lost a shootout with Eastern Kentucky 16-12, then were shut down and nearly out by Oral Roberts 3-1. It will be intriguing to see how the plethora of polls handles a 2-3 showing when the wins were about as high-profile as play gets in March.

Then again polls aren’t important now, if ever. What mattered was how the Bulldogs responded. A comment by OF and co-captain Jacob Robson proved prophetic.

“It’s tough losses against teams we know we can beat. But at the same time it’s not fazing us.”

The midweek results inevitably raised concerns about a post-Oregon ‘hangover’ whatever that is. Cohen dismissed the idea and said he was sure his team would bounce back and play better. They did.

Two Dogs with no hand in the losses certainly made State better, even if neither got a decision. SEC openers mean matching aces and RHP Dakota Hudson filled the Friday bill with nine superb innings. His four-hitter did allow an unearned run against eight strikeouts. Coming a week after beating Oregon in another duel of aces, Hudson (2-1, 1.38) just keeps raising his June draft stock. He already has 40 strikeouts, more than his previous college seasons combined.

RHP Austin Sexton’s Saturday stint wasn’t as sharp or long. It was gutsier. Spotting his stuff and working changeups the junior limited damage in 6.0-plus innings to four runs despite eight hits and four walks. Relieved at 118 pitches (Hudson threw 126) Sexton (2-1, 4.15) did what his team needed by keeping State in contention long enough to strike back. The Dogs did with two runs in their eighth for the margin of victory.

State did come back with a lefthander Sunday, same as previous weekends. LHP Daniel Brown didn’t have the same fortune in 2.2 innings giving up eight runs on nine hits. Though, just five were earned runs due to miss-plays. And Brown (2-1, 4.54) did fan five, as the three starters had 20 strikeouts against seven walks. It’s still too early to know if Cohen and pitching coach Wes Johnson are committed to this trio of starters.

And it was curious that RHP Zac Houston (1-0, 1.50) threw only 0.2 innings all week and that was Wednesday. In fact Houston, who started game-four in the first two weekends, has only thrown 2.1 total innings in his last four relief appearances. It’s a safe guess Houston will find himself warming-up for some sort of Tuesday stint to stay sharp.

Maybe as vital as the weekend starting work was how some of the Bulldog bullpen performed. The group was not impressive even in wins over Oregon, and midweek work caused real worry. Then in both wins four relievers didn’t allow a run in their 7.0 total innings.

One of them, LHP Kale Breaux, even picked up the game-two win with a timely one inning relief. RHP Noah Hughes threw the last two turns for his first save. Breaux gave tough relief work on Friday as well showing how tough the true freshman is at this early stage.

The Friday decision went to RHP Ryan Rigby. The sophomore transfer was one of a group of six bullpen Bulldogs who stand out for a single mutual reason: they are all first-year pitchers here, and just received their SEC baptism. With Houston not tossing in Nashville, the only veterans working relief for the series were LHP Vance Tatum and converted OF/RHP Reid Humphreys who himself is a ‘first year’ college pitcher, too.

Again, it’s risky reading too much into one weekend, even a big one. Yet it’s hard to ignore the reliance State is staking on the freshmen and transfers to settle, set-up, and close games out this season. It’s equally hard to argue with this approach too with what still-developing talents are displayed.

Yes, it will mean taking some lumps along the way. But “When they pitch like that, it gives them something to build upon as we move deeper into this,” Cohen has said.

Sunday’s scoring threw some series stats out of whack, allowing Vanderbilt to out-hit State slightly. The real story was both orders’ struggles to hit good pitching as the Dogs batted .231 and the ‘Dores .250. Each had on-base rates under .330, and while both teams had one big homer Saturday slugging was negligible in the damp and chilling conditions.

What counted for Cohen wasn’t so much consistency but clutch-ness. The Dogs had more of it. And even Sunday when down so big, the visitors kept attacking the ball. “We took some good swings,” Cohen said during the comeback.

If not quite so much or clearly as with the relief staff, some youth is being served in the batting order. Cohen threw a lineup curve of sorts at the Commodores starting freshman OF Jake Mangum Saturday over an older hand with a good bat himself. All the kid did was go 2-of-3 with a run scored himself, and the tying- and go-ahead-RBI in the eighth inning on a base hit. Mangum came back with a 2-of-5 Sunday and two more RBI with a run.

Suddenly Mangum is leading the whole team in average at .429, a reminder not just of how gifted some of Cohen’s recruiting class are but how volatile stat sheets can be before April. DH/C Jack Kruger (.382) has certainly cooled as most figured following a sizzling February. He hit .182 at Nashville, but he also got to start behind the plate at last too. That’s a good sign for a catching staff that has been a bit short in numbers up to now.

Kruger of course is a juco transfer, yet another new member of the varsity. For that matter, Friday’s winning margin came off the bat of redshirt and substitute-DH Cole Gordon with looper over the infield to plate SS Luke Alexander. To be clear, the entire Bulldog batting order this season is showing much more aggression at the plate than in recent years, regardless of age. It’s still exciting to see how the first-year guys have spiced up the attack attitude.

It also presents Cohen a daily challenge picking an order and lineup, for good reasons. In the process the coach sees each start, or substitute role, as something of an audition.

“We have a lot of moving parts, a lot of people doing a lot of things for us. When your name is called you have to be ready for your opportunity.”

The next opportunity is Tuesday evening with Mississippi Valley State at 6:30. Cohen will be careful who throws how much because the next SEC series begins Thursday. Georgia is 14-7 going into the week, and coming off losing a split series at home with Kentucky.

These Bulldog teams didn’t play last year, after State took a series in Athens in 2014. In fact Georgia has not visited Dudy Noble Field since 2010. Game times are 6:30, 6:30, and 2:00.

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