“Our confidence is super-high and we’re really excited for this weekend,” the centerfielder and co-captain said. “We’re excited to get some wins.”
Diamond Dog excitement is genuine. Taking two from then-#2 Vanderbilt, coming a week after sweeping #10 Oregon, has Mississippi State baseball thinking big again.
Coach John Cohen of course is thinking of Georgia, which arrives for the next SEC set. It’s an early-starter too with the Easter weekend ahead. Game times are 6:30 both Thursday (weather permitting) and Friday, and 2:00 Saturday. There will not be a hold-over for Sunday games.
The other Bulldogs are 14-8, 1-2, and coming off a Tuesday loss to Mercer. This is no special shame given how many SEC clubs, including State, have dropped midweek matchups already. Of more concern to Georgia is losing their opening SEC series at home to Kentucky and the danger of going into April under-.500.
Mississippi State (15-6-1, 2-1) is off to a better SEC start. The Bulldogs also avoided a stumble by routing lightweight guest Mississippi Valley State. Per Robson, the players were to have a light Wednesday practice before some weights work. Meanwhile their coaches are assembling Georgia scouting.
Cohen had been watching some early game cuts. “I saw some innings from their big righthander who has been going on Friday nights for them. They’re going to keep him on Friday night and throw a freshman lefthander, at least what I’m hearing, on Thursday.”
That southpaw will indeed be rookie Kevin Smith (3-0, 1.93); while righty Robert Tyler (2-1, 3.42) will take the second game. Georgia has not named a Saturday starter and neither has State.
Offensively, “We’ve looked at some of their numbers, they’re very talented. They’re left-handed heavy with their lineup, they can run. They had a tough series against Kentucky but could have won two out of three.”
Mississippi State did win two of three in Nashville largely on the starting strength of the righthanded duo Dakota Hudson (2-1, 1.38era) and Austin Sexton (2-1, 4.15). Hudson’s nine-inning stint, in a 13-inning win, earned him SEC and national pitch of the week awards; while Sexton came back with 6.0 innings on Saturday. Both went well over 100 pitches in the process.
Hudson’s 126 pitches are worth noting as Cohen will keep him first in the rotation despite it being a short week. The coach isn’t concerned. “Not really, just because the summer and the Cape he was pitching on five days a lot. I think he’s in a good place, he had a great bullpen the other day.”
To Robson, being able to count on strong starts is the best confidence boost a ball club can get. “It’s a huge deal having those guys, and Daniel too.” As in LHP Daniel Brown (2-1, 4.54) who has gotten game-three starts now for four weekends. That appears to be the case again though State isn’t listing him yet, since Brown could always get called on for lefthanded long-relief in this matchup.
“Sexton and Dakota are phenomenal pitchers to have and it’s great to be behind them in the field,” Robson said. “We get in and out of the dugout quickly and can stay in an offensive mind even when we’re on the field.”
Cohen said were this a Friday-start series he would have thrown a few more bullpen Bulldogs Tuesday. And, would have shortened fast-developing starter Konnor Pilkington in the process. “Because it’s the short week we needed to stretch him out a little bit more.” Instead just three relievers worked and most ought be available if needed for short stints or matchups.
Not surprisingly State’s offensive numbers took a ‘hit’ at the hands of Vanderbilt pitching. Still this order, or orders rather, are noticeably ahead of last year’s pace at this point in just about everything that matters. Nor is there quite as much shuffling of right- and left-side swingers as was the case in a frustrating 2015.
Robson (.361) has thrived batting first, and padded his stats with a pair of doubles and a true inside-the-park grand slam Tuesday evening. Cohen will alternate in the two-spot some though DH/C Jack Kruger gets the nod more often than OF Brent Rooker who otherwise will hit anywhere else in the first-six slots. Both do their job setting plates for 3B Gavin Collins, RF Reid Humphreys, and 1B Nate Lowe. What jumps out is that so far there’s not been any consistent void in the first-six over multiple games.
Cohen is more encouraged now by how the latter rungs in the order have been producing. One of them, OF Jake Mangum, is pushing for full-time status now. Since getting his first college hit on March 1 the freshman is 13-of-21 with seven RBI and six runs. The coach also noted improvements by young catchers Hunter Stovall and Elih Marrero.
Yet if averages inevitably erode over the course of a SEC season, there are signs State has something maybe better. The club has clutch hitters, certainly more than recent seasons and often somebody different week to week or game to game. This is reflected in a pair of coach-stats Cohen puts great weight upon.
His orders, starting or pinch, have 31 two-out RBI in the last six games. And strikeouts are down in these situations. “That’s a real credit to our kids, especially with two strikes. That’s how you score a bunch of runs, by not giving in with two strikes.”
The Bulldogs don’t intend to give away any of the early ground they’ve gained in the SEC standings. Georgia has historically been a nemesis to any State team or coach. But the last time the programs met State took two in Athens in 2014.
Robson said it is just a matter of sticking to what this team does well and not fading their focus. “If we stay within ourselves the way we did over the weekend, we’re going to win a lot of ball games.”