Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

#5 State Faces Hot Southern Miss Squad Tuesday in Pearl; Dogs Take Home-Team Turn

Two weeks is about when SEC teams start settling into a season-routine. So if these initial series are their routine, it’s one the Diamond Dogs enjoy.

Mississippi State followed up their opening success at Vanderbilt by coming home to take another weekend’s work, at the expense of Georgia. The home Bulldogs clinched the series with 9-2 and 3-1 wins, before dropping a five-hour grinder 11-8. That makes State 17-7-1 overall and more importantly 4-2 SEC heading into April’s league play. They are tied for first in the SEC’s Western Division with Texas A&M.

“It’s awesome,” said 1B Nathaniel Lowe after the second won series. “A lot of guys like to say we’re going to win as many games as we won last year in our first three weekends. But it’s great. It’s a big, big momentum boost.”

The transfer first baseman is exaggerating but only numerically. Emotionally? Mississippi State is so far ahead of 2015 pace as to forget last year happened. They have half as many SEC wins for one obvious thing. More to the point they already have twice as many won-series.

Not to mention a healthy head of steam heading into an April slate loaded with major tests. In the next four weekends the Bulldogs host in-state rival Ole Miss; visit Florida; host West Division favorite Texas A&M; and visit ‘favorite foe’ LSU. Against that lineup alllll possible momentum will be necessary.

Speaking of momentum, Mississippi State has that with pollsters. Those doing rankings held back a bit after the series win over then-#2 Vanderbilt based on midweek losses. Taking down Georgia, along with other results around the league and nation, and scoring a lot even in a loss seems to have raised the profile. One poll, Baseball America, now has MSU at #5; two others list them #11. For what it is worth, of course.

The larger point is after sweeping Oregon and winning their first two SEC tests, these Bulldogs carry confidence into every weekend now.

“Winning a series in the SEC is a big deal regardless of the opponent,” OF Jacob Robson said. “We did a really good job Thursday and Friday. It kind of stinks to lose to a team we have beat, but at the same time we showed competitive nature and who we were.”

Yes, Coach John Cohen agreed. You get greedy after clinching in two. “Having the opportunity to sweep somebody doesn’t happen a lot in our league, if you look around. We’ve had that opportunity, we let that get away from us.”

Game-three starting pitching is the main reason, and will be a leading topic in Thursday’s advance on the next series. What is more interesting is how easily fans forget that in 2015 and for that matter many preceding years State did not have two and for that matter some years one sure-thing starter. Even when not getting decisions, righthanders Dakota Hudson (3-1, 1.13era) and Austin Sexton (2-1, 3.72) keep putting the whole team in positions to win games. And, weekends.

“The pitchers are going to be on most of the time and we’re confident in their abilities,” Robson said.

Hudson/Sexton have certainly been on-target for three weekends. For the full season so far they have combined for 88 strikeouts in 76 innings. Hudson, now a scout darling, hasn’t allowed an earned run in his last 21.2 innings. Yet Sexton is just two strikeouts behind in three fewer innings and earning pro respect as well.

After hitting .231 at Vanderbilt, the Bulldog offense improved to .309 against Georgia pitching. Though that figure was held-down almost solely by one UG arm, brilliant if not consistent ace Robert Tyler who had six no-hit innings. Take him out and State batted .370 for the series.

Actually, don’t take it out. Out-lasting a great arm to win in the end said much for MSU’s offensive mindset, per Robson.

“We’re selective in situations we need to be selective. But if the guys’ a strike thrower we’ll be aggressive and attack him. It just depends on the time and place.”

Robson’s place as leadoff is settled. He’s second in team average at .367 and has scored 27 times. Alternate OF Jake Mangum continues to lead with a .400 average though he was 1-of-6 on the weekend. Georgia wasn’t kind to DH/C Jack Kruger (364) at 2-of-9 either, but the transfer continues to lead with 11 doubles and has driven in 23 RBI.

It’s easy to tell who has the hot bats though. OF Reid Humphreys (.333) went 4-of-12 in the series with five RBI, slugging a pair of solo homers in game-one. In the last six games Humphreys has nine hits with as many RBI. It’s worth noting that each of the last three weekends even when a couple of Dogs in ‘production’ spots in the order have struggled, at least one has carried the club in this stretch.

There’s even a hotter stick from a new source. Rookie C Elih Marrero had himself a weekend, going 5-of-7 with three runs scored as either the starting catcher (twice) or in a pinch role.

Even some lineup shuffles have been paying off. In game-two with ground-ball machine Sexton starting, 2B John Holland started…and stayed busy. He had nine assists in the win, and laughed at suggestions he’d need to ice the elbow after that many throws.

Holland was 2-of-6 at the plate, too, for the weekend…and if not for a great rob-job over the rightfield fence he would have had a Saturday homer. It’s turned into a strange running total Cohen keeps, now at five, of stole home runs at MSU expense. Humphreys (three) has the chief victim.

Still with 17 longballs already this season in 25 games these Dogs are going to blow by last year’s total of 22 in 54 games. Doubles are coming as a comparable pace, 62 so far after 87 last spring.

Back on the starting subject, State might have their midweek man now. Freshman LHP Konnor Pilkington (1-0, 0.75) has opened the last two Tuesdays. He didn’t get a decision in 4.0 one-run innings against Eastern Kentucky, then won with 5.0 shutout innings against Valley State last week. Pilkington has 11 strikeouts in the two starts, and inevitably there’s suggestions he be moved to weekends.

That would likely be rushing things for a true frosh. Plus, midweek games are of increasing importance for State and for that matter everyone in the SEC. They might not count towards the conference standings but could tip the NCAA seeding-and-siting balance come June.

Tuesday’s annual matchup with rival Southern Mississippi at Trustmark Park (6:30, MSU home team) is an excellent opportunity to boost the RBI/SOS, too. Though the Golden Eagles (19-6, 5-1 CUSA) are at least as hot if not more so than State. They are coming off a home sweep of Texas-San Antonio, and have two SEC wins already by beating both Auburn and Alabama.

Also, last year Southern Miss ended years of frustrations in this series by winning 3-0 in Pearl, their first success over a Bulldog team since 2010. State, like most SEC squads, have been shown vulnerable in these mid-week matchups already and the Eagles are better than the usual Tuesday opponent.

At least the Bulldogs are rested, thanks to a early SEC series last week and Easter Day break. “We’ll get back to work and battle a very good Southern Miss team down in Pearl on Tuesday,” Cohen said.

Back to routine, in other words.

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