#5 Bulldogs Renew Rivalry with #11 Ole Miss to Open April Grind

It’s a new month, and the old rival.

Mississippi State opens April by hosting Ole Miss for week-three of SEC season. The annual series runs on the usual 6:30, 2:00, and 1:30 schedule with full network radio for both teams and the SEC’s Network-Plus on-line viewing feed.

“We get to play a really talented Ole Miss club this weekend,” Coach John Cohen said. “I think our kids are excited about it. Every one of these SEC games matter, but it’s great to have rivalry games as well.”

It’s a shame the SECN isn’t doing some quick rescheduling though. Mississippi State (18-7-1, 4-2) is tied with Texas A&M for the Western Division lead, and playing for a third SEC series victory after knocking off Vanderbilt and Georgia. The Bulldogs are coming off a satisfying rivalry win already, after thumping Southern Mississippi 13-5 in Pearl.

That midweek win also avenged a 2015 defeat when USM briefly snapped MSU’s success streak in the series. And since the Eagles are co-leaders in CUSA it did the Dogs’ good in RPI and SOS, too. The bullpen wasn’t stressed Tuesday either and everyone ought be available for SEC action.

After roaring to an 18-1 start on the non-conference schedule league play has not been as kind to the Rebels. They dropped series at Tennessee and to East leader South Carolina. Still State can’t count on momentum to carry in a rivalry rematch.

For that matter this weekend is about changing directions. Bulldog fans figure the series has trended the wrong way for too long.

Since a 2012 home win, Bulldog teams have lost the last three series. That’s not the longest such streak of course; Rebel teams took every series from 2004-08, before Cohen’s first club snapped it in 2009 in Oxford. Still there’s no Dog-denying that since 2004 the rivalry has belonged to the Rebels, nine years out of twelve.

The last time this rivalry was played on Dudy Noble Field, history was made. State’s only win on the weekend was literally Super, when 15,586 packed the grounds. It broke the NCAA campus attendance record, which belonged to MSU since 1989 anyway at 14,991. Those Dogs rallied for a 6-5 win in ten innings.

Otherwise, the rivalry has belonged to the other team for several seasons. It’s a tricky matter to handle but Cohen comes down on treating it as the next game, next series. After all, “If we’re fortunate enough to beat Ole Miss, they won’t let us count it as two SEC wins.”

Not surprisingly State is sticking with the 1-2 pitching punch of RHP Dakota Hudson (3-1, 1.13era) and RHP Austin Sexton (2-1, 3.72); and wait for the weekend to unfold before picking Sunday’s starter.

Ole Miss has set its whole rotation. Righthander Brady Bramlett (4-1, 2.90) will match up with Hudson, and righty Chad Smith (2-2, 4.80) go Saturday. The Rebels will stay right-side for the third game, too, with Sean Johnson (3-0, 1.96).

Cohen said facing an all-one-side rotation is one reason why State spends so much pre-SEC time experimenting with lineups, right- and left- alike. It can pay off. The Bulldogs swept an Oregon squad which started three-straight southpaws three weeks ago.

The coach also said having veteran batters who survived 2015 frustrations and are swinging with new aggressiveness is paying off. So is just plain maturing. “Reid Humphreys (.338, 3 HR, 11 doubles) is a better player than he was a year ago. Brent Rooker (.329, 2, 6) same way, Jacob Robson (.379, 4 doubles, 3 triples) is an improved player. The guys who were around have all improved.”

It’s the addition of more good batters who are boosting overall production, too. Freshman OF Jake Mangum (.366) “has been on fire,” Cohen said, “Every time he’s stepped to the plate he’s hit it hard.” Now so is C Elih Marrero (.304) who is on a 10-of-13 tear. DH/C Jack Kruger (.364, 3 HR, 23 rbi) has regained his groove after a short lapse, and 1B Nate Lowe (.306) is having more of those well-hit balls land in fair ground.

For this rotation-matchup State has more capable left-handed bats to use. Robson, Lowe, and alternate starters OF Cody Brown and 2B John Holland are all lefties. And Mangum, Marrero, and SS Luke Alexander are all switch-guys.

“If we go lefthanded we lose a little power,” Cohen said. “But we gain a little contact and speed. It really depends on if the wind is blowing out and the tendencies.”

There’s another tendency to note. It’s about the Ole Miss offense. “They’ve swung the bat really well against us over the years,” said Cohen. That’s been especially so in Oxford, a somewhat smaller park where drives travel very well whatever the wind. But even in trips to spacious Dudy Noble Field the Rebel teams have been able to adjust, hit for average as needed, and still score runs.

Cohen sees another such club coming to town, with a nice blend of power, average, and speed on the paths. Though, last week’s losses to streaking South Carolina took a toll on team stats. Ole Miss is averaging .278 on the season compared to State’s .317. Rebels do have three more home runs of course, but the Dogs have batted doubles (65 so far) in bunches and lead in triples seven to one.

The extra-base batting is clear sign of plate progress from 2015. These Dogs are only five home runs shy of matching the entire ’15 output of 22, and aren’t too far from surpassing the 87 doubles in 54 games.

But the biggest single, so to speak, improvement is in clutch swinging. This team already has scored 92 two-out RBI, compared to 98 all of last spring.

“Our kids keep competing and doing a better job in the strike zone,” Cohen said.

That zone is also on pitching Coach Wes Johnson’s mind as he looks for a Sunday starter. LHP Daniel Brown ( had the job five weekends before struggles at Vanderbilt. So freshman RHP Keegan James got his shot last Sunday, based on stats and trends showing his strike-throwing ratio. It didn’t work out that way in his first SEC start, though Cohen isn’t judging the rookie by one initial league outing.

Regardless, somebody has to get the ball this Sunday. Cohen said again, it will all be based on “how many strikes do we feel he is going to throw? Because we’re a strong defensive team and if we can get ahead early in counts it helps a lot.”

The weekend weather forecast is, well, baseball-y with no threat of rain.

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