(Photo: Reid Humphreys) Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

West Leading State Still Seeking Sunday Starter; Offense Order Winning with Speed in Front of Power Producers

Three weekends won, and three Sundays lost. It’s a formula which may mean a few frustrations but also has pushed Mississippi State to the top of the SEC’s Western Division.

The Diamond Dogs scored their third conference series success by taking two from rival Ole Miss, by 3-1 and 6-2 scores. So despite dropping another Sunday decision, 8-5 this time, Mississippi State took and held the West lead at 6-3 SEC. That’s one ahead of 5-4 Alabama, with just two Division teams over .500 in league play.

“Our confidence is through the roof,” 3B Gavin Collins said. “And we’re excited for the rest of the way.”

Yeah, it’s that ‘rest of the way’ which John Cohen looks at. Not standings. “There is no first place until the end of the year,” the coach cautions.

Never mind Mississippi State (20-8-1) is still looking to finish first in the West since Divisional scheduling resumed in 1992. Rather than celebrate the present Cohen cares about the longer haul. Which only gets tougher in the near future, by the way.

So, nice as it is for players and fans and certainly media to discuss being first place, “It’s meaningless at this point. You’re about to go play a midweek and you have to get ready to compete. Then you go play the number-one team in the country that just swept a very good A&M club at home.”

State’s schedule is sending the West’s current best to play the (again) nation’s #1. Florida had dropped out of that top spot last week after losing a series at Kentucky. But sweeping Texas A&M has returned the Gators (27-3, 7-2 SEC) to first in the polls. Though, they are also tied with South Carolina in the East, a reminder of how top-heavy the SEC is this season.

Mississippi State has muscled itself into that group with the three-straight series wins. Or four-straight if a pre-league sweep of Oregon is included. This success has earned top-ten and in one case top-five ranking, albeit this is something truly meaningless in April compared to conference standings.

Put in another perspective, these Bulldogs are only four victories from matching the entire 2015 total; and one more won-weekend from equaling last year’s eight SEC wins. There just happen to be four games this week too. Though that is one less than originally scheduled.

A planned Tuesday twinbill with Tennessee-Martin has been cut to a single 6:30 game. It’s not to preserve pitching, since there are a lot of arms who have not thrown much lately if at all. Just playing UTM will hurt State’s RPI and SOS regardless of outcome. So Cohen is compromising, to get a non-league in and work some pitchers while minimizing RPI impact.

Speaking of pitching… The Dogs’ dynamic duo of RHP Dakota Hudson (4-1, 0.92) and RHP Austin Sexton (3-1, 2.98) just keep rolling up innings and games and wins. This weekend was their best yet, maybe the best they can do even as each tossed complete-game victories over the Rebels. Their 18.0 innings resulted in three runs, none of them earned, with 19 strikeouts…and no walks. To get on base against this pair Rebels almost had to get hit (one, each) or reach via error.

Cohen commented that all week the righthanders were as focused as he’d ever seen in a rotation tag-team. It showed. “Those two guys are just competing their tails off for us,” Cohen said. Inevitably one or both will have an off-outing. But for now Mississippi State has perhaps the best one-two pitching punch in the college game.

It’s that third punch missing. To be clear, a true three-winner rotation is exceedingly rare at any level of the game. But the nature of the sport also is to look at what lacks. And Cohen is not immune, though he’s likely thinking of those inevitable Sundays State has to win to take the series or even salvage a split.

LHP Daniel Brown and RHP Keegan James have shared the three SEC Sunday starts and aren’t being written-off at all. Still pitching Coach Wes Johnson each week evaluates on both game and practice results to score a strike-thrower. Or hopefully one, as it doesn’t always work out in real matchups.

“I don’t think it’s frustrating from the standpoint of we have candidates,” Cohen said. “We have guys that haven’t done it yet at this level. Hudson and Sexton didn’t do it when they first got here. But we do have good candidates and the possibility of moving some guys from midweek to weekend. Anything is on the table at this point because we need to throw more strikes on day-three.”

This includes the next Hot Name on the list, LHP Konnor Pilkington (1-0, 1.17). He gave three-plus good starting innings in last week’s 13-5 win over Southern Miss and dominated lightweight Mississippi Valley State the week before. By late Monday it should be known if State will start him against UTM or save him for the weekend option, or compromise.

“For sure he throws an inning, but if you want to use him Sunday it can only be an inning,” Cohen said. “He needs to pitch, the question is how much.”

So do a lot of other Dogs. And don’t look now but midweek chances are decreasing fast. There are only four of them left after this week including neutral-site matches with Louisiana-Monroe (Biloxi, April 20) and Ole Miss (Pearl, April 26). Cohen and Johnson know the need to get young and transfer guys real innings this year if only to build upon come fall ball.

The necessity of a Sunday starter is greater. “We’re going to find the guy that can pitch on the third day for us,” Cohen said. “There’s plenty of competition, there are several arms we have not given that opportunity start yet. We’re going find that guy, because we really need to.”

Here in early April, the coaches have just about found the right offensive mix. The emergence of OF Jake Mangum, and his ascension to top of the stat sheet at .396, has forced some shuffling. It has come at OF Brent Rooker’s (.329 season, .150 SEC) expense as far as starting which is no blot on him. Mangum has just been that good for three weeks, whether hitting for average, getting on base and moving—very aggressively—around them; or even putting up some power. His first-inning home run sent State on the way to Saturday’s win.

Plus, “He just never sees a breaking ball breaking away from him because he’s a switch hitter,” Cohen said. “And he’s turned into a very, very good defender.” Mangum had to take over in center mid-Sunday when OF Jacob Robson (.372, .275 SEC) couldn’t grip his bat with a left hand issue. Robson should get the midweek-off to be ready to play center and hit first at Florida.

Having that fast pair atop the order has set up increasing RBI opportunities mid-order. OF Reid Humphreys (.349, .361 SEC) went 5-of-12 against Ole Miss, though in this series instead of swinging big he went for contact and produced singles. He has mostly hit fifth up to now but Sunday moved up to cleanup, batting behind 1B Nathaniel Lowe (.309, .314 SEC). 3B Gavin Collins (.261, .300 SEC) rounds-out the producers and leads the club with five home runs.

On the power topic, this club has already knocked 20 balls out of parks. That’s just two short of the entire 2015 total. And doubles aren’t far behind that pace either, 69 so far in 2016 after 87 last spring. Going with better batters has had a modest price, with a dozen SEC errors in nine games. It’s a trade-off State accepts since offense is a priority and the pitching can overcome many mistakes.

Now, for the really insightful aspect. Even the Diamond Dogs talk like, well, fans when discussing their SEC success and status. It’s great being on top of a Division, something these players have never known. But yeah, they get a little greedy for more, too.

Leave it to Collins to explain. “We are upset about Sundays because we think we should win every game we play. We are that good.”

Good enough to go pitch-by-pitch, play-by-play with the nation’s #1? By next Sunday all will know.

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