‘There’ is Gainesville, home of #1-ranked Florida (28-3, 7-2 SEC). It’s where a Mississippi State (21-8-1, 6-3) team tests its own #5 ranking, in a showdown of teams atop their SEC Divisions.
“We’re going to play one of the best clubs in the country,” Coach John Cohen said. “And our kids are looking forward to that opportunity.”
Opportunity and challenge are the same for Mississippi State as they battle through the meat of their 2016 schedule. Maybe no SEC weekend is a pushover. But after hosting and besting rival Ole Miss, the Bulldogs have only tougher tests ahead. After Florida it will be Texas A&M, who was the West leader until getting swept…at Gainesville. A trip to old rival LSU follows.
This intense stretch will test State to all limits. Yet, it also will do the team’s RPI good. That also matters since the Bulldogs are being listed among potential NCAA regional hosts. Success in their first three SEC series have got them this far.
Winning at Florida? This would put MSU on the fast track. “That’s going to be a tall order,” said Cohen, who himself coached under Pat McMahon in Gatorland before becoming a SEC head coach. “But our kids are excited about the opportunity.”
Now, about the challenge. Florida is tied with South Carolina in the East having lost a series at Kentucky. Stress on ‘at’ because on their own turf the Gators own a 28-win streak going back to last season. Sweeping then-#1 A&M extended the string and put Florida back in first. “They have first-round arms, they defend it well, the middle of their order is as good as anybody’s,” Cohen said. “There’s a reason why they’ve won 28 in a row at home. At home they’ve just been dominating.”
Then again, these Dogs have walked into some intimidating settings already. That trip they made to Hollywood, or at least L.A., is still etched upon MSU minds in a good way. Even better was winning their opening SEC series at Vanderbilt, which is now seen as showing Bulldog baseball is back.
“When you go into a tough environment and come out with a win it allows you to do it again,” Cohen said. “Hopefully we can use those experiences to play at a high level.”
Three-straight SEC series wins, as well as a sweep of Oregon a month ago, have shown how high a level this club is capable of reaching. Or at least when righthanders Dakota Hudson and Austin Sexton are on their games. Hudson (4-1, 0.92) is the league leader in ERA, a repeat national pitcher of the week, and drawing hordes of scouts to each start. They’ll certainly show up to see the matchup with Gator righthander Logan Shore (5-0, 2.59) for Friday’s 4:30et start. For that matter Sexton (3-1, 2.98) is raising his own draft profile as well during SEC action. He will also face a right-sider in Alex Faedo (6-0, 2.53) on Saturday.
Florida has also set their Sunday starter in lefthander A.J. Puk (1-2, 3.38). Mississippi State…hasn’t. Current thinking is freshman LHP Konnor Pilkington (1-0, 1.10) will get the chance though Cohen hasn’t said so yet (see Pilkington feature posted earlier). State has other right- and left-side options.
However, much of those could hinge on Hudson and Sexton maintaining their brilliant pace of eating innings. They took care of two complete-game wins over Ole Miss. A reprise would be wonderful, but few can count on that. Nor has the Bulldog bullpen been reliably shut-down solid in all appearances, less so on SEC Sundays.
At the same time, State’s offense has provided sufficient support and often more to make the moundsmen winners. There isn’t much to choose from between these opponents in average, runs, RBI, strikeouts or walks, which is interesting seeing how Florida plays in a more ‘offensive’ ballpark.
Eight Bulldog regulars are hitting .300 or better so far, led by red-hot rookie OF Jake Mangum (.439) and junior OF Jacob Robson (.372). Though, Robson’s status isn’t certain. He hurt his left hand on a Friday slide, missed most of Sunday’s game and all of Tuesday. Mangum more than filled his place atop the order in a 14-0 rout of Tennessee-Martin, going 4-of-4 and reaching two more times on walks.
But Bulldog batting is better with both Robson and now Mangum to begin, and set up RBI situations for the middle-order. “We’ll wait and see if he can go Friday night,” said Cohen of Robson.
All of the five bigger bats can go, and in mix-and-match orders for the pitching opponent. Four of them average between .341 (OF Reid Humphreys) and .316 (1B Nathaniel Lowe). And the fifth might only hit at a .267 rate so far, but 3B Gavin Collins leads the club with five homers. That reflects another 2016 story, the return of the longball at State. This squad has hit 21 of them in 30 games, compared to 22 all of last season’s 54 games.
The pace is about the same with 75 doubles already, compared to 87 in 2015. But the best part has been having a variety of contributors in power and production.
Take Kruger for example. By far the February star, he had a slow stretch against Georgia and yielded his place in the lineup for a few games. Given the Tuesday chance though Kruger flashed the former form, and his average is still a stout .357 with four homers and a team-best 27 RBI.
“It always feels good to swing the bat well. It felt good to be back out there and great to be behind the plate.” Kruger is getting more catching chances as well, though taking C Elih Marrero (.288) out of the lineup isn’t easy with his ability to wreck a running game.
Cohen figures State has all its offensive options again with Kruger and OF Brent Rooker (.326) back in the swing of things. If Robson can’t go, Mangum can take centerfield and OF Cody Brown (.308) step in as a replacement fielder and left-handed hitter.
It’s an optimistic Bulldog bunch. There is the inevitable pressure raised by the opportunity to make a really big SEC—and NCAA—statement in early April. But Kruger expects State to simply play their own game.
“We believe we’re the most talented team in the country. When we play like that I think we are the best team in the country. So our goal is to play our game. It’s a good test to go on the road and play them, fun to play a good opponent. But of course we’re looking for a bunch of Ws.”