State Hosts Aggies In Matchup for SEC West Lead, and NCAA Tourney Status

SEC season only hits half-way this weekend. Yet it’s still fair to say this is a showdown of a series when Mississippi State hosts Texas A&M. Even John Cohen agrees. Sorta.

The Diamond Dogs, said their head coach, are “Going into the biggest weekend of the year for us. Why? Because of what’s next.”

Fair enough. Now, let’s set aside the coach-speak.

The SEC standings, and too-early NCAA projections, say this is more than just a ‘next’ series for both squads. After four won weekends the Bulldogs (24-9-1, 8-4) lead the Western Division. Just a short step behind is Texas A&M (25-7, 7-5). Both want to walk off Dudy Noble Field this best in the West…though since there are a trio of 6-6 squads right behind outside events will have to be calculated in Sunday, too.

Make no mistake, though. This one is as big as a mid-April meeting gets. These Dogs see clearly.

“We know we’ve got something special going right now,” OF Reid Humphreys said. “And we don’t want to do anything to ruin that.”

The season is shaping-up as something special, if the Bulldogs can maintain current momentum. They are consensus top-ten in all those entertainment-only national polls. Better are projections that have Mississippi State hosting NCAA play.

None of it is official of course. It is fun. And, even new members of the club say, it can be fragile.

“I think we just kind of keep that in our rear-view when we play,” 1B Nathaniel Lowe said. “We realize we can lose to anybody, any time we step out there. We can also beat anybody in the country.”

It’s been more of the latter lately, most obviously and most recently when State took the series at then-#1 Florida. The two wins pushed MSU as high as #2 in a pair of polls and even into talk for a NCAA national seeding. This is heady stuff for a program that, while once used to such status, missed tourney play entirely in 2015.

Fortunately it hasn’t gone to their heads. They took care of Memphis 11-1 in as routine a manner as necessary. The win doesn’t do much for the team’s RPI or SOS, in fact State dropped a bit for just playing the Tigers. The benefit was showing a squad still focused on business between high-profile SEC weekends.

“They didn’t look past these guys,” Cohen said.

Nobody overlooks Texas A&M. The Aggies have bounced back from being swept at Florida, which knocked them out of national #1, and another loss at Rice to win the last four. That includes a sweep of struggling Georgia, and Tuesday’s win over Abilene Christian. A&M is only 5-6 playing away from their home field, though.

When last these clubs met the Aggies were ranked #1, and took the series in College Station. “We know from last year and who they’ve been playing they’re going to have some big-time arms, really good bats,” OF Brent Rooker said. “They’re coming in playing really well. We just have to not worry about how we’re playing so much as how we play. Keep doing what we do and we’ll be fine.”

These Bulldogs do a lot of things well. Offensively a .319 average ranks second in the SEC’s overall season numbers (A&M is ahead at .328), and the on-base rate is .411. But that’s just the easy averages to check. Where State has really shined is in two-out, RBI-opportunity situations. This order, or rather orders given some matchups and injury changes of late, is proving itself clutch against all opponents.

Rooker has done his part to produce. Since returning to the lineup after missing three games, he has hit 9-of-21 in six games with eight RBI and five runs.

“I had about a week I wasn’t swinging as well as I wanted to,” Rooker said. “But I’m feeling comfortable right now and seeing it well. The rest of the team, the same way. Putting good swings on balls when we get a pitch to hit.”

There are lots of hot Dogs the last couple of weeks. Take Humphreys, 13-of-34 the last nine games. He doesn’t take credit on himself though. He’s also leading the SEC in doubles. “It kind of helps you relax when guys like Gavin (Collins) and Brent are up front and behind you. It makes it easier to get a pitch to hit.”

3B Collins has had seven good games himself at 8-of-22 with seven runs scored. He’s also leading in homers with six after a big shot Wednesday evening. But the State swinger who has really sizzled is 1B Nathaniel Lowe. He has hit safely in 10 of the last 11 games and in this stretch is 22-of-48, scoring 12 runs.

The larger point is that the middle of these orders can handle off-stretches by others as somebody or more likely -bodies step their hitting up. Plus, they have teammates on bases to move and bring home. Though it’s questionable if one will be back for the weekend. CF Jacob Robson missed the last four games with a left hand injury suffered on a slide in the Georgia series. Cohen said Robson (.372, 32 runs) is practicing but the hand still hurts him.

“It’s getting better. Is it a week from now, two weeks, three weeks, it’s hard to tell. He’s chomping at the bit to get back out there.”

Phenom frosh OF Jake Mangum has stepped into leadoff just fine. Though he had his eight-game hitting streak snapped Sunday, the rookie still leads the list for both State and the whole SEC in batting at .427. Robson stands seventh in average. Mangum also handles centerfield smoothly, leaving rightfield open for either right-hander Rooker or lefty OF Cody Brown.

Cohen is satisfied with this offense, which has already surpassed 2015’s total home runs and is getting close in doubles already. “But it just takes one great arm out there that can neutralize that. That’s why the pitching and defense have to show up every day.”

True. Except what the Florida series showed was State could afford to lose with RHP Dakota Hudson (4-1, 1.68era) on the hill and still win a weekend. Hudson wasn’t beaten-up at all last Friday, the Gators just found open ground with contacts. None are concerned about the Bulldog ace who is second in SEC ERA behind only Aggie Brigham Hill’s 1.42. If anything it only allowed RHP Austin Sexton (3-1, 3.28) to set things right with a Saturday victory.

Last week was also RHP Konnor Pilkington’s debut as a SEC starter. Promoted after opening four midweek games, the freshman got Sunday’s game going under control long enough for the bullpen to keep it that way. Cohen is not definitively saying Pilkington (1-0, 0.89) will get this game-three. But the other contender, LHP Daniel Brown, threw Wednesday evening in relief if that’s a clue.

Regardless, “We have the luxury of watching the first wo and asking what is the best matchup,” Cohen said. “We clearly felt he was the best matchup against Florida. We’ll make that decision later on but he’s a prime candidate.”

The staff is shorter by one officially now, though RHP Noah Hughes had been sidelined for weeks with an elbow ligament problem. Cohen confirmed the freshman is having Tommy John surgery this week.

“That’s really going to hurt our club. Because he had pitched so well for us. Hopefully we’ll get him back for next year.”

Of course nobody is looking at next year now. Or for that matter much at the rest of the season. That is how big this weekend can be. Super, in fact, because by pure coincidence this SEC West showdown coincides with Super Bulldog Weekend. As soon as the last Sunday out was recorded in Gainesville, speculation exploded about the crowd potential for this year’s edition.

It is even possible the attendance record for Dudy Noble Field, thus for all college campus baseball, set in 2014 can be surpassed. Packing more than 15,586 into these confines won’t be easy. But excitement for this squad, what it has done and the way so many Dogs have already become familiar with so many fans, certainly makes a record possible. Practical, even.

“It’s going to be a big crowd,” junior Humphreys said. “We’re prepared for that and we’ve played in front of a lot of big crowds. We’re not really worried about the crowd and the rankings, we just have to come out here and do our thing.

“And everything will take care of itself.”

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