Texas A&M’s three-game sweep of Mississippi State might well define the Aggies’ season. It certainly flipped the SEC West order here at mid-point of the conference schedule. A&M slugged their way into first place now at 10-5 and staked an early claim on eventual NCAA national seeding.
After two weeks atop the Division the Bulldogs (24-12-1, 8-7) slipped into a tie for third with Alabama. Both now trail 9-6 Louisiana State, which happens to be Mississippi State’s upcoming opponent to begin the SEC second half.
The Bulldogs had gotten comfortable in first place after winning four league weekends, including impressive road successes at Vanderbilt and Florida. Losing a series, and being broomed, was tough to take. The only answer is…get back on the field and resume winning.
“We’ve got the rest of the season,” junior 3B Collins said. “I think we’re in a good spot right now. But this is amnesia, you just have to move on.”
His coach seconds the second-half approach. “It’s really frustrating,” said John Cohen Sunday. “But we have to realize we’re half-way through a SEC year. And we have a ton more baseball left. Everything that we want to accomplish is still available to us, if we really take care of business. I think all our kids are mature enough to understand that.”
They seem to understand. Not just that the season continues and half-a-slate remains to play; but what Mississippi State has accomplished already.
“We played well to this point,” junior OF Reid Humphreys said. “There’s no reason to change what we’re doing.”
That might not make sense in fandom after a sweep. Not until noting that the Aggies, who themselves were ranked #1, are back on forecasted track in the league and national standings. With the three wins A&M has scored double-digit runs in six-straight games, and they collected 47 hits off State pitching.
“I was joking in the dugout I’m not sure they could have got that many hits in BP today,” Cohen said Sunday. It wasn’t funny to MSU moundsmen or anyone else either. But, the Bulldogs could recognize a very good team playing at peak potential.
They just didn’t have to like it. Humphreys didn’t. “I don’t feel like we’ve lost any of these games. Because we’ve battled the whole time. They haven’t beat us yet, we beat ourselves. It’s tough to deal with, but we’re not worried.”
The overriding facts are that the Bulldogs hold a good April position, and are ahead of expected schedule by most measures. State only dropped a couple of notches in the polls even with sweeping; and barely budged in the more meaningful measures like RPI. The NCAA-affiliated listing of 300 schools still has the Bulldogs at #17, only two places down from last Tuesday. One of those spots was lost in a win, actually, as beating a low-200s Memphis team 11-1 cost as much RPI ground as losing three to #10 A&M!
This means Mississippi State very much remains in contention to win one of the 16 number-one NCAA seeds. A national seed, which some speculated was viable last week, is likely a long shot now.
Though, the Bulldogs do have a couple of chances to raise their rating. Louisiana State just jumped to #13 RPI by sweeping Missouri; there is also the Governors Cup game with now-#7 Ole Miss of course, and on a neutral field which will help whatever the outcome.
Beyond that though the RPI pickings get slim (see list following story). So Mississippi State has to do more than just survive Baton Rouge and win the remaining four SEC series. The Dogs will likely have to dominate the final dozen league games to be in the first-round NCAA host picture. Not, cautions Collins, that anyone can look that far ahead.
Or equally get too subdued by sweeping. “We just finished up half our SEC games,” Collins said. “Now we’ve got the other half. The biggest thing is staying healthy and making sure everybody is ready to go every day.”
Yes, about the healthy part… Suddenly injuries are a serious concern. The Bulldogs won at Florida without OF Jacob Robson and his .372 average at the top of the order. Out with a left hand injury, his absence showed against A&M though. Cohen kept, correctly, comparing an Aggie order made entirely of juniors and seniors against State’s more mixed lineup.
A fourth-year junior, Robson would have added experience with the more statistical aspects. “He is one of those older kids who s very productive for us. Is it two weeks, three weeks, it’s really hard to tell. I don’t think he’s picked a bat up yet.”
Now add to the questions RHP Austin Sexton (3-2, 3.96). State’s #2 rotation starter pulled a hamstring covering first base Saturday and exited after three innings. To be sure, Sexton’s stuff was not a good matchup at all with Aggie offense. But losing him so early in game-two threw off lots of pitching plans.
Cohen couldn’t clarify Sexton’s status Sunday “He’s not moving around great. We’ll find out as we get closer to the weekend.” The coach’s Monday evening call-in show may provide an update.
Health isn’t a concern with RHP Dakota Hudson (4-3, 2.08). Consecutive losses to Florida and A&M are. Hudson said his breaking ball wasn’t breaking enough this Friday and he had to serve up fastballs the Aggies attacked over seven innings. “But I thought he really competed well for us,” Cohen said. “He kept us in it.”
What gets overlooked is this year’s ace is still only in his first season as a rotation starter. He threw less than 17 innings in 2015, which up to now has been about two weekends of work for Hudson. So the junior is in new territory now in April…and opponents have built their scouting reports accordingly.
Hudson will stay lead Dog in this rotation. If Sexton gets well soon enough he’ll toe the rubber again Saturday, though holding to Sunday this series might not be a bad tactic. It’s finding that third starter which remains challenging. LHP Konnor Pilkington (1-0, 1.69) only got into the second Sunday inning a week after making his first SEC start, at Florida.
This, and how LHP Daniel Brown (2-2, 4.93) threw in relief, probably means the third rotation job is again up for grabs. Or maybe not. Pilkington will mature with experience and Brown appears much more effective out of the bullpen. Speaking of which… The relief staff allowed 19 of the 30 Aggie runs though just 23 of 47 hits. Enough said.
Other than, bullpen Bulldogs and particularly the newest members are also hitting that mid-season ‘wall’ against good offenses. “Learning experiences,” said Hudson who went through the same process himself.
Learning this way is not at all fun. It is necessary. It also offered the entire team a chance to demonstrate resilience of a different sort which will likely be called on in future weeks.
“So it was a good test for our defense and our pitchers,” said Collins. “We’ll move on and understand how to get offenses like this cold in a hurry. So we’ll figure that out.” Plus, the team’s leading home run hitter (7) added, “With this offense we’re never out of a ball game.”
Not with OF Jake Mangum (.433) setting the pace. Moving up to first with Robson’s absence the true freshman batted .467 against A&M. This is one rookie yet to hit any wall, though to be fair he’s still started just 17 of the 37 games.
Regardless, “He stays within the limits of his game and just continues to work hard to put pressure on defenders,” Cohen said. “He’s somebody that just keeps getting better.” But the freshman grind might be showing with C Elih Marrero, not least as he’s caught all innings in six-straight SEC games. The kid catcher was 3-of-14 for the series. But he also made a couple of brilliant save-plays and tags to keep games in semi-control.
State doesn’t use a lot of true frosh in the field and order, but those who do play entire games. Cohen said he is not concerned of wearing them down, physically or for that matter emotionally after a bad weekend.
“They understand baseball. They can digest that and move forward. So think all of them are going to respond well and get excited about a midweek game we have in Biloxi and the opportunity to go play a very good LSU team.”
The Bulldogs are about to spend most of a week on I-10. Wednesday, State appears in the year-old Biloxi Shuckers’ MGM Park to play Louisiana-Monroe 6:30. A starter was to be named early in the week and the easy call is RHP Keegan James (2-0, 3.12) after his opening turn last week against Memphis.
The Bulldogs will head on over to Baton Rouge the next day and have a practice ahead of the LSU series. State has not won a series there since 2006, and that was in the old Alex Box Stadium.
But with road series victories in Nashville and Gainesville, not to mention the March trip to Los Angeles on the resume, this Bulldog bunch has been comfortable on the road.
“It doesn’t matter where we go,” Collins said. “We’re going to be excited to go to LSU. We just want to keep playing because we know we’re better than those guys (A&M) and we think we’re better than everyone in the country. That’s a huge attribute to all the older guys and leaders on this team.”
MISSISSIPPI STATE & OPPONENTS CURRENT RPI (from COLLEGE RPI)
199.South Dakota State
300.Mississippi Valley State