Six weekends in the 2016 book and Mississippi State threatens to turn the Western Division on its collective head. By taking a tense series at old rival Louisiana State, the Bulldogs are back near the front of the West pack.
“It’s tough to win here,” RHP Austin Sexton said. “I thought we did a good job.”
A great job really, under the mid-SEC-season circumstances. A week after absorbing a home sweeping by Texas A&M, the Dogs went into as hostile a setting as Dogs can visit…and left with two impressive victories.
State won a Friday slugfest 12-8, then in a total turnaround outlasted the Tigers 2-1 to seal the series. Even the Sunday stumble had its highlights with a 11-8 final.
Though, Coach John Cohen admitted, a squad does get greedy. “If you tell me ahead of time we’re going to win two out of three, and by Saturday you feel pretty good about that. But you want to win them all.”
The bigger picture is that Mississippi State (27-13-1, 10-8 SEC) has won its way back into second spot in the West. Oh, they technically share it with LSU and an Ole Miss team which swept Auburn. But then the Bulldogs also have the straight-up tiebreak on both rivals.
More than that, the club has its confidence back in full. Not that too much of it was lost with the A&M series, DH Jack Kruger said.
“I guess I’ve been saying it all year, we feel like we’re the best team in the country. We’re not always on top, we’ve got a long way to go. But we feel really good.”
They ought to. Not least because they are revealed as, and even revel in it, road warriors of the first order. Of the ten league wins six now have come away from home, and in elite settings of Vanderbilt, Florida, and now LSU. Just taking series in those three venues any year would stamp any SEC squad as a contender.
But with all the beaten hosts holding top-five rankings at the time? That marks a NCAA contender. Just don’t ask the coach to explain it.
“I don’t know what it is about the road,” Cohen said. “I don’t know if it’s a focus issue, an us against the world issue. Our kids love being in this environment.”
Bulldogs love beating Tigers especially, though most of the roster was in middle school the last time State won a series from and at LSU back in 2006. For ‘realists’ the goal was to get out of Baton Rouge with at least a win. This team prefers writing its own reality, just as with previous under-Dog trips to Nashville and Gainesville.
“It says a lot to come to LSU and compete the way our kids competed,” Cohen said. “They really treated it like a business trip.” Or to hear some Dogs tell it, business as usual?
Certainly State players put the A&M weekend behind easily. “They were just hot, we knew there wasn’t much we could do about that,” OF Reid Humphreys said. “We never really have a different mindset.”
It’s almost forgotten now but Dogs showed that mindset in mid-week. Visiting Biloxi’s new MGM Park for the first time, State needed 14 innings to edge Louisiana-Monroe by a 1-0 final. Maybe outsiders and a few frustrated fans figured it was a letdown. Dogs knew better. It was just, business.
Along that line, Bulldog starting pitching certainly was back to business. RHP Dakota Hudson bounced-back from consecutive losses to wage a winning Friday battle again. It wasn’t a pretty performance as Tiger bats were hot with a seemingly-endless series of ground-ball singles adding up. But Bulldog bats were hotter, giving Hudson repeated leads.
He was up for the opportunity. “Dakota has phenomenal stuff,” Humphreys said. “Guys are going to chop ground balls through the infield and every now and then they’ll square one up. But we know in the long term he’s going to come out on top.”
The real triumph belonged to second Dog in the rotation. RHP Austin Sexton was mostly-masterful chilling LSU sticks for seven-plus innings. The changeup he couldn’t locate against Aggies, was back. Was it ever. “His changeup was absolutely filthy,” Cohen said.
To Sexton it was, yes, back to business as usual. “I just go out every week and do what I do. Change speeds, mix locations, try to keep them off-balance.”
Which brings Bulldog pitching back to the earlier situation of seeking that game-three guy to follow those ace outings. LHP Konnor Pilkington does seem to be settling into the role with repeated opportunities regardless of outcomes, probably the best way to develop for the rest of this season as well as 2017 and beyond.
He even had a 3-0 lead after two Sunday innings at LSU before it went away in a big way. Still, “I thought Pilk did a nice job, he threw a ton of strikes early on,” said Cohen.
Sunday afternoon also exposed something State did not need the first two evenings, and still has not found for sure. Hudson and Sexton went long enough with leads that late relievers could finish things off. Cohen said Sunday though that one, just one bullpen Bulldog was needed to give four or five innings. “And it didn’t happen.”
Not for lack of looking. And to be clear, that 14-inning Wednesday game meant using a few arms like LHP Daniel Brown and others more pitches than planned. On the other hand RHP Ryan Rigby, who had been settling into long-right-relief, had some truly tough innings at LSU. Consider this an ongoing search.
But a closer? That just might have been locked-down. Outfielder Humphreys twice jogged to the LSU hill, without any previous warming-up, and slammed doors in the victories. The righthander faced six Tigers and outed them all. Not with just his trademark mid-90s heat, either.
On a mid-week whim almost, pitching Coach Wes Johnson showed Humphreys a grip for a cut-fastball. Then, he had Hudson demonstrate it. Two nights later, Humphreys put it to clutch-use to end a LSU eighth inning on Friday. Then Saturday, two up and two down for another save.
“I’m just glad to be able to come in and get it done,” Humphreys said. His arm certainly offset a few scuffles with the bat, though Humphreys did score runs off others’ hits and had the clutch sac-fly RBI for Saturday’s winning margin.
And despite that game-two score, offense was not a major weekend problem. Bulldog batters averaged .291 on the weekend, only a point behind the home team. For that matter almost all hitting stats were nearly equal, whether total hits, on-base rate, strikeouts and walks and on. LSU did slug it a bit better but only because they hit two Sunday homers.
The Bulldogs actually set the power-tone each win with a longball. In the case of 1B Nathaniel Lowe, first-inning Friday grand slam. It was Kruger’s solo shot also in the first inning giving Sexton a slender lead to maintain. Plus, twice Friday there were Dog drives caught a step from the wall hit right into the prevailing breeze, both goners in most every other SEC venue regardless of breeze.
Still this remains an order designed for timely contacts more than muscle. Lowe averaged .417 for the series with seven RBI, six of them Friday alone. Kruger and 3B Gavin Collins both hit .333 on the series and RF Brent Rooker .308. But then it was the usual suspect setting the pace. OF Jake Mangum just continues to deliver, hitting LSU arms at a .462 clip and building a formidable case for top SEC freshman of 2016. Maybe the nation’s best rookie batter, even?
Plus, Cohen noted, “It seems like every time he gets a hit it gets us going.”
Which is of course the job of an order-topper, duty Mangum (.417 season) has filled brilliantly since moving up in the absence of OF Jacob Robson. Out with a left-hand injury, Robson did return to very brief action Wednesday to pinch-run and steal a base in Biloxi. Otherwise he has missed 11 of the last 12 games.
Mississippi State’s offense has performed and produced in the absence of course. But getting a .372 batter and base-runner back would boost the top of the order further. Though it would also be interesting if Cohen would put the junior back in first or leave Mangum there. And putting him back in centerfield, and Mangum returning to right, creates a log-jam at designated hitter now that Kruger and Rooker are both hitting it well.
It’d be a lovely problem, for sure. The larger point is that State’s overall offense just continues to improve, even in defeats. The Dogs had 15 hits Sunday to LSU’s ten, for example. All weekend “Offensively we took good swings, we kept putting ourselves in position,” said Cohen.
It’s a very promising position Mississippi State occupies going into late April. Though the coach will not like hearing such talk, the remaining four SEC weekends all should see the Bulldogs favored. True, the A&M series and a couple of non-conference stumbles earlier damaged the RPI just enough that earning a NCAA national seeding (1 through 8) remains a long shot.
But grabbing one of the 9-through-16 top seeds is very realistic. So much so that April analysts are projection Regional baseball returning to Dudy Noble Field in June. If, that is, the Bulldogs don’t step back and start enjoying the ride.
Meaning, sticking to these business trips. Or business stays at home too. Though this week’s schedule does send State out of town again. On Tuesday it’s the annual Governors Cup game with Ole Miss in Pearl (6:00), and one more win over the Rebels will be the last real chance for a ‘RPI’ victory in the regular season. Cohen has not named a starter for Tuesday though there are the usual candidates led by RHP Keegan James.
Then again State has to play Tuesday cautiously. Because, the series at Alabama begins Thursday for ESPNU’s pleasure. Cohen said Sunday “We’ll use a ton of guys for an inning” in Pearl, and he expects the Rebels to do the same.
So, it’s back on the road. And back to Bulldog business.