Alabama Hosts Bulldogs in Tight SEC West Race; Hudson, Sexton Stay on Starter Schedule

They’re back on the SEC road…and they’re happy about it.

Mississippi State (28-13-1, 10-8 SEC) visits Alabama (24-18, 9-9) for an early-starting conference series. The next-door rivalry opens Thursday evening at 6:30 for ESPNU, with the other games at 7:00 and 3:00 for the SEC Network-Plus.

State players are eager to hit the highway again, and it isn’t merely to get a first look at Alabama’s brand-new stadium. It’s because this Bulldog bunch is adept making themselves at home away from home. Last weekend proved it yet again when Mississippi State took two in Baton Rouge and added LSU to Vanderbilt and Florida as road-trip trophies.

There is an utterly-ironic explanation Dogs offer. “Adversity,” RHP Jacob Billingsley said. “We get talks every day about adversity.”

Yeah, sounds strange. Because State has inflicted plenty adversity on host teams’ records and ego. But this adverse mindset definitely works.

“We go on the road against Vandy, Florida, LSU,” Billingsley said. “Yeah, everybody talks about that, but we’re going out with a chip on our shoulder trying to beat everybody that comes up. So we’ve got Alabama, yeah, they’re a good group. Everybody is a good group. So we’re just going to try to go get the W.”

Every league W pushes Mississippi State closer to both regular- and post-season goals. With four weekends remaining State is in a three-way snarl for second in the Western Division with both LSU and Ole Miss, though obviously the Dogs have the tiebreak on both already. And one of those will drop back after they play each other in Oxford.

Meanwhile Alabama lurks right behind in fifth with a whole weekend’s worth of margin on Arkansas and Auburn. The Crimson Tide stumbled in midweek though losing at Samford is no great shame. Besides, just about the entire SEC roster has at least one and usually several out-of-conference losses marring record and RPI alike.

But on weekends Alabama is a handful, as they showed in a split at West leader Texas A&M. They also began SEC season by winning two-of-three at LSU. There’s no secret to Tide chances at success.

This team can pitch it, with two of the SEC’s top-ten in earned run average. Last weekend proved it as A&M’s sizzling offense had to scratch out low-scoring wins around a 7-4 loss. Alabama has set its full rotation, all righthanders, for the weekend. Geoffrey Bramblett (3-2, 2.32) throws Thursday’s first pitch, followed Friday by Jake Walters (4-3, 1.89) and then Nick Eicholtz (3-1, 2.16).

The moundsmen need to be good because support is iffy. Alabama is last in all-season SEC offense, hitting just .248; as well as last in home runs and next-to-last in walks. The lack of longballs may say as much about the shiny new facility because historically Tuscaloosa fences have been in range. Though given the fresh pop Bulldog bats are showing this spring that might be a home-side help.

Against eight common opponents both in and out of conference the Bulldogs are 10-6 and Alabama 9-8.

Mississippi State takes one of the most dangerous offenses around to Tuscaloosa. Maybe the sheer numbers don’t knock eyes out. The .307 all-season average is top-third of the SEC, the Bulldogs are tops in doubles (93) and tied for fifth in home runs (30).

The best State, isn’t one. Because there is no ‘clutch hit’ column. And much as coaches love consistency, even they agree being clutch can count for more. “It’s more a trust thing,” OF Reid Humphreys said. “We’ve got a whole team of guys that can do it. I know if I don’t get the job done I’ve got Jack Kruger, Gavin Collins, Nate Lowe, somebody behind me can get it done.”

Thanks to all the doubles and even home runs, State is well-repped in the slugging stats. And the best indication of balance? Despite having scored fourth-most runs in the league as a team, no Dog is among the top 15 individuals this week. Because, everyone scores as needed.

State does have one truly consistent swinger, the guy who goes first these days. OF Jake Mangum is second in SEC average at .429, three points behind Texas A&M’s Boomer White. Injured OF Jacob Robson still shows in the top-15 for average though he hasn’t swung a bat live in 12 games with a cracked hand. He is working in the cage but doesn’t seem ready to take back his centerfield spot just yet.

The hitting produced enough at LSU to win twice. But it was pitching that returned to the forefront, specifically starting pitching. RHP Dakota Hudson (5-3, 2.82) regained his fastball/slider form and RHP Austin Sexton (4-2, 3.62) had the changeup twisting Tigers into knots. Though it means shorting both a day after long stints last weekend, Cohen is sticking with this one-two punch on Thursday and Friday.

And the game-three starter? It is good old TBA again. LHP Konnor Pilkington (1-1, 2.55) tried at LSU and was working well for three innings with a 3-0 lead. Some uncharacteristic defensive gaffes contributed to his downfall, but the freshman continues to develop under tough circumstances.

There are more options available depending on bullpen use the first two nights. Add another to the list for next week, too, after RHP Ryan Cyr’s start Tuesday against Ole Miss. The rookie threw 4.0 full innings, longer than probably planned, and if not a real SEC game it was certainly a SEC order he shut down. Since State won’t play between Alabama and Missouri, it might open the door for a new candidate.

Also, while the Governors Cup success by a 2-0 score won’t count in conference standings, “It was a big win, just being our rival,” Cyr said. “And we definitely got better.” In record and in RPI, that tantalizing calculation which grows in importance every week. By beating a top-five RPI Rebel squad the Bulldogs went up a rung in the three major ratings lists, to #12.

It’s not an exact correlation of course. But there are 16 number-one NCAA seeds. State has climbed into the top 16 RPIs…draw conclusions and show your work.

At the same time Alabama has been hanging in the 40s-range for RPI of late. And that his by far the best rating of any remaining Bulldog opponent. So after spending weeks building up their own record-and-RPI by beating or at least playing elite teams, now Mississippi State will spend the rest of the regular schedule trying to avoid damage.

Which is still winning. Something these Dogs have made a habit of and most of all in hostile settings. It’s not a coincidence per Cohen.

“I just think our kids have a chip on their shoulder,” the coach said. “I think that’s one reason our kids have been successful on the road. They really play with a chip on their shoulder.”

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