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State Stays on NCAA Hosting Track; But Injuries Complicate Lineup, Relief Pitching Choices

Know how to tell a team is somewhat, shall we say, spoiled? Check how Diamond Dogs regard another winning weekend. “Two out of three is good,” OF Reid Humphreys said. “But we always want the sweep.”

My, but what a difference a year makes. Or rather what a different year this is for Mississippi State. Just one calendar removed from a lost-cause campaign, these 2016 Bulldogs are suddenly not content to take SEC series.

No, not even another road series. Though being four-for-four in such away weekends is a formidable feat in itself, such success has only fueled hunger for more. Even the coach can’t resist what-iffing the weekend won at Alabama by 12-5, 3-4(9), and 2-1 scores.

“We’ve been very successful on the road. I credit our kids and their toughness,” John Cohen said. “But man, the greed says we let one slip through our fingers. We could have swept a pretty good Alabama team on the road and that’s going to burn us for a while.”

It’s true. The loss might well come back to burn the Bulldogs if they get to the final week playing for, say, a first-ever first finish in the SEC’s Western Division. Or even an overall conference title, something State hasn’t achieved since 1989. In the moment? Everything else is still right on track after Tuscaloosa.

With three weekends remaining Mississippi State is 30-14-1 overall and 12-9 SEC. They remain in a second-place West tie, now only with Ole Miss (12-9) after the Rebels split with LSU (11-10). All trail Texas A&M (14-7) on this side while South Carolina clings to the overall league lead at 15-5. The Gamecocks are just ahead of 14-6 Florida after they split the two played games before a Sunday washout.

Weather impacted State’s own series somewhat, washing away Friday entirely of the early-start trip and forcing a Saturday twinbill of two seven-inning games. The first ironically enough went nine frames with the Bulldogs grabbing a 3-2 lead in the top…then bullpen breakdowns giving the Tide four walks and a walk-off single.

“Obviously the first game we didn’t pull it out in the end,” Humphreys said. “We put ourselves in positon to sweep the series.”

That comment, along with Cohen’s own, says so much about the Bulldog frame of mind. They had to be coaxed into even talking about squad resilience, about not letting the painful loss rattle them, and taking care of rubber-game business. This is a sign of a ball club that is getting greedy.

A very good sign, too.

Because, Mississippi State has much more still to play and play for in the regular schedule. Besides SEC status, particularly at least a top-four overall finish to avoid playing Tuesday’s single-elimination round in Hoover, there is the continued chase of NCAA Regional rights. The Bulldogs are on their way to the tournament barring unthinkable collapse.

The goal now is earning one of sixteen #1 seedings and, perhaps, even a top-eight national seeding. That will still take some doing as State is tied for fifth in the overall SEC. But with the various RPI sites agreed this is a top-ten team (College RPI has them #10) the Dogs are in strong first-round Regional hosting shape…

…if they can run out the schedule just as strong. And strength is suddenly a concern. Rather, health is.

“We have a lot of kids gutting things out right now,” Cohen said. All but one of them are doing it on the field; the missing Dog is 2B Hunter Stovall after a knee area injury in Thursday’s win. Family report it is a crack of a leg bone; Cohen did say no ligament damage was found. But Stovall watched Saturday on crutches.

Cohen said full recovery is expected but “I can’t see it not being four to six weeks.” Though Stovall has not been a big offensive factor in SEC play his glove in conjunction with SS Ryan Gridley made the middle-defense excellent. There are backups but one of those is just coming back from his own injury.

SS/2B Luke Alexander has a cracked bone in his left (glove) wrist. He returned to the lineup Saturday for both games but had to be removed from the second after dropping a throw from third base that stopped a double-play in the making. Inevitable fan reaction was of a coach showing-up a player after a mistake.

Also inevitably it was wrong. The wrist hampered Alexander’s reach for a low throw. “That’s why we took him out, not because he dropped the ball but he’s in pain.”

3B Gavin Collins, who threw that ball, has played this season after missing most of ’15 with a cracked hand bone of his own. And 2B John Holland, the easy defensive call to replace Stovall, has had his own injury history to overcome. Cohen noted that four Dogs have been playing with broken bones in hand or wrist at some point this season.

Some encouraging injury news was the return to full action by CF Jacob Robson, who had only pinch-run since April 3 with another hand injury. After starting both Saturday games “You can tell he hasn’t played in a while,” Cohen said. “His timing at the plate was a little off.

“But seeing him run after balls in the outfield along with (OF Jake) Mangum, it’s going to come. He’s a little early, a little late. He’s just too good a player.”

There is one other condition of concern now. Fans and media wondered why Humphreys did not get a late-game relief pitching call at least in the first Saturday game. He did try some bullpen tosses during the top of game-three’s seventh inning but didn’t pitch. There was a reason why, of course.

“He’s a little bit sore,” Cohen explained. “He just couldn’t do it this weekend.” Humphreys had thrown hard in a couple of closing acts last weekend at LSU. In his regular left-fielding job he also tosses the ball a good bit, if only between-innings sometimes. So State was looking to protect their developing closer for the longer-term.

In all the game-two angst it was easy to forget how the bullpen had held the Thursday night line against Alabama comebacks so the offense could blow it open in the top of the ninth. And by now the Governors Cup seems ancient history. But that 2-0 Tuesday night victory over Ole Miss, making State 3-1 in the rivalry for this season, showed progress from other young pitchers. RHP Ryan Cyr gave 4.0 starting innings, and RHP Jacob Billingsley closed out strong.

With middle help from RHP Zac Houston who got the win, it gave State the first shutout win in the annual extra game with Ole Miss ever, going back to 1981 when it was the Mayors Trophy. Also, that neutral-site win did as much to boost RPI stock as many SEC weekend wins will.

Now add the work LHP Konnor Pilkington did with 5.2 game-three innings, and the makings of a Regional rotation are present. It shouldn’t be overlooked that freshman Pilkington showed rubber-game grit after a gut-punch loss.

“The first game was a little tough on us,” Pilkington said. “But it didn’t affect the way I thought about the next game or my start. Just go out there and throw strikes.” He did, State won the game and the series, and came home almost satisfied.

They also came back to semester finals and for some graduation weekend. The academic burdens are present but Cohen wants to figure out some sort of physical break. Remember, the Bulldogs just spent most of two weeks playing eight road or neutral site games.

Even without exams this is a great week not to play mid-week. “We’re a little battle-weary right now,” Cohen said. “Our kids need to get some good rest and get ready for a very, very good Missouri club.”

This next series also begins on a Thursday. At least the rotation of RHP Dakota Hudson and RHP Austin Sexton will have their regular rest, and Humphreys and others with soreness can heal longer.

The visiting Tigers are 24-21 and 7-14 SEC, having snapped a seven-game losing streak by beating #22-ranked Missouri State last midweek before sweeping Tennessee. It’s a little coach-speaky to call the Tigers very, very good at this point. But they do have other series wins over Auburn and at Arkansas, and can throw a real 1-2 staring punch against Bulldog batters.

While Missouri is battling to stay in the SEC Tournament bracket, the Bulldogs are under another kind of pressure. The pressure to keep winning, to not avoid a series loss that could cripple #1 seeding ambitions. Put another way, in the remaining series with Missouri, then at Auburn and finally with Arkansas, there is more for Mississippi State to lose than for those opponents to gain.

Yet it was how the Bulldogs left Tuscaloosa not-exactly-happy that hopefully answers questions about late-schedule letdowns. Sure, Humphreys agreed, winning another road series is a good thing.

“But we always want more.”

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