Opening on a Thursday, at that, as Mississippi State’s series with Missouri begins the league weekend. Game times are 6:00 for SEC Network; 7:00 for ESPNU; and finally 2:00 Saturday for the SECN-plus. This early-starting series is good for the networks, not always good for attendance even at Mississippi State. And particularly not when campus is vacating after spring semester finals ended.
But, this is a Bulldog team playing on the home turf for the first time in 17 days. It’s also a team very much in the SEC’s Western Division chase, and increasingly projected as on-track to earn a NCAA national seed. So, “Hopefully we can get some folks out here to watch and support these kids on a Thursday night,” Coach John Cohen said.
This team is worth watching, in person or on screen. State hits May play 30-14-1 and 12-9 SEC, which ties them for second in the West with Ole Miss—over whom the Bulldogs have a tiebreaker. Both trail Texas A&M but only by a couple of games, and everyone has nine league matches left. Overall, State is tied for fifth and nipping at 13-8 Vanderbilt for that first-round bye in the SEC Tournament.
But this is a team with momentum, too. After being swept, at home, by A&M, the Bulldogs have gone on the road and won consecutive SEC series at LSU and Alabama. And, a couple of neutral-site contests to boot. Cohen said this ’16 squad just attacks away games with an attitude.
“I think that’s one reason our kids have been successful on the road, they really play with a chip on their shoulder.” If they bring the same attitude into this home stand, now, State’s post-season status will strengthen further.
If, that is, the Bulldogs avoid any stretch-run letdowns. Missouri is just the sort of opponent to trip up a contender, too. Cohen, who spent a couple of seasons as an assistant in Columbia, knows the people and the program well. “We’re going to have our hands full. This is a very, very good baseball team we’re playing.”
This is not simple coach-talk either. The Tigers may be struggling in the standings, 24-22 and 7-14 SEC. They are not nearly the visiting victims those numbers suggest. Not based on Cohen’s scouting.
“They’re one error away, one hit away, always one play away, one pitch away from probably being right where our record is in the SEC.” As in, playing for their own post-season status. What catches a coach’s eye most though is how a struggling squad swept Tennessee over the past weekend, and before that knocked off #22-ranked Missouri State.
To be sure, Missouri just had one of the midweek lapses that the entire SEC has suffered this strange season, losing to Illinois. Regardless “They’re resilient as well,” Cohen said.
They can certainly pitch, or at least their pair of righthanders do. Reggie McClain (4-2, 3.72) and Tanner Houck (4-4, 3.12) will make the Thursday/Friday starts. It’s sort-of a reversal to how Mississippi State’s own righthanded aces will attack, apparently. McClain has “an unbelievable changeup” per Cohen, and will go against State’s fastballing Dakota Hudson (6-3, 3.00). Then the roles reverse as Bulldog changeup and breaking ball specialist Austin Sexton (4-2, 3.69) takes on hard-thrower Houck.
“He’s one of the best in the country, he’s got a putaway slider,” Cohen said. “He’s actually as dominant versus lefthanded hitters as he is versus righthanded hitters in terms of swing and miss.”
A week ago Hudson scuffled through a shorter-than-usual start at Alabama, though the offense and bullpen more than picked him up. Some of this was due to having been shorted a day’s rest. This is one Dog that having a second SEC weekend begin early benefits, Cohen said.
“It’s not going to help Sexton as much because he pitched last Saturday (due to Friday rain).”
Though officially game-three this series is still TBA for both teams, Cohen confirmed that LHP Konnor Pilkington (2-1, 2.3) will get this Saturday’s start. The true freshman has opened game-threes for the last four weekends so it’s not a big surprise.
Besides, Cohen likes the matchup with Missouri. “They’re a little bit more lefthanded, so I would imagine Konnor will have that third spot. And boy, every opportunity we’ve given him he’s gone out there and made the most of it.”
As a real rotation takes shape, the lineup is in flux. Injuries, existing and new, are forcing several shuffles. The good news is CF Jacob Robson is back available after missing a dozen games with a broken finger suffered on a slide-home (safely, on his epic first-to-plate dash after a wild pickoff) against Ole Miss. He started both Saturday games at Alabama and while going 0-of-5 at the plate this was inevitable rust.
Everything else, the fielding and throwing and running, was 100%. Cohen is confident the swing that had Robson (.356) second in team average pre-injury will return. Soon. Plus, while OF Jake Mangum (.416) was a superb centerfielder himself Robson is elite there. So Mangum will slide back to rightfield, play left if necessary…and both will get on bases.
“I love having both of those guys in the lineup,” Cohen said. Everyone loves the idea of a Robson/Mangum, or vice-versa, tag team atop the order. The coach said it depends on how fast Robson regains his stroke.
“A 100% Robson, yeah, back-to-back, yeah. That’s very feasible. We just have to get him 100%.”
The sort-good news is 2B Hunter Stovall’s knee injury last Thursday was not nearly as serious as initially diagnosed. The first scan projected missing four-to-six weeks. Now?
“He’s a very fortunate young man, it might be half what we thought. He was out there today working with our infielders on double-plays at second base.”
But Stovall is still out this series. And MIF Luke Alexander, who started both Saturday games at Alabama, is still hampered by a cracked wrist bone that will require post-season surgery. For now he will try to play through the pain. Of course 2B John Holland can start and sub just as easily, and neither is that big of an offensive drop-off behind Stovall.
State is even working on another option, as OF Cody Brown has begun practicing at second base. “Cody was a high school shortstop,” Cohen reminded. “We’re doing that just because we’re running out of bodies on the infield.” If that sounds strange, it is State’s propensity to use pinch-runners early and often; or to change bat-sides for matchups against relievers that has Cohen concerned. State is even giving backup 1B Cole Gordon practice at other infield positions now.
“We’re just trying to give ourselves as many options as we can.”
The other health question remains wait-and-see. As in, wait to see if LF Reid Humphreys is able to respond to late-game relief opportunities. After closing both wins at LSU, the righthander couldn’t throw at Alabama at all with a sore arm muscle. The rest presumably has done Humphreys good, and if the Tigers are as south-side biased as Cohen expects it would likely be a limited matchup call anyway.
No midweek game helped rest Bulldog bodies after most of two weeks on the road. The minds? Those have been stressed by final exams. “I’m going home to sleep!” said Mangum after showing up for late Wednesday interviews. Still the relief from academic concerns should have State players feeling fresh for a home series.
As for their fellow students? Cohen is calling on all remaining in town to celebrate end-of-semester at Dudy Noble Field.
“Hopefully they can have a good time at one of our baseball games!”