(Photo: Nate Lowe) Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Diamond Dogs on Division Leaders’ Tails as SEC Stretch Run Speeds Up

Now that they’ve scored their sweep, the Diamond Dogs can turn total attention to two remaining weeks of regular schedule. Wait, check that. Their attention is not on the SEC stretch run, nor NCAA seeding and Regional hosting.

At least that’s what they say, after grinding out game-three to complete a sweep of Missouri. “We had the same mental approach we have every day, which was this game is the most important game we’re going to play all year,” said 3B Gavin Collins. “And that’s how we’re going to play them for the rest of the year.”

Well, now. Fans and media focus on Mississippi State (33-14-1, 15-9 SEC) both achieving their long-sought sweep, of Missouri, and how it further improves an already good post-season position.

The Bulldogs? They claim not to be looking or thinking any more ahead than the next start time. Which happens to be 6:00 Wednesday at Troy, the last non-league game and scheduled in conjunction with the upcoming weekend in Auburn.

Seriously, State players knew what brooming Missouri would mean. They just didn’t obsess on it.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve talked about it a lot,” LHP Daniel Brown said. “Now it’s more like we’re just going to win this game like it’s the first day of a series. I think that’s helped us play better on Sundays.” Or Saturdays, given how often this team is assigned a Thursday-starting series.

Either day or way, Mississippi State’s one-at-a-time attitude is paying off. They’ve won the last three SEC series, following the only lost weekend of the year to Texas A&M. They’ve also kept grinding up the league ladder, to the point that suddenly some Division leaders on both sides are feeling a bit of Bulldog breath on their necks.

Coach John Cohen agrees, the focus can’t be absolute. Even if (unlikely) Bulldogs aren’t tracking standings, watching who has who left, checking for scores… “They all know what’s at stake,” Cohen said.

Thus, per the coach Saturday, “It’s not a sweep, it’s a SEC win. You keep putting stuff on your resume. All these kids know what’s at stake in terms of the post-season, and the regular season.”

How much. A very whole lot.

After weeks sharing second West, the Bulldogs have it to themselves with Ole Miss and LSU a game back. And since State has the tie-break on both their lead might as well be two games. Texas A&M (16-8) stayed in front by beating Vanderbilt.

The larger story also involves the Commodores. Their two losses and State’s sweep mean the Bulldogs now stand fourth overall SEC. If they can hold or even improve this, they will win a first-ever bye at the expanded SEC Tournament and be assured of two games. Two RPI games, too, which will only improve opportunity to earn a coveted NCAA national seeding.

For that matter a conference title, something not seen in Starkville since 1989, is not at all out of reach. It will require help of course since A&M has the tiebreak on State. And while catching Florida and South Carolina in the wins column is also doable, the frustrating fact those two only played two with a split complicates the math. Championships and orders-of-finish are by pure percentages, remember.

Got all that? Good. Just don’t push these players too much on the topic.

Truly, the game-at-a-time not only keeps the Bulldogs properly prioritized. It allows them to appreciate their own big picture. Sweeping Missouri, or anyone at this point, was another 2016 check-point.

“It shows a lot about our team and how we’re progressing as the season goes along,” said Collins. “We’re clearly getting way better and cleaning up the little things. To get that sweep shows what we’ve been working so hard for. And it’s coming out now.”

What is coming out on the field this month is a baseball team playing up to its national rankings, now in the top-five tier of various polls. Now that State has scored a sweep, well, about the only intangible blemish is wiped away, right?

Cohen credits a club that forgot previous frustrations against Vanderbilt, Georgia, Ole Miss, LSU when sweeps were within reach. For that matter the coach can’t entirely forget game-two at Alabama, either.

The point remains, Mississippi State has become a ball team which doesn’t rattle easily. If at all. Sooner or later they were going to complete a sweep just by sticking to what they do well.

“You just have to be able to concentrate for long periods of time, and our kids have been able to do that,” Cohen said. “The third day has all been about us throwing enough strikes, if we do that we’re going to play good defense and put some good swings on the baseball.”

When RHP Dakota Hudson and RHP Austin Sexton are doing their one-two punch best, as they did again over the early weekend, Bulldogs figure they can clinch a series ASAP. Certainly so when the offense keep up its own good work. State swatted Missouri pitching for 40 hits at a .367 average. Though, Cohen noted, run production wasn’t nearly the same pace with 33 stranded Dogs in the three games.

Still sheer volume of hits and runners can and usually will wear-down the opponent. For the series five Dogs had at least five base hits, led by 1B Nathaniel Lowe’s huge weekend. Lowe hammered the Tigers for 9-of-13 with three runs and three RBI. This included a 5-of-5 Thursday with three singles, a double, and his fourth homer of the season.

Yes, a three-bagger short of the cycle, though “Triples are kind of far-out for me!” Lowe quipped. His home run went far enough to clear rightfield though with a little just-in-case wind aid. “I knew I tagged it pretty good, but I was glad it carried out.”

RF/DH Brent Rooker had the only other longball for the series, in the same game but into the teeth of that same wind. In fact, of those forty safeties 35 were singles. Rooker averaged .417 for the series, behind Collins who hit an even .500. When RF Jake Mangum hits a more-mortal .400 for a SEC weekend and is bested by several teammates, it is the best sign of this order’s long-haul potential to survive tournament pitching.

State’s own pitching is already in excellent shape for a super regional round. It’s getting that far which would seem the challenge. Now, maybe, perhaps, that priceless third arm available to either finish off a first-round regional or keep the team alive in a losers bracket has emerged.

Not that the cautious coach will come right (left?) out and say LHP Konnor Pilkington has settled this rotation role. No, not even after starting the last five game-threes with one win for himself and a competitive contest handed over to long relievers. In fact Cohen had thought about starting a third righty, Ryan Cyr, against the Tigers before going for lefty Pilkington again. It was a good matchup, Cohen said.

“I don’t want to discredit him by saying we’re not locked into any one person. But every time we’ve asked him to go out there he’s done a fabulous job.”

The bullpen, long- and short-stinters alike, had solid weekends. Brown even got a win with 4.0 Saturday innings, to go with his Friday save (2). In game-three, “He said he didn’t have his best stuff,” former catcher Collins said. “I beg to differ. Then you’ve got the bull, Reid Humphreys, to close it out.”

Yes, Humphreys bull-dozed Missouri with three ninth-inning Saturday strikeouts. He’d also tossed after Sexton on Friday before needing to give lefty Brown the ball for one last out. Humphreys still added a sixth save to his account, and seemed over that bout of sore-arm at Alabama. Whether his max-effort style of pitching will allow him to work every weekend is still to be seen.

The only down-side to two dominating starts from Hudson/Sexton and one long bullpen appearance, is there are some arms maybe developing a little rust lately. Not having a midweek game for final exams limited everyone to quick bullpens as well.

So Cohen and Wes Johnson are already figuring out some sequences for the coming trip to Troy, then to Auburn. Which also is a Friday-starting series and will let the two aces get some needed rest. Regardless, “We have arms that didn’t pitch this weekend who need to get into games,” said Cohen. He plans to “probably” start one of those, RHP Zac Houston, at Troy. “He needs to work.” How long? That depends on how the start goes and what State coaches scout in Auburn’s offense.

Scouting State’s arms will be easier for the Tigers. Former pitching coach Butch Thompson is now in charge there, having gone through fall ball with the Bulldogs before taking the job. But then that’s a whole game-away for State right now, remember? One at a time, one win at a time, and keep stacking success on that resume.

“Just keep building the momentum each week, going into the post-season,” Brown said.

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