Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Houston Will Start State's Four-Game Road Trip; Mixed Motives for Using MSU Moundsmen Wednesday

The next time Mississippi State plays a mid-week game will be in a tournament setting. Which this Wednesday might ultimately impact.

While this trip to Troy won’t shift seeding for the SEC Tournament, it will be another factor into how the Diamond Dogs are seeded for the NCAA Tournament. Or as Coach John Cohen reminded, “Troy has the highest RPI of any team we have left on our schedule, for now at least.”

Mississippi State’s skipper is not playing promoter for the 6:00 contest (no TV) in southeast Alabama. He is reminding his team that for a ball club seeking to polish its NCAA seeding resume that there is something to win Wednesday. And, a lot to potentially lose.

The Bulldogs (33-14-1) hit the closing stretch of their regular schedule with a top-five ranking, a high-teens RPI, and increasingly strong projections they can indeed earn a NCAA national (#s1-through-8) seeding. That’s good.

What is not as good, is how the remaining seven games and three opponents will impact State’s rating (as opposed to ranking). Troy (27-21) is variously RPI’d in the 80s…and that is better than either upcoming SEC road-foe Auburn or end-of-schedule visitor Arkansas.

It means Mississippi State is essentially trying to stand-pat in these power ratings by winning the games. Any loss will cost and wins don’t necessarily pay. Bulldog fans learned this when despite sweeping low-RPI Missouri at home over the weekend State actually lost a spot in the RPI.

Regardless, State will use this last mid-week matchup to certainly hone some arms and maybe gets at-bats for bats which have been idle of late. Pitching gets the priority, clearly.

“We’ve got to get some guys out there,” Cohen said.

The first guy will be RHP Zac Houston. As he predicted Saturday, Cohen confirmed today Houston (3-0, 2.35) will start at Troy. It will be his fourth opener of the season. Though, the first two were weekend games in February; and his most recent start was in Biloxi back on April 20 against Louisiana-Monroe. By coincidence, Troy is coming off a lost series to ULM.

When throwing the first pitch Houston is 1-0 with a 0.77 ERA. His last action was at Alabama, at the end of the doubleheader game-one, when he ended one inning with a strikeout before beginning the next by walking-on what became the tying runner. Though he was ready for relieving against Missouri his services weren’t needed in the sweep.

So, “We’re going to start him, he’s probably going to throw two unless he has a ridiculously low pitch count,” Cohen said. State also hopes to see the same Houston who earned a relief-decision with 2.2 innings in the 2-0 shutout of Ole Miss.

To be clear, winning the Governors Cup was treated a little differently than normal non-conference games. If all goes well Wednesday, pitching coach Wes Johnson will make frequent calls to the bullpen to send in the next Dog. If all does not… This is why Cohen hedges just a bit about the plans.

“We have all these pieces we need to get out there for work. But you also have to win the game.”

That said, if Houston hands a lead over to others there should be the right—and left—arms to hold it. Because Cohen and Johnson really, really want to work several slingers.

“Ryan Cyr who pitched lights-out against Ole Miss a couple of weeks ago, we’ve got to get him out there. He’s pitched so well for us. Kale Breaux has got to get back out there. His breaking ball has been really good in the bullpen. And Ethan Small hasn’t pitched who has just been throwing the daylights out of it in the bullpen.”

Ideally even more might get their chances. Though, Cohen would prefer not to be forced to use, say, nine moundsmen as was the case over 14 innings against Louisiana-Monroe.

“Situationally it’s all got to fit together as well,” Cohen said. “So many of those guys deserve innings and we haven’t been able to give them as many as we want to.” Or, he added, as they want. Nobody is saying there is staff dissension over lack of work. Disappointment, now, that’s another matter.

“When they don’t get to pitch I want them to be disappointed,” Cohen said. “I know they are. That tells me what kind of competitor they are.”

Troy will compete with righthander Cory Gill, who is 3-2 with a 2.72 ERA. The State staff will get some late scouting of the Trojans against, quite conveniently, Auburn as those clubs play Tuesday. “Gill, the freshman, hitters are hitting .200 against him. He’s got a very breaking ball.”

The Bulldogs will have to hit that as well as other Troy pitches, as well as get good stints from Houston and relief crew to continue their early-May streak. “This is a really important game to us,” Cohen said. And that is not mere coach-speak. Every outcome counts more this time of year as NCAA-bound clubs scramble for the best possible position.

And remember, the only non-weekend NCAA games (barring weather delays) are played in the last and best tournament of them all.

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