Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

State Seeks Its Own Wins While Watching SEC Scoreboard

No, his team was not playing. John Cohen was pacing his living room, not a dugout. That didn’t keep wife Nelle from wondering if concrete flooring would be wise when Mississippi State’s head coach watches friends skipper their own squads.

Just like Cohen did while Kentucky and Auburn played separate games. When both Gary Henderson and Butch Thompson got wins, their former boss celebrated. “I want it for those guys,” Cohen said. At least he does when Mississippi State isn’t in the other dugout.

Come Friday evening in Auburn, yeah. “All that stuff goes away.”

If Mississippi State intends to achieve its goals, this is no time for sentiment nor stumbles. The Bulldogs (34-14-1, 15-9 SEC) are playing for regular season titles and post-season position.

The titles would be both in the Western Division where State both trails 16-8 Texas A&M by one game as well as the direct tie-break; and for the overall SEC crown. There both East leaders Florida and South Carolina are 16-7 and dead-tied after splitting a two-game series. That third game rainout complicates all calculations because SEC standing and titles are determined by winning percentages.

The position? Locks for NCAA play and increasingly-close to sealing up a #1 seeding, the Bulldogs are playing for one of eight national seeds. Which would not only earn a first-round Regional at Dudy Noble Field as in 2013; but mean a victory that weekend would have State hosting a super Regional best-of-three for the first time since 2007.

And, for all their road warrior record…this is a team that wants to stay home for NCAA play. Taking care of Auburn improves the odds even if the Tigers are struggling. Because this is a road series the RPI impact is a little greater for each visiting victory.

Auburn’s situation is much simpler. Thompson, the seven-season Bulldog pitching coach, knew he was taking over a rebuilding job last fall. It’s been that. Auburn (22-27, 8-16 SEC) has to win-out in the remaining regular season seven games and take one at the SEC Tournament just to finish over .500 and be NCAA-eligible. More realistically the Tigers have to stay ahead of at least two league peers to appear in Hoover at all.

“But we know they’re well-coached and their guys have done a pretty good job of throwing strikes,” Cohen said. “When they play good defense they’re a pretty darned good club.”

Make that ‘if’ more than when. Auburn and Missouri both begin the weekend with a league-most 76 errors. Lack of defense has hobbled a pitching staff which deserves better. Tiger moundsmen have a 2-to-1 rate of strikeouts to walks and make opponents work for runs.

Which they have to get because Auburn is third in SEC hitting and scoring, full-season stats. “They have one of the best offenses in the league,” said Cohen. They have one of the best hitters in outfielder Anfernee Grier (.383) who is tied for the SEC lead in base hits and one-back of first in home runs. His team may struggle but Grier is a legitimate candidate for SEC Player of the Year regardless of circumstances.

“The thing that’s really hurting them is the Palacious kid got hurt, he was hitting over .400,” Cohen said. Outfielder Josh Palacious was indeed hitting .405, third SEC, before going down with a wrist injury. “I think it says a lot about their club that they’re playing as well as they are with one of their best hitters out.”

Tiger batters will go to the box as well-informed as can be. Thompson not only recruited most of State’s pitchers, he coached them through fall ball before leaving. Now that is inside information, Cohen agrees.

“It will be unique, no question he’ll know our tendencies and we’ll have to disguise some things better than we normally do.”

What isn’t disguised is how well these Bulldogs are playing in May. A sweep of Missouri and Wednesday’s 7-3 final at Troy means a five-win streak which has State in most national top-fives and all top-tens. It’s nowhere near as important as record, RPI, and SOS of course. Still it’s hard to imagine the seeding-and-siting committee ignores polls entirely.

And in NCAA calculations, road wins get extra credit. These Bulldogs are road winners.

State has won all four SEC away-weekends so far; at Vanderbilt, Florida, LSU, and Alabama. For that matter they came out of the preceding Los Angeles trip 1-1-1.

If these Dogs come away from Auburn successfully they will be the first State squad since 1997 to win all five road series. A sweep? That would match 2014’s SEC win total of 18 with another weekend left. It would also put State in great shape to avoid the opening single-elimination day at Hoover...though taking both the remaining weekends might make that tournament almost moot in NCAA terms.

Cohen would rather not hear that. Or even talk, much, about regionals. He may not pace the hotel room floor this evening in Auburn but beating the Tigers tomorrow evening takes entire attention.

Coming out of Alabama the Bulldogs had several serious health concerns. All are much less-stressful now, though the regular club is not 100% speed. Actually in CF Jacob Robson’s case speed was never an issue.

A cracked finger, produced by an Ole Miss catcher’s cleat on Robson’s epic first-to-home dash, still causes some issues. As does lingering rust shown at the plate. Still Robson keeps looking a little better and is grinding his way back up the order.

“I think he takes two steps forward and a step back,” Cohen said. “The hand injury you just don’t know how it’s going to be. But he’s such a great defender and if he gets to first base he’s a threat to score right from there even with a damaged hand he’s a threat.”

And once Robson is 100% or close enough, he’ll resume batting leadoff. For now, OF Jake Mangum is doing just fine going up first. His .413 average leads State and is second-best in the SEC. And this is despite what for the true freshman is a ‘slump’ the last six games at 8-of-26.

If Mangum looks a little more mortal lately, several teammates have grabbed any available slack. In his last 9 games 1B Nate Lowe is 17-of-37; LF/RHP Reid Humphreys is 9-of-26 the last eight games. And 3B Gavin Collins not only is 8-of-28 but has become the ‘clutch’ batter of the bunch.

Humphreys of course is making just as much a name for his late-game throwing as all-game hitting and fielding. He has six saves in 18 outings now, and has struck out 23 against five walks. Humphreys did not pitch at Alabama with a sore arm, causing concerns that his max-effort style might limit availability. Cohen clarified this week that it is purely up to the pitcher how often and how long he can go, though Humphreys’ number of pitches in the week and for that matter throws in practices and games from the outfield are counted.

His emergence as a, maybe now the closer has simplified a few bullpen assignments. The biggest boost to that group though is settling a real rotation. And if Cohen still won’t label LHP Konnor Pilkington (2-1, 2.10) as the sure Sunday starter, the freshman sure has drawn that duty a lot. He’s also delivering with consecutive game-three wins for State if not necessarily on his account per scoring rules.

Whatever the title, bringing the southpaw after opponents see starts from RHP Dakota Hudson (7-3, 2.80) and RHP Austin Sexton (5-2, 3.66) is a winning rotation. Being able to hand the ball over to RHP Zac Houston, LHP Daniel Brown, and more lets the starters go harder if they wish. Though in sweeping Missouri Hudson and Sexton ate enough innings that Cohen needed to use Troy to knock a little rust off some relievers.

Results weren’t ideal, with too many walks and seven wild pitches. State will work on that around the Auburn games of course. Because come tournament time everyone must be ready to take the ball and throw near-perfect pitches against NCAA-caliber clubs. Still, “Our bullpen will still be in a good situation.”

In other health news Cohen is optimistic MIF/C Hunter Stovall will return after missing just two, maybe three weekends after hyperextending a knee at Alabama.

With the regular season winding down many MSU minds are on hyper-extending the post-season. It’s tempting, and dangerous. While the Bulldogs are certainly expected to succeed at Auburn any wins will not do as much good as losses would do harm. Put another way, Mississippi State has much more to lose this series than to win.

That said most of this roster and the pitchers in particular want to show their former coach why 2016 has become a Bulldog turnaround story. The head coach? Well, they’ll always be friends, said Cohen of Thompson.

“Having said that, when the first pitch is thrown you’re competing against the game itself. And those wins are so important to us.”

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