By whatever measures, the Starkville Regional sets up as one of the best shows in college baseball. Whoever emerges, or more likely survives, the double-elimination weekend will have earned it. And, will advance to next weekend’s super regional round.
Mississippi State (41-16-1) certainly is planning to advance. As hosts and the #6 national seed the Bulldogs should have more than the home field’s advantage. But then Cohen, both as player and coach, has had his own share of experiences in these Regional rounds and seen every sort of outcome.
What he can assure everyone is simple. “We’re going to have a fun regional,” Cohen said. “Our kids have had a great week of preparation, they’re ready to compete.”
Mississippi State’s competition begins at 1:30 Friday as the Bulldogs take on Southeast Missouri (39-19) in a matchup of conference champions. Not that many will compare the SEC and Ohio Valley as complete leagues, of course.
But at the top every conference is putting a first-class club in the NCAA Tournament. According to Cohen the Redhawks are that.
“SEMO is a great club,” he said. “A four-seed with a RPI of 45, that’s not what the doctor ordered and they can beat anybody in the country.”
Coach Steve Bieser’s team won both the OVC in the regular season at 28-8, and more importantly earned the league’s automatic NCAA bid by taking their tournament at Jacksonville, Ala. Bieser was named OVC Coach of the Year for sweeping the league’s titles.
“They don’t have one thing,” Cohen said. “They do several things well.”
The Redhawks had, and have, an excellent starting point for regular season series and tournaments alike in Joey Lucchesi (10-4, 1.87). Cohen calls him “Arguably the best if not the best lefthander in the country.” The senior southpaw leads the NCAA with 145 strikeouts in 16 appearances, and uses a big-time changeup as his out pitch.
There remains a question about Lucchesi’s status for Friday. He started one of SEMO’s wins in the OVC Tournament, and came back with three relief innings in the title game. At the Thursday afternoon press conference Bieser said his ace woke up ‘stiff’ that morning, and would be a game-time decision. The other option is righthander Clay Chandler (4-5, 3.91), the usual #2 starter.
The Redhawks were third in OVC batting at .310 but had 59 homers and 124 doubles. They also led their league in triples with 24, showing the team’s speed. Cohen said State has to prepare to handle SEMO’s short game and situational running, but “What really sticks out to me is their on-base percentage and now many walks they have. They do a great job with the strike zone so we have to throw strikes against them.”
Who would be throwing strikes first for State remained to be announced as this was posted. Cohen said he and Coach Wes Johnson wanted to see how SEMO was going to pitch first.
Whoever starts, last week’s breakout start and near-finish by RHP Zac Houston offers a fourth option for a regional that needs at least three starters and possibly four. “Certainly Zac Houston has done what you need in the post-season, when you need somebody to emerge,” Cohen said. “(LHP Konnor) Pilkington didn’t get a chance to start at the SEC Tournament, we think he’s a great option for us.
“And certainly Dakota (Hudson) and Austin (Sexton) are great options for us. We just have to do a great job seeing who is the best matchup for the opponent we’re going to pay at that given time.”
Yes, the given time… Hours after the regional schedule was first announced Monday, came news Mississippi State was going against tradition and playing the first game. How long this had been in the works is not known, and it may be purely coincidence that starting last Saturday upon their return from Hoover the Bulldogs have practiced at mid-day. That was before official confirmation of hosting, remember.
Cohen did say today that he and staff thought it was important to practice in hotter conditions already. As to changing from 6:30 to 1:30, “To me it wasn’t a tough call. I’m thinking about our club and what would give us the most opportunity to be successful.”
How moving everything up, or moving Cal State Fullerton and Louisiana Tech back five hours, improves the opportunity was not explained. In the big picture it ought not matter anyway to a national seed with national ambitions.
The only real consequence would be in the seats and standing areas. Reserved seating at Polk-Dement Stadium was snapped up before the SEC Tournament and general admission sales are as strong as ever. But coming so soon after a holiday weekend might keep a tithe of the fan base from making it to town that early.
Cohen knows this score.
“We have the best fans in the world. I understand 1:30, some folks might not be able to make it. But it really works for us. Those decisions are made at the administrative level, I try to balance what is best for our players.” A group, he said, that has played this season as late as midnight and in broad daylight. “I think all of them to a man would rather play in the middle of the day, especially with the turnaround.”
Then, the coach added, “There’s no guarantees with any of it.”
That is the nature of tournament baseball wherever and whenever played. Cohen’s tenure has seen State win regionals both on the road and at home, by day and night. In the end all that matters is which squad plays the game better under any and all conditions.
State last hosted Regional competition in 2013. They won that one, though they had to go into an extra game and day to do it. But that victory sparked those Bulldogs on their way to a super regional success at Virginia, and their run ended in the College World Series championship round.
Only one current Bulldog set foot on Ameritrade Park then, OF Jacob Robson. There aren’t even many redshirts left from 2013. There are more veterans who recall 2014’s trip to Lafayette where the home team knocked State out in the finals.
And everyone still stings from missing 2015 post-season play entirely. But, Cohen said, this ’16 squad should be about as prepared for tournament time as a club can be without actually doing it yet. “I think that’s one of the privileges of competing in the SEC.
“Wes Johnson said when you play in the SEC it’s like ten consecutive super regionals. And add Oregon into the mix for us it’s almost like 11. And we had the UCLA trip. Is it different than a regional, I’d say yes. Is it dramatically different, I’d say no.”
And of course Mississippi State won 10 of those 11 weekend super-series, with a record 21 SEC victories. All these Dogs have to do, then, is get back to playing the same quality of baseball that took them to the SEC Championship.
Maybe a bit better ball, even, per Cohen.
“Right out of the gate we have to play well to win the first round.”