Weekend Pitching Plans Still Being Studied

The Diamond Dogs have had their ‘break,' if days spent preparing for and taking semester final exams can be called downtime. Now with the classroom stuff taken care of Mississippi State will get back to practice Wednesday evening, tuning up for the weekend series at Kentucky. And while the players were away their coaches were doing some intense studying of their own.

Of the Wildcats, that is, particularly the batting order that Bulldog pitching has to handle at Hagan Stadium. Coach Russ McNickle has had more time than usual to evaluate the weekend opposition, with no midweek games during final test week. And as of Wednesday morning the rotation lineup for Kentucky shows an incomplete.

"We plan to start Brooks Dunn, Justin Pigott, and the T.B.A. guy," McNickle said.

Lefty Dunn, who responded to a return to his previous Friday night role with a complete-game victory over Florida, will get the ball for the 5:30 (CT) game-one. The senior (8-4 in 12 starts, 4.12) will be followed Saturday by another southpaw as sophomore Pigott opens the 6:00 game-two. Pigott (5-0 in 15 games, 0.94) in his second college start after 27 relief appearances also successfully went the full-route against the Gators.

Now it's down to picking a third starter, and he will be a different for a third-straight weekend. Freshman righthander Aaron Weatherford earned the right to open a couple of SEC outings (Friday at South Carolina and the second Saturday game vs. Florida) with nine superb weeks in relief. Starting was another matters as the rookie's reliance on just two good pitches was exposed by SEC batters. Weatherford (4-2 in 16 games, 4.86) will have another offering by next season, but for the rest of this regular season he will bring his 94-mph fastball out of the bullpen where it will be more effective.

Which leaves McNickle the task of picking Mr. T.B.A. Much will depend on how the first two games go, since a couple of good choices to start are also relief regulars. Still there are two strong clues as to how State might want to approach this weekend. First, Kentucky is another SEC park with fences that beg for long-ball swings. The dimensions are 390 feet to center, 365 in left-centerfield, and a frighteningly (to pitchers) close rightfield alley of 350 sharply sloping to just 310 in the right corner. And the wind always seems to be blowing out to right in the Bluegrass.

The other fact is how UK coach and former Diamond Dog slugger John Cohen has set up his order. "They are more left than right," McNickle said. "Very similar to Florida. They're going to bat 1-2-3 for sure lefties, then have a couple of switch-guys." The Gators were able to use their left-leaning order in game-three against righty Weatherford and salvage a 9-6 win.

This would seem to indicate that Mississippi State will try to find a third southpaw to throw at the Wildcats, though based on the usual 25-man SEC roster Coach Ron Polk has used there essentially is one option here in current starting rightfielder Mitch Moreland. He has thrown 11 innings in seven left-handed relief appearances this season. Another possibility would be replacing one travel-roster member with LH Jesse Carver, though he too has seen limited work this season.

But Polk and McNickle like how righthander Chad Crosswhite (0-1 in 17 games, 1 start, 2.83) works against either sort of swinger. With Weatherford back in the pen Crosswhite has a better chance of being held back for Sunday as well. The pitching plan would likely be to get a competitive start from him, or whoever has the ball first, then turn it over to lefty Moreland or another middle-man. But of course planning for Sunday in the SEC, and especially in what could turn into a slugfest weekend, is always tentative at best. Thus the ‘T.B.A.' call for today. Polk should have more information to offer Thursday morning after watching this evening's practice.

Whoever takes the hill, they will have a serious challenge keeping Wildcats off the bases and fly balls from leaving the yard. "They're just a very well-coached team," McNickle said. "John has done such a great job, he coaches every pitch and at-bat and his kids are playing with a lot of confidence." As they should be, coming off a weekend home sweep of Mississippi that pushed Kentucky to the top of the current SEC standings.

One arm that will not be available at Kentucky is righthander Matt Lea. The freshman has not thrown since abruptly leaving the April 18 game at Memphis with a tightening arm. McNickle said Lea has had some tendinitis up in his right bicep, but the rookie is getting back up to speed. "He threw off the mound yesterday and felt good," the coach said. "He won't pitch this weekend so as not to burn a roster spot, but we'll put him back on the mound Monday." The hope is that Lea will be close to full-strength for the final weekend series against Mississippi, a team he threw very well against April 11 in the Mayor's Trophy game.

With a series of storms moving through the state today, the Bulldogs are expecting to spend this evening working indoors in the Palmeiro Center. The practice starts around 7:00, after the last round of final semester exams.

Starting times for the first two weekend games have been moved from previously-released schedules as Friday and Saturday's contests will be aired by Fox Sports Net.

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