State Gets Forfeit As Nicholls Skips Sunday

Sunday won't be a total loss. In fact the Diamond Dogs will add another ‘W' to their record. But the easiest win of the 2009 season is still hard for Coach John Cohen to accept. "This is a day quite frankly we ought to be playing baseball," he said at Dudy Noble Field following Nicholls State's decision to leave town without completing the three-game series.

A series in which Mississippi State had taken a pair of wins, defeating the Colonels 10-8 and 6-3 in a Saturday twinbill forced by torrential Friday rains. While those games weren't played in pleasant conditions by any means, the Dudy Noble Field surface held up well and was not a significant factor for either side. So even after an overnight fall of snow left the field covered, there was no reason to expect Sunday's third contest would not go off as contracted.

But when the coaches met around 11:00 a.m., Nicholls State skipper Chip Durham apparently had already made up his mind. Despite assurances from State coaching, administrative, and grounds crew staff the field would be fine, NSU chose to leave. Their school's sports website called it a cancellation, stating "Field and weather conditions caused coaches and officials to make the decision to cancel the final game of the three-game series."

Which was not at all what anyone from State had said, and MSU responded with a release calling it a forfeit by Nicholls. This indeed is what a Southeastern Conference official told media relations director Joe Dier, that MSU can count this as a forfeit win. Though how the 9-0 final score will be factored into computerized season statistics is an interesting technical challenge.

Not that Cohen cared about any numbers. He was frustrated that a game-day was being wasted, especially after the efforts to get Saturday's double-header in. "You know what? I think today in a lot of respects is better than yesterday," he said. And after several seasons shoveling real snow off Kentucky's field, to have a non-conference guest simply go home and then miss-state the situation rankled all the more.

"Unfortunately we're not going to play and it has nothing to do with the weather. And it's really bothersome to me and our kids who wanted to play. You work really hard for a long period of time to get the opportunity to play, and when the opportunity provides itself you've got to play. Unfortunately it didn't happen today and that was beyond our control."

Since all Cohen can control is his own team's schedule today, the Diamond Dogs (8-1) would still take the field. "We'll intrasquad. We'll play a game, because the day dictates that," he said. "We're going to get better. We're going to get after it. We'll make it as game-like as we possibly can and get after it." As well as take batting practice and do indoor drills as in a normal practice session.

The Bulldogs had to get after it all this past week to win their four games. Even the 5-1 victory over South Alabama was no easy evening, and State had to push the margin of 4-3 victory against Mississippi Valley State across in the bottom of the eighth. After jumping out to a 7-0 lead over NSU in Saturday's opener things got tense fast and it took some timely hitting and stout relief work to hold on for that win.

The second game looked easier, as starter Nick Routt and old hound Chad Crosswhite combined to seven-hit the Colonels on a raw afternoon. But it was still more competitive than necessary as some State defensive lapses kept the visitors in striking distance.

"Two guys make errors that are such simple plays that we could have put our nose on the baseball and make those plays," said Cohen, still bothered a day-later by the miscues. "One of those is made by a kid I think is one of the best defensive outfielders in the SEC, Ryan Collins is camped under a ball." Which went right off the glove. Certainly a hard wind blowing left-to-right—and a factor in some of the day's big hitting, too—made the play a bit less than routine, as did the outfield footing. That wasn't the point to the head coach.

"You can use all the excuses in the world but that kid is too good a player to make excuses. The other is a tailor-made double-play ball to a freshman (2B) Frankie Radow—who probably has never played in weather conditions like that!" Being he is a Floridian, Cohen meant. "But you know what, you've got to make that play. Because it's a double-play ball, and we get 18 more pitches into the inning just because we don't make that play. But take away those gaffes and it's a pretty clean game and we really don't give up any runs."

Cohen was pleased with how rookie lefty Routt worked in his second starting stint, going six full innings with seven hits and three unearned runs against six strikeouts. Crosswhite fanned four in his three hitless innings. His use Saturday meant the senior righty would not have started Sunday's game as planned. So Cohen would have put Tyler Whitney on the hill today first. And, "We have four arms that we really wanted to pitch today." Most notably Forrest Moore, who worked on Tuesday against USA and now can't throw against a foe before Thursday at the earliest. Most of those arms needed work are left-siders, too.

"So we need to get some work done, and we are going to get work done today," Cohen said. "But it's very disappointing. You think at this level these things aren't going to happen. But unfortunately it did today."

The game-one wins needed four pitchers, as starter Ricky Bowen lasted just 3.1 innings; not his normal long tour at all. Rookie Caleb Reed had another struggling relief appearance also, and while soph Michael Busby picked up the winning decision he was charged with four runs, all earned, in 4.2 innings. Veteran righty Greg Houston had to save the day with an uneventful ninth.

Certainly from the view of the brave fans at the games or those listening in safer settings, the highlights of Saturday were extra base hits and RBI. 1B Connor Powers had a huge first game, slugging a pair of homers for three and one run and driving in two more teammates with a single. His six RBI were a career high and Powers jumped his early-season average to .357. 3B Russ Sneed added a solo shot in the first game, while in game-two alternate catcher Cody Freeman smacked a second-inning homer.

Sneed's .440 average leads the every-game batters so far, though OF Nick Hardy has made much of his opportunities in two starts (four games total) to bat .571. And MIF Jet Butler has been hot with a .429 average and seven runs scored. But, on the whole the Dogs are still hitting at a .297 clip against non-conference competition; which is why Cohen insists that over the long haul this team will have to win with steady pitching, smart defense…and aggressive running.

Which has been on display from opening day. Already the Dogs have stolen 14 bases in 17 tries, and that doesn't even tell the entire story because this squad makes a point of ‘stretching' things by taking any extra base—or two or in the Valley game even three—when such opportunities arise. Such aggressiveness comes with a natural price as runners have been thrown out at third base at least three times already.

But the point remains that Mississippi State has to and now likes to force things on opponents by running hard and often. Cohen cautions against getting too excited about the occasional show of power. "Just because the ball park plays big. And it will as the spring goes on. I've looked at all the numbers and ever since the additions were made to the stadium it is one of the least offensive yards in the SEC. And you can't just beat your head up against the gall and fight it.

"You embrace that and use the ballpark. The fact that it plays big means you're going to run, get more triples. When I was at Kentucky you couldn't hit a triple, it went out! Here triples are hopefully going to be commonplace for us. Stealing bases, moving runners, really defending the field, attacking teams. We've been able to do that so far and we want that to continue. But getting into league play there's going to be more skill and you have to defend against it better."

If the comments make Cohen come across as a perfectionist in such things; a coach pointing out errors and weak points instead of praising the positives; well, that is precisely what he feels is most important here in the early going of his first season back at State. That was why Cohen focused first on the gaffes that made Saturday's game-two closer than necessary.

"I was pleased with about 95% of that game, but it's kind of like the airline pilot and the surgeon. 95% don't get it done, it needs to be 100%! You've got to get better. Because the SEC is not as forgiving in terms of those situations. If you don't turn a double-play in the SEC it's not going to turn into a two-spot; it's going to turn into a four-spot. You have to prepare for that early in the year."

Speaking of preparing, when the Diamond Dogs left the field Sunday afternoon following the scrimmage it was for a team meeting to discuss their pending Tuesday departure and a four-game series at the University of Hawaii. Cohen said there had been no serious planning for the series until now, as State had expected to be on the field for a while today. So at least they will get a few extra unintended hours to advance their scouting and think about a four-day rotation.

"We'll look at their left-right possibilities and matchups and see who they are going to throw against us. But I imagine it will be very similar to what we've seen before, Nick Routt will have one of the games. We need to get Ricky Bowen back on track, and see what's going on with that. He's just not as aggressive as he once was. If Chad Crosswhite doesn't close he might be a starting guy. Having Tyler Whitney out here today would have been great because he's been pitching well. So five or six guys fit into that role, but we need to pigeonhole that by the time we get to conference play."

One positive development has been the return to health of Freeman from problems with a knee, shoulder, and ankle. Cohen said the soph backstop caught well Saturday afternoon, and his bat is also showing up. And OF Grant Hogue, sidelined the first five games by a shoulder, made his return this week in a pinch-run role first before getting a Saturday start back in centerfield. He's already stolen one base and scored two runs, but needs to regain his batting stroke after the layoff.

Which might have been done Sunday in a real game, had the scheduled foe not chosen to bail out and avoid another likely loss. But then Cohen also couldn't avoid frustration at the game-day opportunity lost, looking around a playable ballpark on the first day of March.

"That's why you're in the Deep South. Because when the sun comes out it makes everything else good."

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