Which means Mississippi State returned to Starkville Tuesday with a 8-4 record…and not much turnaround time to prepare for five games in the next five days, including the initial league series of 2009.
"We just got back from a series that quite frankly as a coaching staff we weren't thrilled about taking," Cohen said Tuesday morning en route back to Starkville after the flight arrived in Birmingham. "This club wasn't even close to being able to endure a series like that. But the schedule had been in place two years in advance and so we did it."
The expedition wasn't a complete setback for State, at least not considering the way Cohen has utilized the pre-SEC schedule. And even given the inevitable distractions of the locale, along with the stiffer level of competition, the first-year Bulldog boss was pleased with how his players went about their business.
"I'm really pleased with the effort of our kids," Cohen said, at the same time acknowledging that such effort was expected to be the hallmark—and likely highlight—of the year so far. "I've said from the beginning we are not a very talented baseball team. I think all the preseason predictions and polls indicate where we are from a sheer talent and skill level. But our kids have given a great effort and I'm pleased with that. It's been fun."
The fun resumes Wednesday with a twinbill against visiting Valparaiso, game times 2:30 and 6:30. The Crusaders actually beat the Bulldogs to Starkville, having come to town Monday as part of their less-glamorous but maybe more-grueling extended road trip. Following a couple of defeats at Arkansas, Valparaiso lost three games over the weekend at Memphis, and when they leave Starkville they will go on to Tennessee Tech for another four games. The Crusaders bring a 4-6 record into their first meetings with MSU.
Cohen wanted to make some lineup decisions for the Valpo series this afternoon, starting with the men on the mound. "Right now I'm frankly concerned about that series from a pitching standpoint," he said, since State now must use two arms on Wednesday preceding a SEC series. And of course how the midweek starts and relief stints play out will factor heavily into setting up the weekend work against South Carolina. At this point Cohen can look no farther ahead than to project Tyler Whitney will get the ball first Friday evening, and rookie lefty Nick Routt on Saturday. "The Sunday situation is pretty much up for grabs," he said. State is hoping that veteran righty Ricky Bowen snaps out of his early-season control issues and regains the expected rotation slot.
Yet those names seem carved in stone compared to the fielding and batting lineups. For these first twelve games Cohen has fielded a dozen different lineups without exact duplication yet. Clearly the time is coming that, when limited to 25-man weekend rosters, the coaching staff will settle on at least some sort of ‘core' corps. Just don't look for anything like a set squad any time soon, Cohen suggests. It isn't that he enjoys juggling skills and slots daily either.
"I think we have to do that, that's just the nature of our club. I just don't think we have that many guys that you feel comfortable with being everyday guys in our league. We're going to play as much matchup as we can, because we feel that's the nature of our club. We have a lot of people that can contribute some things."
Indeed just one Dog has started all dozen games in the field; veteran cornerman Connor Powers has drawn the job at first base daily, and rewarded the coaches' faith with a .359 batting average; best among the regulars. His three home runs are also first. For that matter State has slugged ten balls out of the park, compared to 53 longballs all of last season, with some pop shown by others such as catcher/DH Ryan Duffy, alternate outfielder Luke Adkins, and infielder Russ Sneed. Still Cohen cautions against reading too much into that stat-column with this team, reminding that once in SEC action the Bulldogs will have to manufacture runs instead of muscle.
By running, most notably. State has already shown a willingness and ability to take off for extra bases in any and all settings, whether on straight steals, delayed takeoffs, or just stretching their legs and luck. Of course this won't be nearly so easy against SEC defenses with stronger, smarter arms as it has been to-date. Still the Diamond Dogs have no real alternative to forcing the offensive pace and accepting the risks. Because overall batting is not off to a promising start, under .280 for the year after a .248 average at Hawaii.
The fastest offensive fix will be the incoming recruiting class signed last November, which Cohen said today will "change the climate" of the club. But for now State will win or lose with those Dogs on the '09 roster. There are a handful of veterans from the 2007 College World Series upstarts, but on the whole this is not a roster that has enjoyed much real success Cohen pointed out.
Not that the coaching staff will cut anyone any slack this year, certainly not when it's time to toss the first pitch Friday evening against South Carolina. Then Saturday, and Sunday, and on and on. As long as the effort stays strong and consistent, the skipper will keep putting the best collections of available pieces together daily. Again, that's just the nature of the '09 Diamond Dogs.
"So we're going to try to get as many to contribute as we can," Cohen said.