Dogs Think More On Playing Game, Not Spoilers

John Cohen admits, it's coach-speak to say his focus in this weekend's series at Ole Miss is more on playing the game than the opposition. "And the game is kicking our tail. "But…dig just a bit deeper and the true Diamond Dog alumnus and Mississippi State coach shows through. "They'd better get us while we're down," Cohen adds. "Because we're not going to be down for very long!"

Not if Mississippi State's first-year skipper has his way, along with his own recruits. But here in 2009 the Bulldogs (21-26, 6-17 SEC) head into the final two weekends of their struggling season definitely down. All the way down in the league standings, and just about down for the count in terms of the conference tournament. While not eliminated mathematically, the Dogs essentially must win-out the remaining six games—and can't afford any more rainouts either—while either Vanderbilt and South Carolina lose-out and a trio of other backmarkers don't win more than a couple of their contests.

If that scenario wasn't sufficiently long-shot already, State's opposition makes it even longer as the Bulldogs are at Oxford this weekend and come home to face Louisiana State to conclude the regular schedule. Unfortunately both those foes are 16-8 and tied atop both the SEC West and the overall conference standings. So the Diamond Dogs are visiting Oxford just as the Rebels (36-13) are primed for the stretch run.

"It's an exciting time for Ole Miss," Cohen said, in an understatement. Game times are 6:30 Friday, 3:06 Saturday for FOX/SEC-TV broadcast, and 1:36 Sunday for a Comcast TV broadcast. Naturally Bulldog fans and probably a few players as well are thinking about assuming the SEC spoiler role against these two fiercest rivals. Cohen, who knew more than his share of success as a MSU player against both Rebels and Tigers, sees it another way now.

"What we're trying to do is throw strikes. We're trying to get to the bottom of the strike zone with some fastballs. We're trying to play the game right now and not the opposition, and the game is kicking our tail. Opponents aren't beating us right now, the game is and we've got to get better at the game."

First and foremost as the coach pointed, in pitching the baseball where other teams either can't hit it or will struggle to make good contact. This is what State hasn't done successfully all season and especially in league play. "Quite frankly our pitching staff hasn't had a lot of luck stopping anybody," Cohen said. "We're up in the strike zone. I think we match up with anybody OK offensively, we just have to be better on the mound."

The numbers back that up. Though the last-place team in the whole SEC, these Bulldogs rank an amazing (given the record) 3rd in batting average, 4th in slugging percentage, 4th in runs…and are first in on-base rate. That's not overall season stats either, but the numbers for SEC games-only. And Bulldog batters have hit into double-plays just eight times in 23 conference games, tied for best. An offense ranking that highly should be winning games, right?

No, not when the pitching staff has a 7.79 ERA, 12th in the league. Or a .324 batting average against, 11th. Strikeouts and walks, 10th. And it's no coincidence that the Bulldogs are also last in fielding average by a sizable margin. While this is by no means a good defensive team, their jobs are made that much tougher by lack of production from the rubber.

Still, "If we throw some pitches down in the zone and score some runs" Cohen sees a chance to compete even against a league-leader like the Rebels. State's coaches have decided to go back to a previous pitching plan and return lefthander Tyler Whitney to the game-one slot. "The Fridays haven't worked out the way we wanted to," Cohen said of attempts to use several other arms, right or left, to begin series. "So we're going back to the way we did before. Tyler gives us a chance every time out, he really didn't get to pitch (last weekend against Alabama) because of weather."

Actually Whitney did get a short Sunday stint, in the twice-delayed game-two. He threw the ninth inning and gave up four runs though three came after another fielding error gave the Tide more chances to pad their lead. Still weather foiled the plan to come with one of the two steady starters on game-three. "We're going to go ahead and let Tyler pitch Friday and we expect a great performance out of him." Freshman lefty Nick Routt will stay in his normal game-two role. "And we'll see who we haven't used in the first two games, kind of a TBA on Sunday," Cohen said.

The Rebels are peaking at the right time for a run at the SEC title, having swept at Auburn last weekend to climb into the first-place deadlock. They were led in the lineup by Logan Power's .478 batting against the Tigers, and he now is the program's career RBI leader. Rookie Matt Snyder hit .600 last week and was named the SEC's Freshman of the Week for his efforts. But Cohen says the UM strength isn't even at the plate, as good as they've been.

"It's a solid lineup, statistically it's not the best in our league but it's solid. Where they're really good is on the mound." Especially with the return of Scott Bittle to health and the Sunday slot. He rounds out a rotation of Drew Pomeranz and Brett Bukvich, with a collection of capable relievers that have combined for no less than 13 saves. The collective staff ERA is 3.95 for the season with just a .266 batting average allowed.

"They defend it and they're really good on the mound, and they're solid offensively," Cohen said.

Just how solid State's state of mind may be at this point in a frustrating season is a reasonable question. Especially given what the veterans endured last spring with the end of the Ron Polk tenure and a coaching change. While their new skipper has been completely candid all campaign—which some have chosen to take as harshness—about the situation, Cohen has never had reason to question the effort his inherited squad has given. Not even now with the looming likelihood of missing the SEC Tournament a second-straight year, which has never happened at State since a true ‘tournament' format began in 1987.

It's just something else that the program must endure. Cohen is openly confident about the future and sees signs of faith all around. "Our kids know we're going to win," he said. "The people I hurt for are our seniors, they know we're going to win and know they're not going to be a part of the great things in the future. There's not a shred of doubt what's going to happen in the future, not our coaches or our administration. But we've still got some games to play this year and we all want our seniors to do well."

And the best way for this particular club to finish as well as possible is not so much playing the other team but playing the game itself. Or as Cohen says, compete pitch-by-pitch and let things play out from there. Obviously this isn't State's strongest point in 2009.

"When you can really pitch it erases a lot of deficiencies. I think what we're all concerned about is getting that great performance on the mound. Tyler is capable of that, Nick has done a great job all year, then who pitches out of the bullpen and who pitches Sunday. But we're had great preparation and I don't see any problems with the mental makeup of our club right now."

The Bulldogs were running through their final pre-series practices on campus today. One notable Dog is missing, as first baseman Connor Powers has been excused this week for the death of his grandmother. He will rejoin the club tomorrow. The junior has hit a team-best 16 home runs, tying for second-most by a Bulldog this decade.

"He's been good," Cohen said. "He's got real strength and made some big hits for us. One thing he's done that has kind of gone unnoticed is he can really defend first base. He made two great plays for us last weekend with his arm. He's a special player and will be a solid draft and have a very good professional career in front of him."

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