Which only adds that much more spice to the three-game series at Dudy Noble Field. Per SEC practice begun three years ago, this last of ten league weekends is advanced a day to run Thursday-through-Saturday allowing both extra travel time before the SEC Tournament and if necessary a bit of weather insurance. Certainly the conference has every reason to want this State-LSU series to play all the way out given the implications for the entire loop. The Tigers (39-14, 18-9) are on top of the SEC standings by virtue of taking two-of-three from fellow contender Florida last weekend in Baton Rouge. Still it's a slender margin with three rivals also in the championship chase. Alabama is a half-game back at 17-9 while Florida and Ole Miss are both 17-10.
Obviously Mississippi State (24-27, 8-18) is not in that number; in fact the Bulldogs know their season ends at home as the SEC Tournament fell out of reach last weekend. Still State has something to say about who does take the 2009 title, and in fact they made a mark on the stretch-run by taking two wins from the rival Rebels and knocking them out of a first-place tie. Diamond Dog alum Cohen is too much the competitor to put much stock in a ‘spoiler' role, which he sees as unworthy of Bulldog baseball in any event. So is missing the SEC Tournament and having no NCAA opportunity.
"I've never been involved in this as a player," he said. For that matter he's only missed out on a trip to Hoover as a SEC coach once, his debut season at Kentucky. If May of 2004 comes to his mind these days, it's only natural. "And that was a very similar situation to where we've been right now. I think I inherited a 9-21 (SEC) club at Kentucky, and a 9-21 club here at Mississippi State." Cohen is almost right-on as the 2003 Wildcats went 9-20. A further irony is that when the '04 Kentucky team failed to reach Hoover they ended their SEC schedule hosting a Georgia team that was playing for the league championship.
"I'm not used to this," the coach makes clear. Still he will push these Bulldogs to play as if they were the squad chasing a title. "You go out there and compete your heart out and if you sense anybody not competing you eliminate that. You move forward and surround yourselves with people who are willing to compete." Thus the pressure at Wednesday's practice, held indoors due to overnight rain that left DNF too soggy to damage in advance of the series.
Fortunately the practice met Cohen's demands, which to some extent has to be credited to better Bulldog play of late. Taking two-of-three at Oxford gave players a shot of genuine confidence as both victories were earned. Even the Sunday loss was competitive most of the way. And on Tuesday the Dogs were able to avoid a letdown between SEC rivalry-series to take care of Memphis 6-5 at AutoZone Park. The last non-conference contest could have easily gone the other way, but State didn't mail anything in and an oft-berated bullpen rose to a late-season occasion.
For that matter starting weekend arms are rounding into some sort of form this month. "I thought it was a good weekend for us," Cohen said. "We pitched better than we had been, we got a good performance from Tyler Whitney and a really good performance from Nick Routt. And we scored runs against a very good pitching staff." It is all coming late this year, too late for tournament time, but such progress is welcome all the same.
"I thought our kids competed well, they played hard and really, really wanted to win," Cohen said. "When you play rivalry games like that it isn't too difficult to motivate your club. But we have a very good LSU coming in here." Good enough to be ranked #2 in the country, though this regular season has not been kind to SEC clubs that reach the top of the polls. With one day less to prepare, Cohen will stay with the May rotation of lefthanders Whitney (2-4, 5.40era) and Routt (5-3, 2.89) in the first two games. While most weekends the coach has only listed a ‘TBA' for game-three, he tipped the glove today in direction of righthander Devin Jones (0-3, 7.59) based on last Sunday's start. "Because he threw very well at Ole Miss, he was able to throw his slider in the zone. I think he has a chance to be special in the future."
But LSU's staff is already looking pretty special. Where State starts with southpaws, the Tigers rely on the strong right arms of senior Louis Coleman (10-2, 2.45era), sophomore Anthony Ranaudo (6-3, 3.10), and soph Austin Ross (5-6, 5.09). The top two starters Cohen calls outstanding.
"Talk about fastball command, movement and deception , and a second pitch that can be thrown in different count situations. These guys don't develop patterns. We'll go over film and we'll do a really good job prepping them…but it will be a really big challenge. They're good." Nor are the Tigers offensive slouches; they only lead the league in (SEC games) one major category, stolen bases, but are top-third in most all other areas and sound defensively. And as Cohen often notes, good pitching erases a multitude of other sins.
Which is also why the MSU coach has bemoaned his own team's struggles. State pitching is last in the league (again SEC games only) in ERA, 11th in batting average allowed, 11th in runs, and 10th in strikeouts. Offensively the Bulldogs stand much better; 3rd in batting and slugging, first in on-base percentage, 4th in both runs and RBI, and first in drawing walks. All this with an order that by no means can be considered outstanding; surprising is a much better description.
Take the efforts of senior catcher Scott DeLoach, who had only one at-bat all last season. A year later he ranks 7th in SEC batting with a .355 average, and his on-base rate of .497 is actually tops in the league this week. Then there is first baseman Connor Powers; in his first two seasons he had a combined 19 home runs and this year he has slugged 17 longballs, tied for 7th in the SEC. That is the most homers by a Bulldog in a year since Brad Corley's 79 in 2004. His 36 homers gives Powers sole possession of 10th place on the career list, and makes the junior MSU's leader in June Major League draft status.
But with how he's run the paths this year somebody is bound to call outfielder Grant Hogue's name. The senior nabbed his 29th steal of the season Tuesday, giving him the second-best year ever for a Bulldog. In just two years the former juco transfer has 54 thefts, tied for 4th on the career list. And Tuesday Hogue showed both his speed and smarts by tagging up at second base and coming all the way home on a caught fly ball.
Offensive development has indeed been the strong point of the '09 team, whether upping the overall batting average and power (58 home runs compared to 53), or showing both speed and aggressiveness on the paths. Or both, as after getting just six triples all last year these Dogs have hit 11 three-baggers. Not surprisingly State has also made marked improvement in such aspects as working onto base with the only contact ball-on-body; after 44 plunkings in '08 this squad has taken 67 hit-by-pitchings. Nor should purists complain about this plate-approach since State only ranks third in the SEC in this category.
These things offer Cohen further evidence Mississippi State is on the right track one year into the rebuilding process. Even a record just one win to the better is still progress, and the coach points to how many one-run decisions went the wrong way this season, how many mid- and late-game leads got away as relief pitching struggled to support young starters. Not that the ultra-competitive Cohen can simply accept defeat easily.
Yet the hardest aspect is that the process will continue without a group of Dogs who gave all they had in this one year under a regime that did not recruit them. Especially those who are hanging up the spikes after this final college series.
"It will be a tough weekend for the seniors, because the season hasn't gone the way they wanted to. But I think it's clear the direction we're heading in." A successful concluding weekend against a recognized conference and national contender would help push State in that direction just a bit faster, too. So Cohen won't let sentiment get in the way of taking care of last-series business, as well as the team and player meetings that will follow the season. For that matter, "I don't see us taking this weekend any different than the opening weekend of the season," he said.
"I think our kids know what our strengths and weaknesses are, and one of our strengths is we'll compete. We'll never stop competing. Even though we're not where we want to be in wins and losses I think we can sense the direction we're going in, the root of something that's going to be really, really special."