"Paul is a unanimous number one. He is a mature guy who has been pitching on the weekends for two years. That is very rare in this league. Most of the time guys work into being a weekend starter when they get to be sophomores. The thing I have focused so much on with Paul since I arrived at State is the development of his changeup. It has been very, very encouraging how he has taken to that. That gives him another way to get hitters other than with his fastball or slider. He is a true three-pitch guy now, moreso than he was at this time last year."
You have mentioned before that he has special abilities that most other pitchers don't have. He doesn't really thrown tremendously hard. What are the special abilities that he has?
"He has the ability to throw on both sides of the plate with his fastball. He can throw sliders in or he can pitch away. His composure, his makeup, the way he prepares, his calmness; he has a way of making the guys who play around him feel very calm. He is very mature and the players read that. That is what a true number one guy is, a guy that the players want on the mound. We are excited about Paul. He should have another tremendous year."
Another veteran on the team is junior Jonathan Papelbon.
"We are trying to decide how to use him. He is such a valuable member of the team because he really competes. He is a lot like Paul in that the team loves playing behind him because of the way he competes. He leaves it out on the mound everytime when he goes out there. He is a great team guy. When he is not pitching, he is in the dugout and is in the game from the first pitch."
I was impressed with Jacob Blakeney during the fall.
"He has had two good falls in a row. He was very impressive last fall. Actually, he started last year with a finger injury. He had a broken finger for about the first two weeks, so he got out of rhythm a little bit. He is one of those five guys who will be in the mix as a starter. All he needs to do is develop more confidence in himself. I have seen improvement in that area."
Jeff Lacher is a junior this year. Where does he fit on the staff?
"He will probably pitch in a similar role as he did last year. His strength is when he is on, he can pound a very good breaking ball away from right-handed hitters. He has one of the top 3 or 4 breaking balls on the team. His nemesis has been fastball command and being able to execute pitches in crunch time moments. He will get two strikes on a guy and will try to do too much and then mislocate. He has worked very hard to correct that. He will probably pitch in the spot starting role, maybe do some work out of the pen. Jeff is a big reason that this staff has such good depth. I am excited that he has two more solid years with us."
Robby Goodson didn't have as good of a fall as he did last fall, but he can still throw hard.
"He has a good arm. Robby is very mature. He was very impressive in the one-on-one workouts that we had after the fall. He is going to pitch for us. For a big, strong guy, he has a great feel for pitching. I look at it that we have two guys that can close games, Robby or Paps (Papelbon). I am convinced of that."
One of your top signees was Brad Corley. I watched him during the fall and was very impressed with his ability as a pitcher. Considering he will also play right-field for you, where do you see him fitting on the pitching staff?
"I am happy with Brad. He has a good future for us. He has a live fastball and a good breaking ball. He has very good movement. He was very successful as a pitcher during the fall. Right now, I see him getting his feet wet with some midweek starts, maybe. Our starting situation from 2 to 5 is very close as far as who will get those starts. Brad is in that mix."
Did it surprise you how well he pitched during the fall?
"No, I saw him pitch during the recruiting process. Actually, when pro scouts were looking at Brad some liked him as a pitcher and some liked him as a hitter. He ended up getting drafted as a hitter. His success as a pitcher really came about in the last year. He had grown up as a big hitter."
Alan Johnson is a newcomer to the mound for MSU.
"Alan had a very good fall for us. His strength is an arsenal of breaking pitches. He is not a hard thrower but has very good fastball command. He has a curveball and slider that can miss bats. He evaluated out in our top 4 of 5 pitchers. He will get some chances to pitch in a starting role very early. "
Brett Cleveland is a dual-position guy but pitched a lot in the fall.
"He is primarily a pitcher. He is similar to Alan in that he has very good command. He can execute a gameplan. I know if I call a fastball in, it will be in. You can pitch guys like that backwards. He is ready to pitch for us and will get some chances. What he has really improved is his slider has gotten a lot better. Now, he is a true three-pitch guy. He will probably start out in the bullpen and progress from there. He will be a strike thrower. He is among the top 3 or 4 guys on our team as far as command. He has a very, very bright future here. We are very excited about Brett."
Steven Dowe is a veteran left-handed pitcher for you.
"We experimented with Steven during the offseason. We have dropped him down to a sidearm, submarine lefty."
Joey Collums is a senior left-handed pitcher.
"Joey had surgery (in late fall). It was a rare blood vessel constriction problem. A blood vessel was slightly constriction because one of his ribs was putting pressure on it. It wasn't letting him recover. They removed part of his top rib and the blood vessel is now open. Joey will be a tremendous senior on this team regardless of how we use him. He is a leader and a class person. He is the kind of guy that you would like your son to be like when he grows up. If he cracks back into the (SEC) rotation that would be great. You could also stick him in the bullpen and he could attack left-handed hitters. There are a number of ways that you can use Joey if he comes back (100%)."
Where will redshirt freshman left-handed pitcher Jake Ociesa fit on the staff this year?
"He is still in the developmental process, but is much improved. His velocity continues to pick up. He came in during the fall and had a hard time filling the arm slot that we wanted him to get to. Now, we have him straighten out. He still might be a year away, but this guy has a tremendous upside because he is a big kid and throws downhill. Our hitters do not like to stand in on him. They don't feel comfortable standing in the box against him and I like that. I like it anytime our hitters say that they don't see the ball off of him. He is a brilliant kid, very cerebral. He is beginning to understand pitching. This throwing hard is new to him. He is throwing 86 to 88 now. He was a low 80's guy in high school and all of a sudden he has started growing into his body. With the graduation of pitchers and the draft, he is an important key to this staff in the future. We are going to lose 7 or 8 guys off this staff this year."
Saunders Ramsey is a side-armer now.
"I think that was the best move for him. It has been good for Saunders. Every pitching staff needs one of those guys. Those guys can be inning-eaters. They can throw a little bit everyday. I think the team feels really good about Saunders. He can be a key component of our bullpen."
What about Brian Owens?
"Brian is going to get looks as a setup type guy, left on left, similar to how he pitched last year. He pitched in 20-something games last year. He had pretty good numbers. He is not a 3 or 4 inning guy, but more a 1 or 2 hitter type pitcher."
I was impressed with redshirt freshman Jamie Gant during the fall.
"He has much better command and a much better mindset. He has more confidence. He is much more ready to pitch for us now. It is time for us to get him ready because he has the physical tools to be a weekend starter for us some day. We still have to polish his command a little bit. He has good movement, good breaking stuff. Jamie is the only guy that can beat Jamie. If he can face a team and force them to swing the bat, he is not going to get too many hard hit balls. I guess you could say he doesn't have the ability to pitch backwards but he doesn't have to because he can go right at guys."
What do you mean by pitching backwards?
"Throwing offspeed stuff behind in the count."
In my opinion, the most impressive pitcher during the fall was Todd Nicholas. I clocked him on my gun at 96 miles per hour and consistently at 92 to 94.
"Todd has gotten confidence in his fastball now. When a pitcher gets confidence that he can throw his fastball where he wants to and a hitter is not going to get a good swing on it, that is a good feeling. That's what he had this past fall. He will have the opportunity to start for us."
Freshman right-handed pitcher Mike Valentine is a new guy on the staff.
"Mike made the club as kind of a recommended walk-on. He has a good upside. He is strong and has a power curveball that is very intriguing. When it is on, it can be very good. It was a big jump for him to come to this program. He is working very hard. He is a very mature kid for a freshman. He is going to be ok. He will probably not have a big role on this year's staff but he will in the future."
A freshman that I was impressed with while watching him in the fall was Brooks Dunn. He doesn't throw extremely hard but was successful in getting hitters out.
"He actually throws harder than you think. His fastball is one that has attitude. It is in the 87 to 88 range. He is another guy who has a tremendous amount of confidence. He has presence on the mound. That is what I liked about him when I saw him on the mound. His breaking ball is improving. His changeup is his second best pitch. We are still unsure what to do with Brooks this year. He has a very bright future."
Les Dykes had Tommy John surgery and is out this spring.
"I'm glad that we may have found something that may have been ailing him for a while. It will take from 8 to 18 months for him to get back. Some guys it takes 8 months and some it takes 18. Next fall will be big for Les. We'll set the fall as the goal for Les to throw a little bit. It'll take a good spring of rehab and he will probably stay here and work out in the summer."
Newcomer Derek Atkins also had Tommy John surgery but he had his during his sophomore year in juco ball.
"He has had a very good rehab. It has gone tremendous. There was no pain. He is not completely back yet, so the jury is still out as to whether we will redshirt him or not. Ideally, we thought he would be one of the top guys in the bullpen. It doesn't matter to him which role he pitches in. He is very competitive. Before the injury, he was throwing a devastating slider. We are hopeful that will come back."
That's all the current pitchers on the staff. Earlier you said that you will lose a great number from this staff. Talk about the players that you will lose and may lose.
"With the graduation and draft, we will lose a lot of our pitchers. We lose four seniors Steven Dowe, Joey Collums, Jacob Blakeney and Brian Owens who will contribute significantly. Then we have underclassmen (Jonathan) Papelbon, (Paul) Maholm and (Todd) Nicholas. Now, you are looking at 7 guys if the draft gets those 3 juniors. You like to plan that it will. That means that I have done my job as a pitching coach. I've prepared them. Somebody has made a decision that they are ready to move on. Then the decision is going to fall in the young man and his family's hands. I've dealt with the draft for 18 years as a coach. I get very close to the guys that I coach and I don't like to hold them back if it is time. I want their families to make the decision. I will love them either way. Everyday I'm trying to prepare them to go out. I hope it happens for them."
Something that surprised me was the lack of junior college pitchers in this year's signing class. Since you will probably lose 7 pitchers from this year's staff, it looks like you would have gone out and signed more than two juco pitchers.
"If you look at our sophomore class (of pitchers), it will have (current staff member) Alan Johnson, (signee) Eric Ebers and (signee) Todd Doolittle. Those are three ready-to-pitch guys. If I have three or four ready-to-pitch guys, I would rather build my own staff with young guys. I have always liked to do that. You want them to learn the system. You look at Jamie Gant and Brett Cleveland. They have a year in my system. They will be ready to go. Ociesa will be ready to go."
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, Coach Rock.
"No problem, Gene."
Gene Swindoll is the publisher and owner of Gene's Page, the unofficial site for Mississippi State sports since October, 1996. He can be reached by email at email@example.com