Cohen, Dogs Open Team Preseason Work Friday

Well, his first Bulldog team dealt with weather most all of 2009. So Coach John Cohen isn't too surprised that, with his second squad scheduled to begin team practicing tomorrow, the forecast is looking wet. And cold. And maybe even dark, by the time first-practice-pitch gets tossed.

"We might end up starting tomorrow night!" Mississippi State's skipper says, only half in-jest. Because whatever time this first full-team session begins, as of Friday there are exactly three weeks to Opening Day 2010. That's 21 days for Cohen and the Diamond Dogs to put as many pieces in places as possible before the pitches, hits and runs really count.

Then again, when Bulldog players square-off against each other in the coming weeks a real score is being kept. Because Cohen and staff will use these scrimmage contests to answer, hopefully, the lineup-and-order questions remaining from fall ball. "Our kids are looking forward to intrasquad games," Cohen said today. The first of which is supposed to start at 3:30 Friday on Dudy Noble Field, weather permitting.

Cohen figures it won't. "I don't know if the weather anywhere in the eastern U.S. is going to cooperate with baseball practice!" he said. "We might start as late as 7:00 and go to 9:00 and play a five-inning game. It won't be perfect, but it will test our kids' toughness. And our field will respond a lot better than a year ago."

That is because a fast and full renovation of Dudy Noble Field late last summer, with the entire surface from fence-to-fence and backstop-to-wall dug up; new foundation sand filled in around a new, much-improved drainage system; and fresh turf laid for the playing surface. The sidelines, including behind home plate, are artificial turf which not only aids drainage but keeps the lengthened, widened dugouts cleaner after rain. The revamped field wasn't entirely ready for fall practicing and some days Cohen spent as much time watering the new sod as he did instructing players.

But the result is worth the time and effort, and even if just an intrasquad scrimmage Cohen is obviously eager to finally play a game on this field. The Palmeiro Center is ready for practicing as necessary.

For that matter Cohen anxious just to watch his second Mississippi State roster again working in full-team settings. Though, he said, "It won't be dramatically different than what we're doing right now" in terms of teaching. The Bulldogs have spent the last couple of weeks in 4-on-1 drills with the staff preparing for scrimmages where they can put lessons in action.

"Our kids are ready to do something like that," said Cohen. Much like last fall, the coaching staff will play more and shorter scrimmage games of a typical five innings. This is sufficient to get everyone their turns, without over-working a pitching staff as playing nines can do. Though this spring State could certainly handle that better than a year ago because there are more pitchers available and a healthier mound crew to boot. Two pitchers are out though.

Righthander Paxton Pace threw ten fall innings after his fourth surgical procedure in college. As late as early January, Cohen had hoped to get the sophomore letterman back some time this spring. Now, "He's out for the year. Paxton just keeps fighting, hopefully he gets to pitch again." Junior transfer Michael Dixon, who hit 94 mph on his last pitch of fall before an elbow ligament let go, will redshirt after Tommy John surgery.

Still there are plenty pitchers to evaluate. Cohen and pitching Coach Butch Thompson are counting on soph Nick Routt (5-3, 4.15) to set the tone, and to build a rotation around this year-older, year-better lefthander. Though that does not necessarily mean he gets the ball on Fridays; Cohen has said he likes having the most reliable starter in game-twos where he can either clinch a series victory or get it back to even. Still Routt is the lead-Dog in this staff.

Righty soph Devin Jones is a more interesting case, an experienced starter and the apparent second-leading rotation choice…yet also the kind of hurler Cohen and Thompson won't hesitate to use in late relief to seal a victory on Friday night with what they call an ‘attack mentality' on the mound. That the coaches can even consider not starting Jones indicates how much potential several new pitchers bring to spring. Chris Stratton, Luke Bole, C.C. Watson, Kendall Graveman are the freshmen pitchers Thompson mentions most in terms of starting candidates, though he also wants to see more in pre-season of veteran Caleb Reed and frosh Jared Miller before making too many decisions. How the kids show-up will impact on how vet lefty Tyler Whitney (3-4, 5.18) fits into the weeks' plans. The senior started 11 times last year and doesn't lack for experience on weekends or week nights alike.

Talking about the bullpen makes Cohen sound like a militiaman, because his favored term this year about the variety of pitching choices is they all "have bullets." And not all the same caliber, either, with guys who throw hard, soft, with late moves or great spotting, with velocity or break or even both. Cohen wants to use the larger number of scrimmages to see all these relievers can do in all sorts of settings, so fans coming to watch (admission as always is free) will see regular shuffling of the mound matchups.

When fall camp ended Cohen had a reasonably clear idea how the infield defense was lining up. Then after Christmas it became clear Jarrod Parks needed back surgery to correct an old condition from junior college that reappeared. "He was having really bad pain in his legs," Cohen said. Parks had surgery this month for the cracked vertebrae and is out for the year, a loss. "Because he was the best defender at third base," Cohen said.

"And that's something we really wanted to improve, was our infield defense and range. But, every time a door closes another door opens, and Russ Sneed has really stepped up there." Sneed is no stranger to the hot corner of course, having started there 50 times last spring. His range was limited in '09 after one hip procedure; he had another after the season and it cost him some fall time, but it was worth the wait.

"Russ has really come along," Cohen said. "His agility and range has really improved, the hip surgery was a great thing for him and he's really played well. Especially defensively, a lot better than I would have expected under the circumstances." Even if he were still limited in the field Sneed would contend for a spot in the batting order. Nor does he have the job locked-up at all. "Jet Butler has dramatically improved his defense at third base," Cohen said of the converted middle-infielder and '09 starting second baseman. "He really sees the ball off the bat better on that side." Butler also showed more power in fall ball.

Also, "We're putting Frankie Rawdow at third to see how he responds," Cohen said. "He's still playing some shortstop." If Friday were a real game, junior transfers Jonathan Ogden and Nick Vickerson would start at shortstop and second base. "And Sam Frost has elevated himself, he was redshirting and now he might get some playing time also. He's shown he can run and throw and it's a lefthanded bat, we might try to get his feet wet." First base of course belongs to Connor Powers after he spurned Los Angeles' 11th-round draft call to return for a senior season. Cohen's only worry at that corner is who backs Powers. Starting catcher Cody Freeman will have to take some days-off and can take turns there, though outfielder/DH Ryan Duffy has practiced first as well. Redshirt Nick Ray transferred to Jones Junior College for a season.

Even with the graduation of centerfielder and record-setting base thief Grant Hogue, Cohen actually thinks the 2010 outfield can be better. And it was already the best part of the 2009 lineup, though that's not where a coach prefers to have the strongest point. "I got real familiar with the backs of our outfielders' jerseys," Cohen quips, a comment on opponents' .304 hitting and State's 6.57 staff ERA.

But even without Hogue this is an excellent group. Alternate leftfielder Brent Brownlee opens pre-season as the nominal centerfielder, a position he seems born for, but he has competition from juco Jaron Shepherd. If Cohen wants to rely on veterans he can leave Ryan Collins in his usual rightfield and Luke Adkins, a much-improved defender, in left. But Shepherd was signed to play. And fellow transfer Trey Johnson is going to play, somewhere. Or wheres since he can also pitch and bat lefthanded. No wonder Cohen claims that there is a good chance a MSU outfielder with professional potential is going to be on the bench for opening day with all slots filled. Who that will be is what the next three weeks is about.

Besides Freeman, maybe the most-improved Dog in town, the catching depth chart now shows transfer Wes Thigpen with a strong right arm expected to help control running games.

This will be an interesting preseason for all sorts of reasons, all of them encouraging signs of improvement across the Bulldog-board. And while most positions are deeper in numbers the larger part of this roster is not proven in SEC competition. Thus Cohen will keep fingers crossed against a practice injury, especially at first base. "We really only have one in the program!" he notes. Fortunately Powers could be the best in the league this spring.

Preseason is also the last chance some kids have to make a splash, and there are some such candidates who can upset all the above scripting. Take Dallas Hannah, for one example, a freshman who would normally be a sure redshirt. Not now. "Dallas is valuable to us," said Cohen. "He can play any position on the field. We're not sure he's ready for the SEC level but he's a valuable guy, he can catch, play outfield, infield." The rookie will get his chances over the ensuing three weeks to do that, too, along with the rest of the roster.

Because the skipper has a full preseason planned, for everyone. And his priorities are clear, if a little surprising for those who recall Cohen's days as a power-hitting outfielder at DNF and the offensive guru at Florida and Kentucky.

"What we really want to do is play at a fast pace and really dominate defensively and on the mound. I could care less if we get a hit in our first couple of intrasquad games. I want our pitchers to be confident and I want to dominate every single play. Because that's what is going to make us successful in our ballpark. When we play at home 33 times that's what we have to do to be successful."

And weather permitting the Diamond Dogs will play ball tomorrow. Practice ball, to be sure, but a game all the same. If delayed, though, Saturday's outlook is for dry skies…and a high temperature of 38 with a chilly breeze. Isn't this one reason Cohen left Kentucky for his alma mater, to get away from such conditions?

"Listen, if we were at Kentucky, Saturday it would be a high of 18 degrees with 25-mile-per-hour wind out of the northeast!"

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