Opening Day 2010 Arrives For Diamond Dogs

All the scrimmage games have been played. Now the Diamond Dogs can finally play a real game, against an unfamiliar foe, as Mississippi State opens the 2010 season this weekend. "I think we're ready to go," Coach John Cohen said today as afternoon practice began. "I like where we are."

Well of course Cohen has liked being where he is since returning to his alma mater in June 2008 as Mississippi State's skipper. What wasn't so enjoyable was the heavy rebuilding job over the last year-and-a-half, including a '09 debut season that while playing out pretty much as Cohen expected was still plenty frustrating. Now however the Bulldog coaching staff like both the setting and the squad they will match against Rhode Island in the three-game series.

Game-one at Dudy Noble Field begins 4:00 Friday, with a 2:00 Saturday start time and the concluding Sunday 1:30 contest. The opener will be carried on local radio and Maroon to the Max, while the rest of the weekend is on-line due to men's and women's basketball broadcasts those days. Mississippi State will celebrate the start of a new Diamond Dog season with the First Pitch Banquet tomorrow evening, 6:00 in the Palmeiro Center. Check the school athletic website for details.

As eager as Cohen has been for year-two in his program to begin; as encouraged as he's been by both fall and spring practicing; and as competitive as Bulldog scrimmages have played…there are still the inevitable nerves about actually putting a team on the field. On a completely renewed Dudy Noble Field, at that, thanks to last fall's total renovation of the playing surface. The field should play just fine thanks to constant care and maintenance. The 2010 Bulldogs? That is what everyone has waited to see since '09 ended.

State certainly has not scheduled typical opening-day fodder either. "Our fans might not know a lot about Rhode Island but the more you look on-line the more you realize they're a good team," said Cohen. Yes, Diamond Dog fans, the MSU operation is completely computerized these days. And what State coaches saw on the Rams website show a quality opponent is coming to town.

"We really don't know a whole lot about their club other than they lost a lot of pitching," Cohen said today. "But they're used to winning, they won 37 games last year and were last team off the board for NCAA Tournament selection. I think they beat Oklahoma State at Oklahoma State a year ago, they beat Miami at Miami." Coach Jim Foster's club went 19-6 in the Atlantic 10 and finished second in the league, and indeed scored a victory over then-#8 ranked Miami as well as another win over #25 Ohio State. It took a couple of last-day losses to Xavier to keep them out of the national tournament.

Seven pitchers and seven position starters return from the '09 team that set a school record with 37 victories. Among the veterans are hitters that accounted for twenty home runs, 106 RBI and 117 runs last spring. This team is picked to finish fourth in the A-10 this season after losing two starters to the Major League draft.

Cohen said that a Ram righthander will toe the rubber Friday, so as a result his Opening Day batting order will lean more to the left side…or at least it should. The challenge is "our infield is predominately right-handed." It certainly is with 1B Connor Powers—who turned down the 11th-round draft call of the Dodgers for a senior season at State—shortstop Jonathan Ogden, either Nick Vickerson or Frankie Rawdow at second base, and veteran 3B Russ Sneed all hitting right. Fortunately at the hot corner Cohen has the equal option of switch-hitter Jet Butler starting and swinging from the left side.

As of Wednesday afternoon Cohen was undecided whether to begin the game with Butler or Sneed at third, regardless of pitching matchup. But there are other factors involved; or rather a potentially big one, that being the health of CF Brent Brownlee. The sophomore and '09 alternate at leftfield came into the second season projected to patrol center, but needed an off-season knee procedure first.

"I think his knee is ready to go," said Cohen. "But now he's got the flu! And we've been battling that with a lot of our players recently. Hopefully he'll be ready to go. The knee looks solid, he's been a little bit gimpy but he's been playing really hard. I know he wants to get in the lineup and play."

For his part Cohen wants to wait for a Friday checkup before deciding the game-one centerfielder. But just as far as who starts, he adds. "I imagine we'll play six guys in those (three) positions, I just don't know who is going to start just yet. But certainly Trey Johnson, Ryan Collins, Jaron Shepherd deserve consideration in that area. Luke Adkins has been phenomenal. And Ryan Duffy has shown glimpses of being able to play defensively as well. He will DH at times but I do want to give him some opportunities before we get into conference play to see if he can do it when it matters most."

Former catcher Duffy indeed is expected to be a regular in the batting order regardless of his glove duties that day. Still Cohen's often-stated priority for year-two is upgraded defense everywhere, and given the general youth of the '10 pitching staff the coach is hesitant to experiment too much, too soon. Then again if Duffy does get his turn in rightfield—Collins can handle himself in all three fields—that opens up the DH slot for Sneed and allows switch-stick Butler the cornerman start. All these possibilities set up at least partly by one case of flu.

"We'll wait and see," Cohen said. "If Brownlee can't play you want to be stronger defensively because he's one of our better guys. It's kind of a domino effect. We'll see Friday."

What is certain to be seen at 4:00 Friday is Nick Routt taking the hill. The sophomore has drawn the game-one start, as was easy enough to predict. Though Cohen and pitching Coach Butch Thompson are still in no hurry to set a rotation this early, and Routt is more often mentioned as a sure-Saturday-thing to build the weekend around, it just makes most sense to let the lefty throw the first Friday pitch of the season.

"I'd be just shocked if he doesn't pitch well," Cohen said. "He savors those opportunities and he's a sophomore now, I think we're about to see a much-improved, much more confident Nick Routt than we saw a year ago." But how long will Routt be seen in his first '10 outing? "I'd say we wouldn't feel real comfortable taking it past 80 pitches. And we feel really good about the arms at the end of games and we want to see those guys pitch. If he was just whizzing through it maybe he gets to 90 but for Nick 80 is the mark."

Though an experienced starter himself as a '09 freshman, righthander Devin Jones is now booked for late-relief duty to make sure State closes down these early games right. If not needed to slam the door on Friday or Saturday he could still get the ball Sunday, though at this point the coaches are tentatively leaving that to staff elder Tyler Whitney. A true freshman, righty Chris Stratton, has been assigned Saturday's start.

As to who will catch all these pitches, senior Cody Freeman goes into the year #1 backstop and junior transfer Wes Thigpen 1A. Cohen has been impressed with the improvement Freeman showed from the last day of last season to now and is confident he can handle a green-tinged pitching staff. Plus, his righthanded bat needs to be available every day whether he is playing or DHing. But Thigpen, who was signed for a great arm to improve State's control of running games, has proven a better scrimmage batter than expected. So instead of the two-for-one rotation Cohen was thinking about last fall, now it is more like a 50/50 split based on the schedule.

"I look at this as a four-game set, with UAB on Tuesday," he said. "Our two catchers will each catch two games and maybe even DH one of the other games. But those guys are ready and expect that. I think we have a really solid catching corps."

For that matter the 2010 Bulldogs look much more solid all around the field, at least potentially. So much stock is being put in the two transfers in the middle-infield to shore up a glaring defensive weakness in year-one. And of course so much of the pitching staff is either entirely new, or still developing with sophs Routt and Jones, or looking at adjusted roles. That pitch-count on Routt isn't just to protect his arm; Thompson really does need to see as many other moundsmen under real game pressure as the weekend allows. Fans coming to DNF this season may not see the offensive marathons of last spring, but with so many pitching changes for specific matchups and innings the games might not be much shorter; just lower scoring.

But then no Diamond Dog or Mississippi State is looking at the clock today. It's the calendar that matters, becuase Opening Day 2010 is here at last.

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