Of course one didn't need to be a veteran to appreciate a sweeping start to this season. "It's huge," said junior transfer SS Jonathan Ogden. "We had a big meeting before the season started. Everybody knows their role, we've got a lot of good players, this weekend brought us all together and hopefully it's like this all season."
That might be much to ask of a still-gelling squad, Coach John Cohen knows. From his own perspective opening weekend was a mixed bag even with the three welcome Ws put in the ledger already.
"You just want to survive the first weekend," Cohen said. "I think it's the mark of a good club when you don't play well and still win games." What he was thinking of was the eight charged Bulldog errors—five on opening night and three more Sunday—and other fielding miscues that could have easily cost his team at least one game. Nor was starting pitching on two of the dates up to SEC-standards, though that Cohen could accept under the early-year circumstances.
More encouragingly though was generally excellent relief work by a variety of MSU moundsmen, and an offense that batted .340 for the weekend with 30 runs. It was more than sufficient to survive the opening series and bodes well for the rest of the schedule.
"I think we'll be able to score some runs, and I like the nature and depth of our pitching staff; that's not perfect but it's come a long way in a short time," Cohen said. "We need to get significantly better defensively."
State hung 11 hits on five of the six Rhode Island pitchers Sunday, four of them at the expense of starter Gardner Leaver who was charged with seven runs. He walked four Dogs and struck out one to take the losing decision in 3.1 innings of work.
By the same token State starter Tyler Whitney struggled in his senior-season opener too. He took responsibility for five Ram runs on six hits, with two walks and four strikeouts in 4.0-plus innings. "Tyler wasn't sharp," said Cohen. "He missed arm-side so much early on and when you do that a lot your delivery is not where it needs to be. And your expectation for a senior there is you'll be able to re-create pitches, he just didn't do it as well as we wanted to."
Junior Corey Collins had better luck in relief, earning the decision on 3.0-plus middle-innings with no runs on one hit, walk, and strikeout. Collins also benefitted from a State offense that more than made up for any pitching issues, or for that matter some early errors that allowed the Rams to take that quick 3-0 lead. Oliver Palmer reached on an infield single to shortstop, and Jeff Cammans tried bunting him over. Whitney fielded cleanly and went for the lead runner but Ogden didn't reach the bag in time, for a pair on with one out.
Rightfielder Tom Coulombe lined a single into straight-centerfield that would have scored lead runner anyway. But CF Ryan Collins compounded it with first a fielding error then a bad throw-in that allowed Jeff Cammans to score all the way from first and Coulombe to reach third. Evan Laude drove him. Laude erased himself by getting picked-off and run-down and Whitney ended the inning with a strikeout.
The Bulldogs erased one run of their deficit in the first turn as leadoff man Collins was plunked, made second on a passed ball, took third on grounder and scored when 1B Connor Powers bounced one deep enough to the left side. In the second inning Ogden ripped a two-out double over the leftfielder's head and LF Trey Johnson reached on a walk, giving #9 batter Nick Vickerson the big chance. On 2-2 he found the left-centerfield gap for the tying RBI.
State was able to take a 4-3 lead in the third aided by a Ram error. Having reached via plunking RF Luke Adkins went first-to-third on Leaver's errant pickoff attempt. Powers was ahead 3-0 but wasn't going to be walked; he reached up on a high fastball and drove it deep for the sacrifice-fly.
"The zone was up all weekend," Ogden said. "We made a good adjustment on balls-up, and Coach always preaches middle, middle, middle. We did a good job and worked the middle."
Bulldog bats really worked Ram pitching over in the fourth, too. With C Wes Thigpen on first, Ogden was able to turn on something fat by Leaver and the URI leftfielder barely bothered to turn and watch the drive carry leftfield for a two-run homer. "The wind probably helped me out but it was good!" Ogden said of his first collegiate shot.
Trailing 6-3, Rhode Island let Leaver face two more batters with a walk of Johnson before summoning lefty Rob Curran to take on the top of the MSU order. Curran did find a way to keep Powers from adding to his RBI total, by walking him. But this just filled all posts for Duffy and on 1-0 he unloaded everything with his first career grand-slam.
"It was a slider, low-and-in. I was actually trying to hit everything opposite-field and get some air under it with the wind blowing hard. But he missed it and I got into one good." Nor were the Dogs done yet with Curran as 3B Russ Sneed singled and was balked to second. Sneed got a good jump on the lefthanded pitcher and had third stolen nicely, but Curran threw the ball away allowing the runner to come on home for a 11-3 State lead through four innings.
But Whitney loaded the bases to open his fifth inning with an infield hit and pair of walks. So State went to the bullpen for Collins to make his initial appearances in an interesting situation. Ogden made a nifty outfield catch for one out, before a check-swing walk of Coulombe forced in one Ram run and a Laude ground ball to shortstop scored another. Collins froze centerfielder Rob DeVeney on a fastball to get out of the inning with a 11-5 Bulldog lead.
"Collins did great today, he's not a velocity guy but it's the sink he has," said Cohen. "Every one of our hitters said he was the hardest guy to hit in the falland he an be very valuable for us, especially in the middle of a game." Collins retired seven-of-eight to complete his stint, and rookie Ben Bracewell had a hitless eighth inning with a strikeout in his MSU debut.
State padded the margin with a sixth-inning run as Adkins came home from second base when the Ram centerfielder didn't get Sneed's single back in fast enough. In the seventh Powers, already the weekend RBI leader, made a big bid for a grand slam of his own to dead-center, only to have the wind stop it on the warning track.
The other Rhode Island run was off soph Devin Jones who threw the ninth in his new role as late reliever. He was scratched for a pair of hits and walk for the last RBI but ended the afternoon with a strikeout, and was aided by a great diving stop by sub-shortstop Jet Butler to defuse a bigger inning.
Ogden led State's hit parade with three safeties, scoring twice with a pair of RBI, while Duffy, Sneed, and Vickerson all had two hits. Powers did not get a base hit per se but drove in two runs and scored another, giving him seven RBI for the weekend.
Cohen still wasn't entirely satisfied with the swinging. "We had too many punch-outs, not enough HBP, enough walks, enough big innings. Rhode Island caused us some problems with some arm-angles and different types of pitches. Offensively I give us about a C-plus or B-minus right now."
A tough grade perhaps, but then the coach has to find that fine line between celebrating three good wins to begin a new year with a largely-new team and reminding that there remains much to work on. Cohen did cut the defense a little slack on second-thought. "It doesn't matter where I've been, kids are tight the first part of the season."
Kids are a big part of this lineup of course with so many frosh or transfers playing leading roles already. Another one will toe the rubber Tuesday night when State hosts Alabama-Birmingham, as Cohen is giving rookie Luke Bole the starting assignment. "We wanted him to pitch against UAB," said Cohen. "Of course Brian Shoop is an ex-Mississippi State coach and does a great job with the short game and running game and Luke excels with that even as a freshman. We'll get him out there and see how he pitches."
And, hopefully, see more of the same from the offense both this midweek and on the coming weekend when State entertains Southeastern Louisiana in a three-game set. It's a long season that has only just begun, after all, but they like the look already.
"We've got a whole new team, a whole bunch of great guys, and we're looking for great things this year," said Duffy. "Hopefully we can keep doing well and have a lot of good games ahead of us."