Renewing the annual rivalry is much on Mississippi State minds this week as the Rebels arrive for a weekend series. Game times are 7:00 Friday for Fox SportsNet telecast; 6:30 Saturday for both SportSouth showing as well as to not conflict with graduation; and 1:30 Sunday (CSS).
This 2010 edition matches clubs coming in on very different conference trajectories. After three sputtering SEC showings and a couple of lost series, Ole Miss (28-13) made a radical turn for the better by sweeping LSU in a high-scoring series at Oxford. The Rebels jumped back into the thick of the West Division race and at 11-7 are two games back of Arkansas. By contrast the Bulldogs (20-20) were unable to build on winning a home series against Tennessee, getting swept at Alabama. At 5-13 State is 11th in the overall SEC standings and not coincidentally three games behind #8 Alabama for the last slot in the league tournament.
There are just four SEC weekends left to make up for all the lost ground, and obviously help will be needed from elsewhere to get back within any sort of contention. Yet Cohen isn't concerned about how his team will approach both the coming series and remainder of the schedule. In fact, hosting the rival is the best way to keep the Bulldogs on their gameplan.
"I think our kids are looking forward to it," Cohen said. "You know, anything can happen, everything we want to do is still out there for us. And I'm fully confident our kids will play well. We just are going to have to pitch well, and have to step it up offensively. Their starting pitching is very, very good. We're going to have to do a great job with the strike zone and keep defending well.
The teams have met already this year, in the non-conference Governor's Cup game March 30. The Rebels took a 5-3 win, though in the late innings State twice had the tying runners in scoring positions and failed to find the one additional needed base hit. Four of the five Bulldogs who threw that night were first-year pitchers, including starter C.C. Watson. The lone veteran to work, senior Tyler Whitney, had a 2.1-frame stint from the seventh into the ninth innings. He had one run on three hits.
This matters because Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson have not set a definite rotation for the series, but lefthander Whitney's name is now first on their minds. "We're not 100% sure yet," Cohen said. "I'm thinking more Tyler on Friday, and we'll back-in Caleb Reed on the other side of him." Sophomore righty Caleb Reed has drawn the last three Friday starts, a unique role for a sidearmer in the SEC. For that matter neither might toe the rubber first in game-one. Cohen liked how freshman Chad Girodo retired all eight he faced in relief at Alabama and won't rule him out as a possible starter.
"Tyler has pitched better out of the bullpen, but Caleb has pitched better out of the bullpen too. I wouldn't even take Chad out that mix either. But right now the way Tyler has pitched the last couple times out is a concern. I really want him to get on a roll, he's worked so hard at it and if he can just throw more strikes for us he can be really effective. Especially in our ballpark."
Most MSU moundsmen managed to run afoul of Alabama's closer walls, not to mention unpredictable Sunday winds, and get taken out by Crimson Tide batters. The most notable victim was game-two starter and, for the season as a whole, State's top arm. Two big swings scored seven Alabama runs off rookie righty Chris Stratton. Though as Cohen noted, the second longball—a three-run shot that put the Tide ahead 8-7—came off a good Stratton pitch that the batter fought off and got into the stiff breeze. Barring a radical change of rotation plan Stratton remains the second-game stalwart with classmate Luke Bole booked for game-three.
Note, the use of game numbers and not days. Weather is already a looming weekend factor with scattered strings of showers forecast all three days. While rain would play havoc with television schedules Cohen is hopeful the series will be played in full.
"With 72 hours you just think you can get it done. You have to believe there are going to be some windows that allow us to play."
Weather played havoc with two days at Tuscaloosa, as the first game required both to complete and Sunday saw a twinbill of seven-inning affairs. Well, scheduled sevens; the first took an extra inning to finish as Alabama rallied from 7-0 down for a 9-8 win. They followed that by negating a 4-1 deficit in the sixth inning to win 6-4. In both cases State's freshmen pitching was good enough to win, with one exceptional frame each time for the home team. Alabama negated all the MSU mound-work with big innings of eight and five runs.
And, left Cohen as frustrated as he's been during a second season with more than its share of frustrations. "I really thought we were going to play well at Alabama. And out of the 24 innings we played in 21. We beat them 21 of 24 innings. But unfortunately the league is too good and it doesn't allow for those kind of innings. Especially with the young arms."
The series featured an even more ironic twist for State, as an offense that largely sputtered through four SEC weekends came to consistent life against Tennessee and stayed strong at Alabama. The Bulldogs hit the ball well, ran the bases better, and while leaving a few too many on bases for their eventual good produced more consistently in RBI settings than before. Fielding also had taken a marked turn for the better. Yet just as these two aspects of the game were coming up to SEC-par, pitching inexperience—and exposure to league scouting—has caught up with the Dogs. Not all the time, Cohen notes.
"It's just the one innings that are hurting us." Big one innings generally relying on home runs, too. Though he added this might not be such a concern this weekend. "In this ballpark you're less likely to have those types of one innings, for obvious reasons." Such as the farther fences at Dudy Noble Field and a pitching staff more confident throwing at home. They have other reason for increased comfort as defense is giving better backing these weeks.
"I thought we defended as well as our personnel can," said Cohen of the past weekend. "Nick Vickerson was great at third base, Jonathan Ogden is one of the best shortstops out there, I think Jaron Shephard really defends the outfield well. And Ryan Duffy is playing as well as he can in the outfield, he's really improved in that area." Duffy's improved, if still unpredictable, fielding has allowed Cohen to go with the more productive offensive outfielders, though to his credit Shepherd has suddenly found his hitting stroke the last two weekends also.
Sticking with Jet Butler as the regular second baseman has also boosted the team's plate production, with Sam Frost now the defensive substitute. Though, freshman Frost does have one offensive advantage on the senior with superior speed, as he showed Sunday when scoring from second on an infield single. He was playing after starter Butler took a knee to his thigh and began limping. This won't be a problem for the series, Cohen said.
"He's a tough kid and he's a senior, he wants to play, I'm absolutely sure he'll be fine to play."
One health situation that won't bear on this weekend but could help State's staff down the stretch is the recover of sophomore pitch Nick Routt, sidelined since mid-March by a strained forearm muscle in the pitching left wing. Routt threw from 90 feet on flat ground last week for the first time in weeks, and early this week was to get back on the mound at last. Cohen had not spoken as of this afternoon with Thompson, who was out recruiting after doing bullpen work with the pitchers Monday and Tuesday mornings.
But the head coach is optimistic that Routt can be worked into action again by next weekend, maybe even one of the midweek games in Pearl against either Jackson State (Tuesday) or Southern Mississippi (Wednesday. "I think there is a real possibility of that, it just depends on him. The doctor has left that in his corner, it depends on how he feels. I know he's sick of watching and wants to pitch, but a lot is going to depend on what he wants to do."
Three Diamond Dogs will receiver their bachelors degrees this weekend; Duffy, outfielder Luke Adkins, and pitcher Justin Bussey. Two State seniors, DH Russ Sneed and Whitney, are already in graduate school; and upperclassmen 1B Connor Powers and Butler are on track for winter graduation.