Rough Experiences Seasoning Pups For Future

John Cohen is a self-confessed football fanatic, a familiar fall figure on the Mississippi State sidelines and frequent practice observer when his own team's practice schedule allows. When the football Bulldogs won last year's Egg Bowl it was hard to say which was jumping around more, Dan Mullen or the baseball boss.

This was part of the reason Cohen just recently watched a recording of that game. There was another though; to remind himself why large-roster college sports works the way it does on both gridiron or diamond. And, by extension, why the football Bulldogs came on strong at the end of Mullen's first year and why the Diamond Dogs continue to experience literal growing-up pains. Emphasis on the ‘experience' part.

"I looked at the Ole Miss game and we destroyed them," Cohen said. "And looking at the numbers, we used Chris Relf or Anthony Dixon 77% of the time when we gained yardage. Well, you've got a senior who has done it over and over and over again so you're going to put it in his hands. Relf has been here three years, you're going to put it in his hands. And you have a senior quarterback (Tyson Lee) playing the other snaps. I'd give anything if 77% of the time we could put an upperclassman on that bump."

Or at least a selection of well-seasoned SEC arms, serving their scheduled stints the way just about all of Mississippi State's conference competition can. Not so the Diamond Dogs. Once the slender stock of upperclassmen is used—as senior starter Tyler Whitney and senior reliever Greg Houston are in series-opening games—all State coaches can call on are a passel of pups. The results and record show how well that works in this league.

"The numbers dictate that we don't have that personnel," Cohen said Sunday after a fourth-straight series sweeping extended the school's record SEC losing streak to a dozen games. In this case it was Vanderbilt bringing the broom, taking the series by scores of 13-8, 13-7, and 14-4. The first two losses were much more competitive than the final margins, particularly the ten-inning second game that State was a single strike from winning in 8.5. And the number of runs put up show State was swinging the sticks, a late-season trend that has made the losses at least interesting.

"I don't think we're that easy to pitch to right now," agreed Cohen. But then Vanderbilt, a team on a late-year roll themselves, was even harder to pitch to over the course of a weekend. Especially with what arms MSU had to send to the hill, again and again.

"We're putting some guys in some tough situations on the mound," Cohen said. "But Vanderbilt comes in hitting .286 in conference play or something like that, and we're swinging the bat as well as those guys are. What is different is what is on the mound, quite frankly. That's a huge portion of the game, if you can't stop somebody on the mound you're swimming upstream."

Drowning might be a better way to say it. Vanderbilt got nothing cheap in the weekend. State committed just three errors as the Dog defense has finally found its footing, and even made several plays and saves worth cheering. For that matter the offense scored runs without a lot of contributions by the usual team leaders. Senior 1B Connor Powers hit just .267 for the weekend with two RBI; classmate DH Russ Sneed was .167. And senior OF Luke Adkins had to miss his final home game after the death of a grandfather, hitting 1-of-10 in two games under the naturally distracting circumstances. The lone senior who had anything to enjoy about the weekend was a 5-of-7 series for OF Ryan Duffy.

Despite all the frustrations Cohen has been pleased with the entire team's approach during the season-ending skid.

"Our focus is great. And it's because our seniors know what we're doing is going to be successful and what we're going to be doing in the future. I feel bad for those guys but they're doing all they can. Our young guys are really giving great effort, too."

But effort only goes so far when young players are asked—forced—to attempt feats beyond their individual and collective abilities. Not, Cohen stresses, their long-term potential. And for that matter rookies have to be tossed in for the first time at some season-point. A few can handle the responsibility, but that most often is in the field and at the plate. The mound is another matter for someone who just a calendar-year previously had been blowing fastballs by high school sophomores.

Take rookie lefthander Luke Bole, who has emerged as the Sunday starter and taken a lot of lumping in the process. None of this is to be blamed directly on the kid, Cohen said.

"We think Luke is going to be really good. What we really need to be doing with Luke is what we can't afford to do right now: he needs to be throwing two innings in the middle of the week instead of starting on the weekend in the SEC." Even classmate Chris Stratton, who has proved himself the most reliable opener of '10 as a true frosh, ought not be starting game-twos. Much less having to keep throwing inning after inning after inning whether the other team is scoring or he's tiring. Stratton threw 143 pitches Saturday and left with a 5-3 lead in the ninth and a walked runner on base. While that raised obvious concerns about overwork—Stratton certainly seemed strained for two weekends after his April 17 complete game win over Tennessee—the State coaches note his delivery and condition allow this kid to do much more than the usual workload regardless of class.

A Stratton is the exception to the rule of course. Even he is forced into larger duty than was planned over the winter…before expected rotation mainstay Nick Routt developed strain in a pitching-forearm first and then elbow. The sophomore, who had added a few m.p.h. in the off-season but was having some control issues in his six appearances, was shut-down for the rest of the season in late April. Routt is one of six Dogs not playing for injury reasons.

But most others—OF Brent Brownlee, 3B Jarrod Parks, 2B Frank Rawdow for examples—could have their positions filled easily enough and on the whole that has happened. Though, at the price of real depth and more noticeably in pinch-options to hit and/or run. This has been somewhat offset over the last few weeks by offensive improvements from CF Jaron Shepherd, SS Jonathan Ogden, and 2B Sam Frost. They may have been lineup liabilities the first half of the season, but in the second half have all raised their production greatly. That by the way reflects how batters improve with experience within this system, the same as happened in Cohen's second and third years after taking over Kentucky.

Can pitching do the same as they cycle-through? This depends on how the kids—which should include second-year moundsmen signed by the previous coaching staff such as Routt, Devin Jones, Caleb Reed—come off their rather brutal baptisms of 2010. If they aren't too scarred by the experiences, or for that matter by the surgeon's knife, the best of the bunch will make a much more prepared staff of juniors and sophomores in '11. Which, as Vanderbilt showed, is how the game is won. The Commodores started a sophomore and relieved with a junior in game-one.

That starter, by the way, turned down $1.5 million out of high school to play college ball. Sunday's starter was a 36th-round draftee three years ago. In fact eleven Commodores in all were drafted before coming to college and two spurned million-dollar-plus offers. Mississippi State fans are too-well-aware of how little MLB interest the current Bulldog roster got. Only three State players were high school drafts and just one, Jones, was inherited by this coaching staff. The others are freshman pitcher C.C. Watson and juco Shepherd. Though, Bole and classmate Ben Bracewell may well have been drafted if they had not made clear they wanted to play for Mississippi State.

Both are arms to build around once they are in proper roles. Bracewell also will need a shoulder clean-up procedure after the season; the gradual injury has made State's best stopper (and, parenthetically, owner of the best walk-up music on the whole squad) much less effective down the stretch. Bracewell struggled in his short emergency stint in Saturday's fatal tenth inning. Yet Cohen didn't regret making the call because…there weren't many other options available at that time.

"Bracewell is our best opportunity but he can't throw consecutive days or innings, it's difficult with the way his arm is right now. But we feel he is the one guy who has thrown the most strikes of any of our freshmen. That's not what happened, it's disappointing for him. And he's a freshman, too.

"I've seen this happen before; to gameplan against freshmen is a pretty easy thing and that is what everybody is doing against us."

If this seems a harped-on theme, the difference age and a little more experience can make was shown by Reed. The soph ended up taking Saturday's loss with a brutal and short stint, albeit with a sudden wicked wind swirling the park ahead of a storm front. Yet the next day he was called on to complete game-three and worked four-plus frames with only modest, by weekend standards, troubles.

"I was pleased with what Caleb did, he came in and threw strikes which is something our program desperately needs at this point," Cohen said. "And he struggled with a year ago." Reed had also struggled the last month to get SEC umpires to like his sidearm-stuff location, so for these concluding two weeks he has returned to his original overhand delivery. State still expects him to drop back down for the junior year and hone the location.

"When you're one strike away from winning and don't, and have a freshman hit a guy or throw it to the backstop it's disappointing," Cohen said. "It's not expected, but you understand it. It won't be an excuse in the future when they're not freshmen any more. There are reasons for it and it's frustrating. But the positive thing is they all get experience."

That reflects the faith this coach has in experience, no matter how frustrating or outright painful, as the best teacher for players in general and pitchers in particular. At the same time Cohen and staff are not standing-pat with their current roster. Senior Day saw seven upperclassmen, out of nine on the roster, taking their Dudy Noble Field bow. But a total of 16 high school and junior college prospects have been signed and one or two more may be added. In fact, Lane Burroughs was out of town observing junior college tournaments the last two days. Nick Mingione moved into the third-base box with juniors Trey Johnson and Wes Thigpen getting to coach first in games two and three.

This is going to be a very big recruiting class in both size and necessity terms. It also runs obvious risk of June draft damage as several already-inked prospects are professional prizes. State coaches are optimistic most will come on to college, as again is happening increasingly around the SEC, but some base-covering is wise. It also sends a clear signal to current players that few jobs are secure for 2011…also the case elsewhere in this league where over-signing classes are the rule. In fact Cohen is of the same mind as Mullen in this area, since the football coach openly boasts how every varsity Dog has to re-win his job every year. Every week, even.

The projected rookie/transfer class of '11 is loaded with position players and, presumably, hitters who more fit the mold Cohen has in mind for Dudy Noble Field. There's another factor here as well, which this coach learned from mentor Pat McMahon.

"It's obvious when you play against teams that have a cycle of good recruiting because they're never naked in one area. And quite frankly that's a little bit of our struggle right now. Freshmen are in-and-out, they never get exposed. That's the nature of class and positional balance. Teams that have that are solid, teams that don't struggle until they can get that. And that's where we are as a program right now."

Another ‘right now' is the remaining week to play out, beginning with Tuesday's non-conference stop at Southern Mississippi (6:30). As per SEC policy begun three years ago, the final conference series moves up a day to Thursday-Friday-Saturday. Though Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson will set a Hattiesburg starter, the abbreviated week means "We'll try to throw all our guys one inning and get through it, then go down to Baton Rouge and practice Wednesday," Cohen said. And the extended stint by Stratton may mean pushing him back a game, if not an actual day, to Saturday's game-three.

Though the Bulldogs have nothing beyond the last week itself to play for, Cohen isn't concerned anyone will go through the motions. Any more than they have all the past month. "Our focus is great, our practices are great, our preparations are great."

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