Then I remembered something about playing in the SEC that I had forgotten, something that will enlighten a lot of you. I am going to let you in on something that only players who have played in the SEC truly understand.
By now, all of you know about all the freshmen pitchers that Mississippi State had to use this season and the ramifications of having to use them. While it may have caught some of you by surprised how poorly they pitched at times this season, it really shouldn't have. We were warned at the beginning of the year by our coach that they were going to get hit in the mouth a lot this year.
Coach Cohen understood the fact that the transition between high school and even junior college to the SEC is enormous. Of course there are some players who handle that transition better than most, players such as the two freshmen pitchers from Florida, both of whom have had outstanding seasons. And we've had our fair share of those kind of guys, too. Paul Maholm and Eric DuBose immediately come to mind. But the truth is that those types of players don't come around very often. Heck, one of the Major League's top closers, Boston's Jonathan Papelbon, redshirted his first season at State. If that doesn't tell you how big of a difference it is, I don't know what will.
While Papelbon had the luxury of being able to redshirt, the freshmen pitchers Coach Cohen and staff recruited last season didn't have that luxury due to the pitching or lack of that he inherited when he was hired at State. I'm not stating that based on what Coach Cohen said or what I've read on the internet. I've actually spoken with players that graduated in 2007 and 2008 and they told me. They said themselves that the talent when they left there was not the same as the players they came in with and played with early in their careers. Hence, the reason the freshmen pitchers had to bypass a redshirt season and pitch in the SEC. And they performed about like you would expect from kids who were pitching in high school baseball games this time last year.
Don't buy what I am telling you? Here is a personal experience for you, then. When I got to MSU, I was a cocky player just like most of the players who sign with State. Truthfully, if you're not a little cocky, you're not a baseball player. You have to have that cocky/confidence about yourself if you want to succeed.
Anyway, when fall ball started I was pumped. First off, I was living a dream. Second, I was meeting players that had been to Omaha only a year prior - the Travis Chapmans, Mark Freeds, Kevin Donovans. They had played on the biggest stage. And here I was, a cocky freshman about to compete against them. I found out pretty quick I was not as good as I thought. In fact, it took me two and a half weeks of fall ball, scrimmaging every day, before I even got my first hit! Let me say that again, my first hit. Not double, triple, or home run, but a base hit. And it wasn't a shot but a seeing eye single in the four hole. I had never been so excited about a forty-five hop ground ball in my life. Talk about a humbling situation. Luckily I did get better but I ended up redshirting my freshman season. And I can't tell you how much I needed that redshirt year. Of course, I hated it at the time but looking back it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I desperately needed that redshirt year.
Now fast forward 10 years and we come to this past year. We had 10 freshmen coming in of which 8 had to play right away. I mentally put myself in their shoes about halfway through the season. Like I did, they made their freshmen mistakes. But unlike me, they made their mistakes in actual games. I had the luxury of making mine in practice.
Having said all of this, Coach Cohen will tell you that the "freshmen mistakes" that have been made this year don't get to be "freshmen mistakes" next year. The first year is done. Now it's time to really see what they are made of, what they have learned. How hard are they going to work this off season to make sure that they don't let those same things happen to then next year? I can guarantee you that these same words will be spoken in each player's exit meeting. He is going to challenge them. He is going to push them. But he knows, based on past experiences, what can happen next year provided they work hard. He also knows how much better a player gets between year one and year two based on simple physical maturity. He has been through this everywhere he has been. And he has been successful. Go look at Kentucky's third season under Cohen. That team won 44 games and the overall SEC championship. He is a winner and he WILL win! So, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
As a former player, I can also tell you from my own personal experience that the transformation between the first and second years is unbelievably huge. Players will be much more comfortable. They know what they have been through and they know what has to be done to be more successful. They have been through the fire of that freshman season. Now, assuming they work hard this off season, the roles will be much more reversed next season. They will be the ones inflicting a little pain on opposing players next year. They will be the ones, when the game is over, who will look at the scoreboard and see, more often than not, a victory. They will reap those benefits from the dreaded past year and the offseason of hard work and every one of them will know that it was all worth it. I have been there and I can tell you that IT WILL BE WORTH IT! See you next year.
Matthew Brinson, a former Mississippi State baseball player who played at State during the years 2000-2003, is the MSU baseball columnist for GenesPage.com.