PREVIEW: Gamecocks hit the road

After taking two of three from then-No. 1 Vanderbilt in the friendly confines of Carolina Stadium, South Carolina takes one of the longest SEC road trips to Mississippi State to try and win another SEC series this weekend. Look inside for what to expect.

Mississippi State Bulldogs

Record: 23-14; Home: 18-6; Away: 3-8; Neutral: 2-0; SEC: 6-9.

Stadium (Capacity): Dudy Noble Field Polk-Dement Stadium (15,000); Dimensions: L-330, C-390, R-326.


Meet Coach John Cohen, offensive strategist and solid hitting coach/instructor. Coach Cohen enters his 3rd year as skipper of Mississippi State, coming from a Kentucky program that benefitted from his imprint by taking them from worst to first in 2006. Given his instructional talents, his efforts at MSU over the past few years have been directed towards the key component that can win games and change things quickly at a program… pitching.

His pitching staff features a collection of talented arms close to home or from within the area… Chris Stratton (RHP, Tupelo, MS.), Kendall Graveman (RHP, Alexander City, Al.), Luis Pollorena (LHP, Laredo, Tx.), Chad Girodo (LHP, Hartselle, Al.). He continued the trend by bringing in talented freshmen that have seen time on the bump in relief (Daryl Norris RHP, Evan Mitchell LHP). With emphasis placed on pitchers and stopping opponents run progression, our attention turns to what transpires from the MSU offensive aspect of their game.

You look at their batting order and you see a lot of experience. You see 8 senior players (out of 12) that start/participate in a batting line-up rotation that is not always set in stone. ¾'s of their line-up are seniors, 3 are freshmen and one is a junior. Their 13th hitter is a hitter/pitcher combination, Taylor Stark (RHP, Fr.) who is multi-talented; he can hit, he can field (right fielder; 1.000 flg%) and he can pitch (0.00ERA, 11.IP, 12k). Coach Cohen is doing a good job rebuilding his alma mater's program and it is hard to believe they are currently 5th in the SEC west standings. They played The Governor's Cup (against SECw foe Ole Miss) last night (4/19; Pearl, MS.) and MSU won 6-1, but its end result is not counted against either team's SEC standings.

If it was counted, I believe one gets a better picture of what this Bulldog team can do. Their W-L record is not indicative of what this team can do and it may be that they will not stay at sub .500 play for long. Their rotation gives Coach Cohen a better shot at producing hitter/pitcher match-ups, pending the opponent's pitching rotation… use of LHP's or RHP starters; relievers typically following those starters and if age/experience might match up against particular closers.

Their hitters tend to struggle a bit against left handed pitching but will offer a challenge for pitchers given the rotation of their hitters and where they line up at the plate. Typically, they have as many lefties at the plate as right-handed hitters; this point will come into play as we are playing in the later innings and a reliever is needed. This situation gives someone like John Taylor, Brian Harper and Steven Neff distinct advantages… lefties with experience, setting it up for Price or going the distance themselves.

All of these scenarios come into play when you are playing John Cohen's teams. It was the case in Kentucky and is now the case at MSU. You can't get too comfortable with their batting order if you are an opposing pitcher. Chances are very good change will come the longer you stay in the game. What you can do against them is to make sure you keep their hitting in check from the 5th inning on, because they win more games by keeping you close in the early innings and get better hitting (off of relief) in later innings. Their record for winning games after the fifth inning is very good; they are 20-2 going into the 7th inning with a lead.

Their in-conference statistics for hitting (against SEC pitchers) is not as impressive as their overall hitting statistics. Against the conference, they average .265 as a team (versus .284, overall), with an in-conference on-base percentage of .332 (versus .388 overall). They swept Auburn and won one game (out of 3) against Florida in Starkville; they were swept by UGa (in Athens) and won one out of three against Arkansas (Fayetteville AR.).

They play much better at home and always play in front of big crowds (they average 6,100 fans at home games played this year). Their fans along the outfield fence, in the "left field lounge" is a much more verbal crowd and is the place to be on weekend conference match-ups. Conversely, we don't play well in Starkville; we hold an 11-12 mark at Dudy Noble since we first played them there in 1984.

Their hitting nucleus of Bradford, Freeman, Parks, Collins, Ogden, Frazier, Vickerson, Thigpen and Shepherd will typically start the game. You will see a lot of rotation for hits (pinch hitting/position change) from Trey Johnson, Sam Frost, Brent Brownlee and Taylor Stark. The DH position will rotate between Freeman(RH), Johnson(LH) and Vickerson(RH). Darryl Norris has gotten a lot of looks as their lead off first baseman lately, rotating with Collins (plays 1st base or RF). If you are keeping a scorecard, get ready for a challenge! Here is their hitting order, with (typical) starters listed in the 1-9 position (top to bottom):

10, C.T. Bradford CF /LHP (L/L, Fr.); .299BA, 144AB, 22r, 43h, 28RBI, 13w, 16k (.389 obp).

29, Cody Freeman C/DH (R/R, Sr.); .315BA, 124AB, 18r, 39h, 1HR, 21RBI, 15w, 28k (.399 obp).

9, Jarrod Parks 3B (R/R, Sr.); .402BA, 122AB, 28r, 49h, 2HR, 28RBI, 26w, 23k (.526 obp).

38, Ryan Collins 1B (L/L, Sr.); .255BA, 110AB, 22r, 28h, 1HR, 17RBI, 19w, 16k (.362 obp).

24, Trey Johnson LF/LHP (L/L, Sr.); .276BA, 29AB, 6r, 8h, 5RBI, 1w, 5k (.344 obp).

3, Jonathon Ogden SS (R/R, Sr.); .273BA, 128AB, 27r, 35h, 6HR, 27RBI, 8w, 28k (.362 obp).

12, Adam Frazier 2B (L/L, Fr.); .222BA, 54AB, 7r, 12h, 9RBI, 2w, 9k (.246 obp).

15, Jaron Shepherd RF (L/R, Sr.); .269BA, 78AB, 14r, 21h, 13RBI, 12w, 18k (.392 obp).

31, Wes Thigpen C (R/R, Sr.); .289BA, 83AB, 7r, 24h, 1HR, 17RBI, 7w, 18k (.359 obp).

21, Nick Vickerson DH (R/R, Sr.); .267BA, 120AB, 34r, 32h, 2HR, 10RBI, 23w, 27k (.390 obp).

5, Daryl Norris 1B/RHP (R/R, Fr.); .294BA, 85AB, 18r, 25h, 20RBI, 17w, 20k (.421 obp).

42 Brent Brownlee, CF (R/R, Jr.); .266BA, 64AB, 6r, 17h, 4RBI, 4w, 11k, (.360 obp).

8, Sam Frost 3B (L/R, So.); .167BA, 36AB, 8r, 6h, 3RBI, 10w, 11k (.340 obp).

7, Taylor Stark RF/RHP (R/R, Fr.); .222BA, 27AB, 7r, 6h, 1HR, 5RBI, 4w, 8k (.400 obp).

2, Demarcus Henderson SS (R/R, Fr.); .167BA, 12AB, 3r, 2h, 2RBI, 3k (.167 obp).

34, Hunter Renfroe LF/RHP (R/R, Fr.); .000BA, 7AB, 1r, 1RBI, 1w, 4k (.111 obp).

Totals:

MSU (team) Batting Average: .284;
MSU (team) On Base Percentage: .388
Opponent (team) Batting Average: .248;
Opponent On Base Percentage: .323

Pitching…there is a good mixture of youth and experience on the MSU pitching staff this year. As noted, a lot of consideration was given to the pitching staff when Coach Cohen came in as skipper. Their staff (those seeing weekend starts/relief/closing opportunities) features 5 freshmen, 5 sophomores and 4 juniors. Most of their weekend starters are pitchers with experience… Jones, Routt, Reed are all juniors, with Reed as their go to closer. That is a little misconceiving as he can go +30 pitches/outing; in fact, he threw 61 pitches against Arkansas last weekend for their lone win in Fayetteville.

Their weekend starting line-up was changed radically during their trip to Arkansas as well. Devin Jones had been their Friday starter through four SEC match-ups (Vandy, Auburn, UGa and Florida), but was pulled from the position last weekend with Stratton getting the start. Stratton had been their Saturday guy and can go +100 pitches/outing; Stratton's Saturday position was given to Routt (typically the Sunday starter) who is capable of giving 3.0-5.0 innings of solid pitching.

Sunday's wildcard pitcher became freshman lefty Evan Mitchell, with Jones working middle relief in Saturday's game. Mitchell lasted only 18 pitches before he got the hook; point is, there seems to be a lot of question marks around the Sunday start and I believe either the rotation goes back the way it was (Jones, Stratton, Routt) or they bring in Luis Pollorena, who held-served for +3. Innings last Sunday, to help get a win in Fayetteville. Here are their overall numbers for this year:

32, Devin Jones RHP (L/R, Jr.); 4.15ERA, 2-4, 43.1IP, 38h, 22r(20e), 12w, 39k (.239 oba).

28 Chris Stratton RHP (R/R, So.); 4.66ERA, 4-4, 56.IP, 52h, 31r,(29e), 21w, 55k (.248 oba).

36 Nick Routt LHP (L/L, Jr.); 4.91ERA, 0-2, 18.1IP, 21h, 10r(10e), 5w, 17k (.292 oba).

37 Caleb Reed RHP (R/R, Jr.); .88ERA, 0-0, 6SV, 30.2IP, 17h, 5r(3e), 9w, 36k (.170 oba).

5 Darryl Norris RHP (R/R, Fr.); 1.20ERA, 1-0, 1SV, 15.1IP, 8h, 2r(2e), 7w, 13k (.157 oba).

17 Luis Pollorena LHP (L/L, So.); 1.69ERA, 4-2, 26.2IP, 18H, 7R(5E), 9W, 19K (.200 OBA).

49 Kendall Graveman RHP (R/R, So.); 3.03ERA, 4-0, 32.2IP, 28h, 11r(11e), 5w, 23k (.241 oba).

46 Tim Statz LHP (L/L, Jr.); 4.20ERA, 0-1, 15.IP, 17h, 10r(7e), 9w, 14k (.274 oba).

48 Evan Mitchell LHP (L/L, Fr.); 4.74ERA, 3-1, 24.2IP, 29h, 14r(13e), 5w, 20k (.290 oba).

18 Chad Girodo LHP (L/L, So.); 6.00ERA, 2-0, 18.IP, 22h, 13r(12e), 7w, 18k (.301 oba).

44 Andrew Busby RHP (R/R, So.); 9.28ERA, 1-0, 10.2IP, 17h, 11r(11e), 7w, 10k (.405 oba).

34 Hunter Renfroe RHP (R/R, Fr.); 9.82ERA, 0-0, 3.2IP, 6h, 5r(4e), 4w, 1k (.333 oba).

47 Victor Diaz RHP (R/R, Fr.); 6.52ERA, 0-0, 9.2IP, 11h, 7r(7e), 7w, 10k (.289 oba).

7 Taylor Stark RHP (R/R, Fr.); 0.00ERA, 2-0, 1SV, 11.IP, 3h, 3w, 12k (.091 oba).

Totals:

MSU (team) ERA: 3.90
Opponent (team) ERA:5.48
OBA against MSU (team) pitching: .248
OBA against MSU opponent pitching: .284

Chris Stratton (R/R, RHP, So.) is their most reliable starter and has the ability to hit the strike zone with frequency, with almost a K/inning. Of all starters, he has the lowest opponent batting average (.248) and is the most durable of starters, averaging 98 total pitches against five SEC opponents. His only hiccup came against Florida in their Saturday game, where Florida hitters got seven runs off of 3 hits and 3 walks and sent him to the showers after 1.2 innings pitched. The difference that night was that his curve wasn't landing for him and it is tough to throw K's with a fastball against a batting line-up like Florida, without a second pitch. He paid the price that night, but has done well on other starts.

If you give Stratton time on the mound, he will make your life more difficult every additional inning. Stratton throws a nasty curveball and will work inside –outside with his fastball. He will use the curve to set up the fastball and has added a change-up to his arsenal of pitches. He has very good velocity on his pitches and has a smooth seamless delivery. His fastball comes in @ the low-90s and comes in low to bait groundout hits. Chances are very good he will be their Friday night starter.

Nick Routt (L/L, LHP, Jr.) is coming off of a year where he was rehabbing from a muscle injury suffered during last season. Post- surgery, Cohen felt there needed to be a change in plan for what Routt would throw in 2011. Routt was known to have a very reliable curveball to use against left-handed hitters, which was his go-to pitch for lefties. He also possessed a change-up, which Coach Cohen believed gave him the injury. Out goes the change-up, in comes Coach's belief that Routt needs to work off of his fastball (88-91 mph) and other secondary pitches (namely the curveball) including a slider. Routt will throw from a low of 50 pitches to the high 80s in his visits to the bump, but opponents have hit him pretty well this season.

Caleb Reed (R/R, RHP, Jr.) provides stability in the back of the order, much like Matt Price does for us. They know they can rely on Reed and his experience for K's in late inning situations and he has come through with 6 saves (overall) and 2 saves in conference games. He is a dominant pitcher in 1 to 2 innings, throwing fastballs and breaking balls as needed early on and working in a nasty slider, along with the fastball, to extend his outings on the bump. He kept the Arkansas hitters totally off-balance last weekend, for 5 and 1/3 innings.

Devin Jones (L/R, RHP, Jr.) uses a low 90s fastball to set up other pitches which he possesses, and it is reported that his fastball has touched @ 94 mph in MSU practices. His second pitch is a slider, but landing it has been difficult for the junior this year. His lack of confidence has been his greatest downfall; he can throw for strikes, but the hit-to-run ratio (38 hits/20 earned runs) has been a killer for him this year. Cohen admits that there is concern for Jones in that help will always be there when trouble occurs. Well, trouble occurred against Florida two weeks ago and it cost him a weekend starting position last weekend against Arkansas. I have to assume the case will be the same with Carolina this weekend.

Mississippi State will rely upon a large number of relievers to plug holes, bridge early innings to late innings if things go wrong with a starter or attempt to get the close, even if Reed is unavailable. Taylor Stark (R/R, RHP, Fr.) is a young man that came in and got the Sunday win against Florida; he closed last night's game against Ole Miss, giving up no hits/runs in the process. He has one save this season against an SEC opponent. As stated, he is most likely to come in from right field to pitch, creating a position change in RF (usually Trey Johnson coming in at RF).

Some of their most notable relievers are Luis Pollorena (L/L, LHP, So.) , SEC opponents: 2.45ERA, 7.1IP, .276oba; Daryl Norris (R/R, RHP, Fr.), SEC opponents: 1.08ERA, 1-0, 8.1IP, .172oba; Chad Girodo (L/L, LHP, So.) SEC opponents: 6.23ERA, 2-0, 4.1IP, .353oba and Tim Statz (L/L, LHP, Jr.) SEC opponents: .096ERA, 9.1IP, .182oba.

Coach Cohen is a cerebral coach. He thinks a lot about changes he can make in the field and on the mound. He will make changes routinely to get what he wants out of his players. Everyone makes changes, but not as regularly as MSU might at this time of year. If he makes a change and it works out, all is well. So far this year, it has netted a 40% in-conference winning percentage and a 62% overall winning percentage.

If he makes a change against a team like Carolina, it could cost him. I feel the later the changes come in the game against us, the more it will work in our favor. Some of the best have gone 2 out of 3 against MSU (Florida/Starkville, Arkansas/Fayetteville) and (personally) I think that is where we will go against them this weekend… they are a hungry team coming off a weekday win over Ole Miss. I can guarantee that Coach Cohen is reminding them of their record against us in their house and what it will mean to their program to take two of three or sweep the #2 team in the land. It could be their rallying cry for the season.

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