"There's not a point this year they haven't played well. It will be a tremendous test for us but at the same time I know our kids are looking forward to this opportunity."
It is certainly both for the Bulldogs (33-10, 10-8 SEC), one of the four West clubs to have drawn this inter-Division matchup in 2013. The vagaries of SEC scheduling are playing to the favor of both LSU and Arkansas who for now are first and second in the Western Division. Neither have to take on the Commodores (36-6, 16-2) before the SEC Tournament, with all the implications that has for order-of-finish on this side.
Mississippi State has gotten used to such matchups by now, and the silver lining in what is the SEC's most brutal schedule of '13 is a ratings power index nearly off the charts. Besides, the Bulldogs have heated-up here in April anyway with three successful series and ten wins in the last 12 chances. This has pushed State into a tie for overall SEC fifth, with Florida and Ole Miss; and a third-place tie in the West. The Bulldogs are coming off one road win this week, a 12-1 rout of Memphis which improved their midweek record to 10-0.
Series times are 6:30 Friday, noon Saturday for Comcast, and 1:00 Sunday.
Vanderbilt has rightly earned its reputation as a pitching program, and a staff ERA of 2.96 with .225 average-against in league play is just about at their traditional standards. (All team statistics are SEC-only.) Those numbers are just about the same as what State's staff has put up in 18 games, at 2.88 and .244. The ‘Dores have a few more strikeouts while Dog pitchers have ten less walks, again not enough difference to note. The home team will likely stick with a rotation of Kevin Ziomek (7-2, 2.20) and Tyler Beede (10-0, 1.51) in the one-two slots as why mess with runaway success.
Last season State took both the regular season series, played at Dudy Noble Field, and a neutral meeting in the SEC Tournament Championship game. That was something of a rebuilding Commodore club though. Now, "They're older. Last year they had a lot of new pieces to the puzzle.
What is powering Vanderbilt this year though is their plate-work. This is far-and-away the most efficient SEC offense, in fact they hit better in league play than overall at .322 to .314. It's not just the best on-base rate either but the top slugging rate based largely on a whole lot of doubles and triples. That reflects just how much speed they put on the paths when Tony Kemp, Xavier Turner, Conrad Gregor, et.al., reach base. And they do, with Connor Harrell, Spencer Navin, and so on driving them on in. Between Kemp and Mike Yastrzemski there are at least two SEC Player of the Year candidates in this order.
"Obviously playing at home is big, and I think Beede is one of the premier guys not only in our league but in the country. Ziomek, watching him on film he's got three really good pitches. They've got bullpen help, they have more power in the lineup, and just better at-bats. They're a club that can very easily end up in Omaha."
Bulldog batting hasn't been as spectacular but still out-pace the league average at .269, and in SEC-only stats this week State is third in both slugging and on-base as well. Each category owes much to big stick Hunter Renfroe, who might not be in contention for the classic ‘triple crown' as the RBI lead is likely beyond reach. But the junior rightfielder still is top-three in several categories, most notably now home runs. He has a league-best 14 on the season after knocking a three-run shot out of AAA-size AutoZone Park Tuesday. Renfroe also began the week first in SEC slugging and on-base average, and second in average at .407.
All this despite going 1-of-9 against Auburn, though as Cohen said this was typical baseball irony as Renfroe smacked the ball very well all weekend. Such contact is eventually rewarded. Besides, the work of 3B Alex Detz in the two-hole and now 2B Brett Pirtle swinging fourth has helped Renfroe continue to see hittable pitches. Or, forced opponents to put him on anyway even if other Dogs occupy bases.
Detz might not have had a multiple-hit game since April 6 but he still reaches somehow. The big April development was moving Pirtle into the ‘cleanup' role though as Cohen said college baseball these days doesn't go much by professional impressions. "You've got more of an on-base mentality." Pirtle is doing that as a 4-of-5 evening at Memphis reminded, though his hitting is more timely many games than for average. Plus, "He's a switch-guy, so it's difficult to make a move behind Hunter. I think that's big."
Moving from second to sixth in the order hasn't hurt CF C.T. Bradford's feelings. It has helped his hitting, as in the last six games the junior is 9-of-24 with six runs scored. That's because the last-third in the order is also warming up, most notably C Nick Ammirati. In a five-game stretch the senior was 10-of-20 with 8 RBI and six runs, likely the best by any eight-hole hitter anywhere, and he was SEC Player of the Week.
More importantly, Ammirati has stepped in as starting catcher since C Mitch Slauter's Sunday injury at Texas A&M. "We felt one of the strengths of our club coming in was the catcher position," Cohen said. "Our entire club really rejoiced in that reward for him." Slauter is staying busy while the cracked left (catching) hand recovers, and could be back on the active list by next weekend. "He's campaigning," Cohen said. "We're hopefully he might be a little ahead of schedule."
Bulldog pitching will stay on the schedule which began with the weekend win streak. LHP Luis Pollorena (6-1, 3.38) and RHP Kendall Graveman (5-3, 2.06) have the first and second starts. If his ankle issue doesn't flare-up, LHP Jacob Lindgren (4-1, 2.54) goes again Sunday. "There are days he runs on it and its great, and days it is more sore," Cohen said. Lindgren's arm hasn't been a problem at all in beating A&M and Auburn, the latter an eight-plus-inning shutout.
Senior southpaw Pollorena has the stiffest test matching with Vanderbilt's ace as well as controlling the hurry-up Commodore offense. At least he can see the runner on first before firing, though righty Graveman has the best pickoff move on the staff. Graveman's three-week string of complete-game victories ended against Auburn, yet Cohen called it on review "One of his best outings of the year." Not because the senior was sharper than usual, but for how he battled through some unexpected breakdowns and kept State in contention.
"He's just a guy who understands every part of it; the running game, the short game, who we're going to pitch to and not pitch to." Then again there's a lot of Commodores best left un-pitched to, so Graveman will need to be on his previous fine form in the pivotal Saturday start.
LHP Ross Mitchell threw 6.0 Tuesday innings but only used 56 pitches. So while Friday is questionable the leading long-reliever in the league should certainly be ready for Saturday, which he hopefully isn't needed; then Sunday. Cohen said Mitchell will do some tune-up work Thursday and again Friday morning to see where he is…just in case for tomorrow night. Also, depending on how games develop, Bradford is a good left-hand matchup option in short relief.
"He's going to pitch in some key situations, it just hasn't presented itself and between (Jonathan) Holder and Mitchell it's been harder to create that. And that's a good problem to have."
Holder is closing in (no pun intended) on history. With 12 saves this season he's one shy of tying for the MSU record. And the sophomore is at 21 career saves already, tied for third on the list and within sight of the all-time mark of 29 held by Van Johnson (1995-98).
Of course getting in a save situation requires a Bulldog lead, and not many foes have had the upper hand on Vanderbilt this season. Cohen expects a capacity crowd at Hawkins Field, while other activities around town and campus will keep things busy. This series also throws a twist at the Bulldogs in the form of an all-turf field save only for the pitching mound.
That sounds good to MSU managers, but might make it hard for Dogs like SS Adam Frazier and 1B Wes Rea to mess up their uniforms as usual. "It will be a little more difficult," Cohen agreed. "But there's some dirt out there, they'll find a way."