This isn't just the first-ever visit by the Crusaders to Dudy Noble Field, it is a first-ever meeting of the programs. And just to make scouting a little more challenging for the Diamond Dog coaching staff, this is Holy Cross' season opener as well. So all State has to go on are last year's statistics and a projected pitching lineup of four righthanders.
The Crusaders were 28-25 last season and are in their seventh season with Greg DiCenzo as head coach. This is supposed to be a good one too as Holy Cross has is pre-season favorite in the Patriot League by Collegiate Baseball magazine. Junior outfielder Evan Ocello begins the year picked to be Player of the Year after a .338 season with 25 RBI and 15 steals. He paced the Patriot in runs and hits.
The pitching staff features returning starter Donny Murray (no known relation this side of Scotland), 7-3 last season in 11 starts with 61 strikeouts. Nate Walker (2-1, 4.78 in six starts of nine turns last year) is listed to throw the opener with new arms in the Saturday assignments as of today.
‘Snowbird' squads are the usual February fare for sunbelt programs, and Mississippi State was supposed to open last weekend against Hofstra. Weather scratched the four-game series and the Diamond Dogs hastily arranged a three-game set with Western Carolina. It was a tougher test than intended and showed with a 2-1 series, including State's first opening-day loss in eleven years. Coach John Cohen did see the revised first weekend as a better test, not to mention better for the RPI than facing Hofstra.
At the same time the Southern Conference favorites reminded that the 2014 team is maybe not so different in total names…but is trying to replace lots of experience and firepower in the field, at the bat, and behind the plate. Then a midweek loss to Memphis, where State let a 4-1 lead vanish and gave up three runs in the ninth inning to lose 6-4, was a ruder reality check. After a ten-minute locker room meeting Cohen emerged to bluntly state "I think we've got guys on our ballclub trying to pretend to be something they're not."
The head coach was speaking primarily of an offense that hasn't been offensive enough in four early outings, batting .210 (compared to .230 for the opposition) and has an on-base rate of .261. That latter figure is more meaningful since Mississippi State is designed for getting on the paths, moving around and scoring just enough to succeed. As 39 left-on-base in just four games shows, they've got half the formula right. It is converting opportunities into runs where the frustration flourishes as often two and several times already three Dogs have been left un-scored.
Cohen even used maybe the ultimate insult to a baseball hitter Wednesday, comparing over-effort hacks to "softball swings" by Bulldogs who aren't made to hit home runs. Another result is the 40 total strikeouts so far, largely offsetting 30 walks and seven hit-by-pitch reaches. Cohen's point is more of a reminder to many Dogs as they ought know from experience contact leads to good things and strikeouts are free outs.
To be fair some of these struggles were expected. Replacing a record-setting batter in leadoff wasn't automatic and three candidates have been tested. OF Cody Brown has had the best, or rather better results at .250 over fellow outfielders Derrick Armstrong (.167) and Jake Vickerson (.111). Observers of fall and preseason scrimmaging saw how all three could hit the ball so no final judgment is justified now.
The lone constant in all four orders has been 3B Alex Detz (.267) in the two-slot, though he has been considered to swing first in games too. 1B Wes Rea will stay in the three- or four-hole, though the return of 2B Brett Pirtle to the ‘cleanup' slot after a couple days has paid off again. The most unique and uniquely-productive four-hole hitter in the NCAA last season, he's leading the team at .333 and is the lone Dog to hit safely in all four games. Detz has managed to reach every time somehow, again expected, and owns a 27-games reached streak now.
From there the order will fluctuate as much by matchup as results. The early surprise, if that is fair, is OF Demarcus Henderson's .429 on-base rate and team-leading four runs scored. Though he's also been left stranded more often. It's still too soon to really rate most batters anyway based on scattered and scripted chances. The DH role is particularly in-flux.
Cohen was frustrated by the swinging but has to allow more time and tests before figuring how the core of the order. Defense, doesn't get the same patience. After an errorless opening weekend the infield had three Wednesday errors that let the Tigers first rally and later take their winning lead. Another couple of chances were not handled cleanly, if not charged as errors. All the Es went to plenty-proven glovemen to boot, something the coaching staff wasn't cutting any slack over.
All the same the game was there to finish fine if a swinging strike-three was caught for the second out in the last Tiger turn. Receiving Jonathan Holder's big hooks is not simple but that is why men wear the mitt and mask. So is controlling runners and State has been stolen-on six of seven chances. "We're kind of running around behind the plate like we don't know what we're doing," Cohen said. "So we have to get that under control also."
Catching concerns weren't entirely surprising since neither redshirt Zack Randolph nor transfer Gavin Collins had caught a college game before. And on opening weekend both were praised by their pitchers for calls and receiving. This just means more is demanded by the backstops to keep the confidence up on the hill.
For that matter coaches are confident the mound men will do their part. RHP Brandon Woodruff (0-1) only went 1.0-plus in on opening day; not for lack of stuff, just location as excitement seemed to get the better of the long-rehabbed junior. Faith is affirmed in Woodruff being assigned today's start against an unknown opponent.
The most impressive starter of first weekend, RHP Trevor Fitts (1-0 with 6.0 innings and 11 strikeouts) draws tomorrow's early start. Coach Butch Thompson is leaving the afternoon assignment open for now, pending who does and doesn't go in the first two games. Sunday is booked for impressive freshman RHP Dakota Hudson who had a no-decision in a 4.0 inning start last weekend .
The reason State schedules these four-game weekends is specifically to measure the roster, not just pitchers but defenders and matchup batters. After a sluggish start for a top-ten-ranked ball club, this second series will be graded even more intently than usual. And while the coaches are certainly testing individuals and lineups alike, there's something overriding that Cohen is watching for now.
"We just lost our identity," Cohen said. "We've got to get our identity back."