The Diamond Dogs indeed have achieved liftoff here in February. Two weekends into their season Mississippi State is 9-0, one of the two remaining unbeaten SEC squads. This is the best start since the 2006 season. And while excellent early-season records ought to be the norm in this conference, what Coach John Cohen’s club has done in their early tests is a most encouraging indicator for 2013.
The second weekend saw State taking two from both Samford (8-2, 8-1) and Purdue (3-2, 7-6) to stay unscratched. These were a marked step-up in competition from the first five games against Portland and Grambling State, because the Bulldogs were taking on a pair of 2012 conference champions and NCAA participants.
So these were four solid successes by all standards. “Samford is a good ball club, they can really hit,” Cohen said. “They can bite you. And so is Purdue. I think this was a nice test for us and a nice little weekend because both of those teams are going to do some damage in their leagues this year.”
Mississippi State has two more weekends before league play begins. Not to mention more midweek play in an unusually packed pre-conference schedule. Rhode Island (0-6) stays on its swing South with Tuesday and Wednesday dates, both 4:00. Another ‘snowbird’ arrives for a three-day, four-game set as State hosts St. Joseph’s (2-4). Cohen is not relaxing the pace at all with a pre-league slate of 19 games in 24 days. At least all are home-field contests.
“This is a tough stretch for us in the amount of games in a short amount of time,” Cohen agreed. The goal of course is evaluating the 34-man squad prior to picking 27 who will dress for the first SEC weekend.
What a coach can’t script is competitiveness. This made Purdue and Samford more telling tests than rolling through a Portland. Certainly fans recall, not fondly, that pair of defeats by Samford in the Tallahassee Regional. And Dudy Noble Field denizens also remember how State has been battled by previous Big Ten visitors.
Purdue provided the first real challenges, saving its best—if all young and usually lefthanded—pitching for the home team. Neither team scored until Friday’s fifth inning and the Boilermakers did first at that. State answered immediately, with a big homer by RF Hunter Renfroe, and broke a 2-2 tie in the eighth with aggressive base-work and a sacrifice fly. That came from a true freshman, LF Jacob Robson, and scored a juco transfer in 1B Alex Detz, which pointed to Cohen’s goal of putting newcomers and backups under real-game pressures.
Veterans, even. “There are going to be plenty of times rest of the season that we’re down,” CF C.T. Bradford said. “It’s how we handle that.”
Saturday’s rematch saw the best test to-date as Purdue led 5-2 half-way through. The Bulldogs responded splendidly with two and three runs the next two frames. For that matter Samford kept State off the board for three Sunday frames. Rather than raising concerns about batting, this gave the offense its chance to show some stuff every mid-game.
“I knew we were going to break free,” said Sunday starter Cox. “Our hitting has improved so much and it’s that much easier to focus on just pitching and not worrying about run support. Because I know we’re going to have it at the end.”
Detz, who hit safely three times Sunday with three RBI, emphasized that same confidence. “Offensively we had a pretty good fall and now we’re a good offensive club. Everyone talks about our pitching and defense, but we’re pretty solid offensively and its starting to show.”
State hit .336 for the four games, a bit better in fact than in the first five games (.329). Renfroe led the list at .429, despite missing Sunday with a sore hand, and raised his season to .393. He also knocked a pair of solo shots out of the yard, and was robbed of a third at the leftfield fence. That was offset by a triple though. Renfroe is the lone Dog to have hit safely in every game played. Understandably there was Sunday concern about the right (throwing) hand after getting nailed by a Purdue pitch. An x-ray was set for today.
“He told me it’s really sore but he could play,” Cohen said. “But we didn’t want to risk that.” This was also why 1B Wes Rea saw only limited late-game defensive duty in the first Purdue game. The junior strained a quadriceps on opening weekend and is being protected. Given how injuries nearly gutted the 2012 season, especially on offense, there is natural anxiety already here, but neither case seems too serious as of now.
And very much unlike last season, State is seeing capable alternatives. Detz has played errorless defense at first base in Rea’s absence and batted 5-of-12 over the weekend. While Renfroe charted pitches Sunday, Derrick Armstrong played well in the field as well as drove in two key mid-game runs while scoring also. Taking into account how Robson has performed in his starts, Demarcus Henderson’s proven presence, as well as Tyler Fullerton off the bench, there aren’t depth problems in the outfield any more. Or a lack of pinch-runners for that matter.
And save for a rare throw-in error by Renfroe the outfield’s defense has been up to expected high standards. Offensively Henderson is hitting .353 and Bradford .344, his average only crimped by some bunting situations.
Overall though the batting right now is paced by a couple of infielders. Seeing Adam Frazier (.444) atop the list is no surprise, though him having an oh-fer against Grambling was. If he can tally eight hits every SEC weekend, as he has these first two, All-American status is assured, and he already has four triples. Nor should any do a double-take at 3B Daryl Norris’ .429 average in seven games; they should remember that up to his March ’12 injury he was leading State in batting.
C Mitch Slauter is the one showing new consistency at .381 on the early season, enough that he DH’d on Sunday as a right-hand matchup rather than lefty Trey Porter (.280). Porter has simply been snakebit, making excellent contact and watching his shots gloved. Sooner or later he seems sure to find open space though. Cohen has put a variety of second-sackers in the field and defense hasn’t missed a beat. The key is figuring which one, or ones, has the best chance to hit and round-out the offense.
Also as to the defense, while C Nick Ammirati doesn’t have the average he did come through with some timely contact. And his work with the mitt makes him a confident counterpart to Slauter with four starts already. State has six errors in whole but four came in the 7-6 win over Purdue and merely made things interesting.
And this week’s practice and pregames, umm, intense. “We’re doing some things we talk an awful lot about,” Cohen said, intent on correction. “But at the same time our kids founds ways to get hits when they matter, I thought we ran bases very well, we run to the ball in the outfield real well. And our bullpen has just done an unbelievable job.”
That is fact. The numbers say it all: Bulldog relievers have a collective ERA of 1.00 and allowed four runs all weekend, in 18 innings. For the season so far the bullpen has won five of the nine games. It hasn’t been unexpected really, but such stats are still impressive. No one more so than closer Johnathan Holder with three saves in four appearances. The other? He got the win. Holder was touched for a run but that came on an error so his ERA remains perfect, and he’s struck out 12 batters without any walks.
Along that line, preseason worries about not throwing enough scrimmage strikes have eased in real games. State has posted 81 strikeouts already against 26 walks and 48 base hits. The team is averaging nine strikeouts a game and one every inning.
“Our starting guys aren’t where we want them to be yet, we feel they’re going to get there,” Cohen said. “But our bullpen has been just exceptional.” Now only in comparison to this relief staff would the work of State’s starters seem lacking. Soph southpaw Jacob Lindgren (1-0, 1.59) has justified his Friday starting status with sheer efficiency. And Sunday’s seven almost-scoreless (one swing left the yard) by Cox reminded that competition for SEC rotation roles remains fierce.
Especially after expected game-two stalwart Kendall Graveman struggled against a big-swinging Purdue order that rapped him for six hits, four runs, and some really hard-hit outs. Cohen reminds that the senior is still not 100% after winter surgery, and has full faith Graveman will be, well, Graveman come SEC season. The real key remains whether righty Evan Mitchell can find that elusive consistency. With maybe the best righthanded stuff on the staff right now, junior Mitchell can dominate in stretches and then lose the location. The ability is assuredly there for a SEC ace as seven strikeouts in eight innings shows; the problem are five walks.
What eases serious worry is, again, that stacked bullpen. Cohen has been pleased with Chad Girodo, Preston Brown, Myles Gentry, Ben Bracewell (who didn’t get as much work the second weekend as wanted because of how games developed), et.al. This doesn’t even account for fan fave Luis Pollorena, with eight strikeouts in 5.2 innings already. Or Bradford, who has returned to spot-matchup duties in late games. “I feel really comfortable doing that lefty-lefty role, that’s what I like,” Bradford said.
The best part to Cohen about a deep pen? “When you only use guys a little bit they can bounce back,” he said. At the same time he really wants the openers to establish themselves. “This is a tough week. So we need some starters to get us deep into a game for us to save that bullpen a little bit.”
And, for the offense to keep progressing regardless of lineup. If the bats improve even more, then this is a Bulldog ball team capable of a real take-off.