Mississippi State coach John Cohen took his turn in front of the media this morning as the No. 14-ranked Bulldogs prepare to open NCAA regional play against Central Arkansas on Friday. Since the NCAA doesn’t allow media to post video or even audio of postseason press conferences, I’ve included the entire transcript of Cohen’s chat.
Cohen talks about pitching, UCA, the atmosphere at Dudy Noble Field, the toughness of this regional, and much more.
“I think it goes without saying that our kids are really excited about playing instead of practicing. When you stare at a whole lot of practice, and we were doing a lot of practicing preparing for this weekend, certainly our kids are excited about this opportunity. We’re semi-healthy. We’re into the 60-game, little mixed bruises on the hands, fingers, things like that. C.T. Bradford ran around pretty well today. He’s telling me that he could have played today if we were playing. Certainly we’re monitoring that, because we need him to be in our lineup tomorrow, and I feel fairly confident in saying that he will.
“We’re going to throw Kendall Graveman out there. We looked at Central Arkansas, discussed them a lot, discussed our club a lot. We felt like Kendall was our best matchup. Very excited about that opportunity. Kendall’s a senior, he’s a captain, he’s an engineering major, which means he’s a glutton for punishment. He’s a guy who’s just a real leader, real mental toughness guy. We’re excited about throwing him out there and letting him hopefully get us pretty deep into a ballgame. We feel like if we can get five or six innings out of him with our bullpen, that’s a great start for our club. And that’s nothing against Kendall, that’s something that we feel like is a strength of our club, is getting our bullpen involved in a ballgame a little bit earlier than most folks.
“We have a great regional field here, obviously. It’s the lowest RPI-average field in the entire country, I think. If I’m not mistaken, is Vanderbilt No. 2? Yeah, which is kind of interesting. That’s probably another whole discussion. This is a great field. These are great teams. If you look at these teams, boy, there are a lot of older kids, seniors, juniors, playing in this regional. I think that kind of heightens the effect of the play on the field. Everybody’s ready to get going and sick of practicing, and when the bell rings tomorrow night, I think we’re going to be ready.”
With all the signage going up and the scene getting set, does it build the anticipation of this regional? Do the players get into that, and are they still focused in?
“You know, it’s interesting. I was having this discussion with my wife. When you’ve lived in a college town your whole life, when something special’s going on, everybody knows about it, because it encompasses the whole town. It’s neat, it’s great. I think our players have earned this opportunity to play in front of the fans. Yeah, there’s a whole bunch of stuff happening at Dudy Noble, and I want to go on record as saying we have some athletic department folks who have been working around the clock to do all the things you have to do when you host a regional. We deeply appreciate that. Thank goodness they’re not on an hourly wage, because they’re putting in some serious hours. Our kids sense that. They know something special’s going on, and they want their play to match that. They’re getting it, they’re ready to get this thing going.”
How much have you mentioned to players the difficulty of this regional? South Alabama coach Mark Calvi said regionals are supposed to be hard.
“I agree with Mark. Even when the numbers don’t match up – in other words, even when you’re playing a No. 4 that doesn’t have a great RPI, they’re still going to play better than that, because they probably just won a tournament to get there. That means they’re hot. It’s the old basketball/baseball thing, it doesn’t matter who’s the best team, it matters who’s playing the best at that time. And certainly that’s the case with a lot of clubs. Now, Central Arkansas is not one of those clubs, because even if they wouldn’t have won their tournament, which they did, they’re a very, very good club with a very solid RPI. Regionals are difficult no matter what. That’s why you see upsets. I don’t know if there could be any upsets in this tournament. I think everybody’s that good. Everybody’s kind of beaten up on everybody else. It will be very competitive. I feel like our team’s ready for this opportunity, and it will be a great atmosphere here at Dudy Noble. I believe our kids are going to play well.”
How much of an advantage or disadvantage to playing a team you’ve already seen recently?
“Having done this for a while, I think there are benefits, and there’s some detriment. The benefit is, being prepared and being very aware of your opponent is a good thing. The detriment is you can’t forget that you’ve still got to throw a certain pitch in a certain part of the strike zone, or you’ve still got to get the barrel where you want it against a certain pitch, or you still have to field that ground ball and get your feet moving. Once you start losing sight of the fundamentals of the game, because you’re so worried about the opponent and so worried about the scouting reports, it can hurt you. There’s a very nice balance there. You don’t want anything to surprise your players, but at the same time you want them to be solid with the basics, the fundamentals.”
You’ve been involved in regionals at other places, have any of them compared to the atmosphere at Dudy Noble Field?
“Dudy Noble at its best, which I think will be this weekend, when there’s something on the line – there’s always something on the line – but I mean, when it’s in your face, there aren’t too many tomorrows left, yeah, I can’t imagine. In fact, I’ve had so many people tweet, text me Jim’s famous call with Burke Masters‘ home run. I’m not just saying this because Jim’s in the room (Jim Ellis, MSU play-by-play man), but he did a great job of just letting the crowd in on the call, and it’s goose bumps. It makes your hair stand on in just to listen to those people. A lot of those folks are still around. I know that, because they’re the ones who send those things to me. How many years ago was that, Jim? (1990) So that was 23 years ago. Even though I don’t like dating myself like that, or you, Jim. Our players are very aware of the fact that we have an atmosphere that can lift kids up, and that’s so rare in college baseball. That’s why it’s such a privilege to be at Mississippi State, because Mississippi State’s all about the people. I’m just excited about seeing all those people. You think of it, and I know our athletic department does, too, you just think of it like a homecoming. People come from miles and miles and miles around to be a part of things like this. You definitely don’t want to disappoint those people.”
What do you recall of Central Arkansas pitcher Caleb McClanahan when he pitched against y’all?
“I remember he is a tough kid who is a strike thrower, who gets early contact and throws three pitches in the strike zone. He does a nice job with the running game. Boy, you look at all of his numbers, and you look out there and you say, wow, this guy’s already in the sixth inning, and he hasn’t thrown many pitches. He’s economic, fields his position well. He is a great college pitcher, and his numbers really bear that out. The one thing about him, I was just talking about his mental toughness, this is a guy who threw 249 pitches in a 10-day period. He put that club on his shoulders in their tournament and did a great job. It’s going to be a very formidable guy, and he’s probably not unlike a lot of guys we see on Fridays and Saturdays in the Southeastern Conference.”
UCA good at getting on base, how do you not play into their hands?
“You’ve got to attack the strike zone. You’ve got to make them put balls in play. There’s no question that’s what they do a great job of. If you tell your pitcher to go out there and throw strikes, that’s kind of like telling the bowler to go out there and knock down all 10 pins. Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. It’s a little more difficult than it sounds. But certainly I think Kendall’s very capable of that. We’ve got to force early contact, we’ve got to get their bats moving. That’s when we’re at our best defensively. I thought we did a pretty good job of that in the SEC Tournament, but not against Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt did a great job against us offensively, deep counts, creating opportunities for themselves. When Central Arkansas came into Dudy Noble earlier this year, their numbers were among the best in the country, especially their on-base numbers are pretty significant.”
Is Graveman having better command than Luis Pollorena one reason he’s getting the start?
“Yeah. There’s some of that. I’m not comparing the two. What we’re comparing is what one kid in their lineup or several kids in their lineup, how they do against right-handed sink, right-handed slider, who’s going to do the best job controlling the running game, who’s got the better opportunity with the two-strike put-away opportunities. We considered all of our options, and we just felt like Kendall, not only does he match up better against them, as a starter he’s probably our best opportunity to put our best foot forward.”
How do you manage the pitching differently in a regional setting?
“You’re just going to frame your bullpen a little bit differently. Because they’re a little bit more right-handed, you’re probably going to have a little bit more right-handed out of the bullpen. So that brings Myles Gentry a little bit more into focus, Ben Bracewell a little bit more into focus. And of course Jonathan Holder is in focus in every game we play, because I think he’s one of the dominant closers in the game. I feel like we’re going to be just a little more right-handed from our bullpen standpoint, and it seems like the other two clubs are a little bit more left-handed. I say that knowing that maybe the best hitter maybe in the entire NCAA tournament is this (Forrestt) Allday kid, who’s a left-handed hitter, and he’s fabulous against both. His splits against right and left are very, very good. He’s a guy that we’re going to have do a good job (against), because he can single-handedly change the nature of a ballgame.”
From that standpoint, could Holder pitch three days in a row if you needed him to?
“I think that’s a little bit of a crystal ball question. From the standpoint of we put so much stock into that day, the pitchers go out and do their drill work, and Butch (Thompson) and myself, we’re staring those guys down. Hey, how are you throwing it today? You threw 21 (pitches) last night. Sometimes you’ve got to shut it down there. We’re so fortunate we have kids, they just want the baseball all the time. So you have to be able to see through that, too. If you’re asking if Jonathan Holder, if he’s got to throw three days in a row to help us win a regional, yeah, I’ve got to believe that would probably happen – depending on his health.”