By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
Mississippi State returns to a place of near-triumph this weekend, but a lot of the current Bulldogs were not on the field during a scorching three days last June.
No. 25 MSU (30-18, 12-12 SEC) opens a three-game series with No. 6 Florida (36-13, 14-10) today at 6 p.m. at McKethan Stadium in Gainesville. Less than a year ago, the Bulldogs came within eight outs here of winning an NCAA super regional series and advancing to the College World Series.
But the Gators rallied late in the third and deciding game. It was the seventh meeting of that season between the teams, so familiarity runs deep with those who were involved.
“We have such a new crew of guys who really didn’t experience the deal,” MSU coach John Cohen said. “…The guys who were down there are pitchers. Our pitching staff dealt with that.”
Closer Caleb Reed, now a senior, played a pivotal role in the Game 3 loss. He gave up a three-run home run to Preston Tucker in the seventh inning, giving Florida a 7-6 lead (it won 8-6).
Outfielder Brent Brownlee is the only healthy position player on this year’s squad who played in that series.
Cohen, of course, is more concerned with the present than with the past. He hopes his players are, too, and they are certainly aware of the postseason implications of this series.
State is currently tied for second in the Western Division and is trying to firm up its standing as an NCAA regional at-large team.
“They know what’s at stake,” Cohen said. “These kids are so savvy, it makes me feel really old. We just knew what coach (Ron) Polk told us when I played here, because there was no other option.”
The Bulldogs know, for instance, that Florida is the No. 1 RPI team in the country; MSU is 39th. So this weekend presents a big opportunity to leapfrog some teams.
Florida is a good-hitting squad – .286 on the season – and leads the SEC with 59 home runs. Its pitching staff is second in the league in ERA at 2.91 – behind MSU’s 2.78.
“The opportunity to win is going to be obviously one of those 3-2, 4-3 situations,” Cohen said. “I just can’t imagine us having a great opportunity to win a high-scoring game in Gainesville.”
Cohen will be absent for today’s game due to a one-game suspension handed down by the SEC earlier this week. He was given a postgame ejection Sunday at Alabama, and the league deemed Cohen had violated its sportsmanship policy.
“We have to take advantage of what we do well, which is get on base,” said Cohen. “It’s a little bit of a college version of Moneyball. We have to do all those little things to get pieces in place to have chances to score runs.”
On The Hill
TONIGHT: Mississippi State RHP Chris Stratton (9-0, 2.19) vs. Florida RHP Hudson Randall (5-1, 3.53)
SATURDAY: Mississippi State RHP Kendall Graveman (3-3, 2.97) vs. Florida LHP Brian Johnson (5-4,4.29)
SUNDAY: Mississippi State TBA vs. Florida RHP Karsten Whitson (3-0, 3.43)