By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Coach John Cohen said last week that he saw this coming.
He didn’t necessarily see Mississippi State winning an NCAA Regional, which it did in Atlanta over the weekend. But Cohen, who’s in his third season as head coach, did believe his team was rounding into the kind of form that would give it a legitimate shot of doing something special in the postseason.
Following a two-and-out in the SEC Tournament, Cohen gave the Bulldogs two full days off, and when they returned, “I just felt like we had a different club.”
It’s not always easy to pinpoint the precise moment something finds a harmony of structure and execution – be it an orchestra mastering Bach, or in this case, a baseball team going from mediocre and inconsistent to good.
It’s like Cohen has been playing the video game Tetris with all these parts he’s brought together, and they’re finally starting to fit. He got three quality starts in Atlanta; his outfield is among the fastest in the SEC and has saved more runs than you probably realize; freshman C.T. Bradford has blossomed into a top-rate leadoff hitter; MSU knows how to get two-out hits – well, more than it used to.
There are many other things this team is suddenly doing right, and perhaps it’s nothing more than fool’s gold, but I suspect that’s not the case. Either way, the Bulldogs have pulled off something big.
Now the attention turns to Gainesville, where State will play Florida, the No. 2 national seed, in the super regional round. The Gators won three of four games against MSU this season – two of three in Starkville, and then an SEC Tournament opening-round win.
The combined score: 33-13. Take away the 18-0 debacle, and the Gators only outscored the Bulldogs 15-13. The other two losses were by two runs apiece, and MSU’s win came against pitcher Hudson Randall, one of the SEC’s top hurlers.
“They’re a great club,” Cohen said. “I feel like, though, three of the four times we played them, we were right there with them.”
If what we saw of MSU this past weekend is more than an aberration, then the Gators had better be wary. What happened in Atlanta might soon be viewed as that moment when Cohen’s rebuilding project looks less like a pile of bricks and steel and more like a monument to the work and skill and determination he and his coaches and his players have poured into this thing.
I wrote on my blog Monday morning that Cohen is delivering on promises he voiced early on in his tenure, promises to build up the pitching staff, pressure opposing defenses with his persistent brand of small ball, put speed in the outfield, and a host of other things.
Most of those elements were evident in Atlanta, and that’s why MSU won. There is one thing I don’t recall Cohen ever promising: Wins. He certainly didn’t tell Bradford when recruiting him that his future would be full of rainbows and unicorns and College World Series appearances.
The message, according to Bradford: “We’re going to come in, we’re going to work as hard as we can, and we’ve got a lot of good guys coming back, a lot of talent coming back.”
Cohen got Kentucky turned around in three years, and he knew it wouldn’t be a quick fix in Starkville despite a much stronger tradition than the one in Lexington.
There has been clear progress by this team in 2011, but it didn’t always show up on the scoreboard. We would catch flashes of it here, hints of it there.
Given that, and given the enormous struggles of the three previous seasons, and given Cohen’s reputation as a coach, it’s reasonable to say that MSU has turned a corner.
The Bulldogs, to some degree, are back.
Brad Locke (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Mississippi State for the Daily Journal and blogs daily at NEMS360.com.