STARKVILLE – Prior to the 2010 season, Mississippi State baseball coach John Cohen said the program was poised to make “a huge move” by 2011, and he’s insisted that despite struggles, this is exactly where he was at this point during his tenure at Kentucky.
But is MSU really on the same track as those Wildcats, who in Cohen’s third season won the SEC regular-season title?
In Cohen’s first two years in Lexington, Kentucky had a combined 14-45 record in SEC games. In his first two seasons at State, that mark is 15-44.
In 2005, Cohen’s second season at UK, the Wildcats were swept five times. This season, the Bulldogs, who went 23-33 overall, were swept six times and had a program-worst 6-24 conference mark.
Perhaps the past success of MSU makes its current woes appear more stark than those of Kentucky, which prior to Cohen’s arrival had never won an SEC title or done much of anything else on the diamond.
“When you take over a program, of course, you’re dealing with a significant amount of players who are being coached by two completely different coaching styles,” Cohen said. “And you’re asking a lot of those kids. That’s tough on the kids. No matter how good the kids are, it’s a big transition for them.”
By his third year at Kentucky, it all came together. The Wildcats went 44-17, including 20-10 in the SEC, and made an NCAA regional.
So if MSU really is right where Kentucky was at this point, then big things should be just around the corner. But there are significant differences between the programs after two years under Cohen.
While Cohen had to lean on freshman pitching at UK, he’s had to do so even more at MSU. In 2005, freshmen accounted for 27 percent of innings thrown for UK. This year, freshmen tossed 53 percent of MSU’s innings.
That’s a recipe for losing, no matter how good those young arms might be. Even Chris Stratton, who made the SEC All-Freshman team and went 5-3 with a 5.29 ERA, had bad days.
“You get into effort, and I think once you start getting fatigued, I think you try to do more,” pitching coach Butch Thompson said. “I’m trying to, but I didn’t do a good enough job getting that point across to them.
“You can’t make them older than they are at the time, but at the same time, it’s still a reflection upon me.”
Injury bug bites hard
Another hindrance this season was a slew of injuries to starters and potential starters, like outfielder Brent Brownlee, infielder Jarrod Parks and ace pitcher Nick Routt. Infielder Frankie Rawdow and pitchers Michael Dixon and Paxton Pace were also hurt.
Cohen loathes using the injuries excuse, but it was a painful reality this season.
“I want to have the type of program in the future to where we can lose some key components – because that’s natural for any team in any sport to lose players – to be recoverable,” Cohen said. “But for us it was extremely difficult. I mean at one point in time we’re traveling with 13 positional players.
“It really became an issue for us.”
What might actually have MSU ahead of the curve is the baseball culture in Starkville. At Kentucky, some players treated baseball like a hobby, according to a 2008 story by the Kentucky Kernel.
MSU was in the College World Series as recently as 2007, and baseball is a bigger deal at State than on most campuses. Cohen pointed to first baseman Connor Powers, who was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in last year’s Major League draft but decided to return for his senior season in order to get better and help the rebuilding process.
“Those are the types of kids I can really connect with that are that serious about the game,” Cohen said. “I have to be surrounded by those types of kids.”
Now the task is for Cohen to build a lineup in his image for next season. He got great production out of guys like Powers and Ryan Duffy, but he wants more speed in his lineup.
“In our yard I think you want to go power guy, runner-type guy, power guy, runner-type guy,” Cohen said. “It’s that nice blending of power and run also, that balance is what we’re looking for.”
Cohen said there will be attrition this offseason, an unfortunate by-product of the NCAA’s 27-scholarship limit. Cohen would not say who might not be back.
“I don’t enjoy it, but it’s something that’s got to be done. Because we’ve got to keep moving the program forward.”
By all accounts, the Bulldogs never fractured or became despondent because of the losing. If anything, the clubhouse became galvanized by the progress that Cohen said has been made, even if that progress didn’t always show up on game day.
Wins and losses aside, the transition from Ron Polk to Cohen has been relatively seamless.
“I think people adjusted to him pretty quickly, just because it was pretty obvious what he wanted out of you every day,” said Powers. “He was pretty clear about that, and I think people responded to that.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal