Mighty task for Bulldogs

By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal

It was the final weekend of the 2010 season, and Devin Jones was called on to make his second start – first in SEC play – of the year. Against LSU.
It didn’t go so well.
Jones was touched for eight runs on three hits and didn’t make it out of the third inning. He tries not to think about that outing, and it’s just as well, because he’s much more equipped for a starting role this season.
Jones, a junior right-hander, will take the hill tonight when Mississippi State (14-4) opens the 2011 SEC schedule against No. 2 Vanderbilt (17-1) in Nashville. He’s 2-2 with a 1.37 ERA and has been strong his first four starts.
“Going into that (LSU) weekend I hadn’t started or even thrown over 40 pitches in a game in forever,” Jones said. “I feel like this whole offseason and during the season I’m just trained to throw more pitches and throw them effectively, and throw good stuff. I’m not really worried about that.”
Pitching in the Cape Cod League last summer helped Jones, who was 2-4 with an 8.16 ERA last season. He’s been consistent during non-conference play, working at least seven innings in three of his four starts and striking out 20 against seven walks.
Jones faced a handful of Vanderbilt hitters last summer, so he’s got an extra dose of confidence going into today’s game, which starts at 6 p.m.
“The thing Devin can’t do is go out there and try to be Superman,” MSU coach John Cohen said. “He needs to do what he does well. He needs to sit on 89, 91 (mph), mix in that slider and that occasional changeup, be economic and get early swings.”
Jones’ progress is reflective of the MSU pitching staff’s progress as a whole. Once the biggest weak spot on this team, the Bulldog hurlers are now among the SEC’s best, statistically speaking.
State’s team ERA of 2.89 ranks sixth in a pitching-heavy SEC. Vanderbilt ranks second (2.46) and has the kind of talent and depth Cohen hopes his staff soon possesses.
“I really believe that’s the path we’re on,” Cohen said. “I think we’re going to be able to do very similar things. I’m very excited about it. If you look at the really young power arms we have along with our veteran guys, most of whom are going to be here a year from now, I think we’re really heading down that path.”
Stronger at the plate
Offensively, MSU has seen the hits fall the last two games after a seven-game stretch in which it batted only .246 over a six-game stretch. For the season, the Bulldogs are hitting .307 with an on-base percentage of .429, second in the league.
“We’re just going to do the same thing we’ve been doing – just trying to stay in the middle of the field and hit a lot of line drives and ground balls, and run the bases, try to score a lot of runs,” said senior third baseman Jarrod Parks, whose .404 average is tied with Cody Freeman for the team lead.
Cohen said he expects close, low-scoring games this weekend, which means the margin for error will be small – pitching, hitting and fielding. This will be about as tough a test as MSU could face on opening weekend, especially for a team that went a program-worst 6-24 in SEC play last season.
But the Bulldogs feel they’re ready for it.
“There’s so many little tiny things at this level,” Cohen said. “But yeah, I think we’re going to play well. It doesn’t always mean you’re going to win, but I think we’re going to play well and put ourselves in a position to win.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or brad.locke@journalinc.com.