By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
After a long, frustrating weekend in the Florida sun, John Cohen rubbed his face with both hands and tried to peer into the future. That wasn’t easy to do considering the mood after Mississippi State’s exit from the NCAA Tallahassee Regional on Sunday.
The Bulldogs had just lost to Samford for the second time in three days, managing only two runs in 18 innings against the Southern Conference champ. Offensive woes proved to be the insurmountable obstacle for this MSU team, something even the SEC’s best pitching staff could not ultimately overcome.
So as Cohen, who just completed his fourth year at the helm, tried to look forward to 2013, he was firm in his conviction that MSU’s bats will be more prolific.
“You always want the best, the best, the best, for Mississippi State. But I finally feel like we kind of have that roster balance the way we want it. I think we can be very, very good in the future,” Cohen said.
He pointed to the fact that his early focus in recruiting was on pitching, and that he had to sign a bunch of junior college players to fill the gaps at the plate and in the field.
Those juco guys played big roles in last year’s run to the super regionals, and then there was heavy roster turnover everywhere but the pitching staff.
Freshmen and redshirt freshmen like Matthew Britton, Tyler Fullerton and Wes Rea had to play prominent roles and have experienced the expected growing pains. Cohen believes in them.
“I said many times I felt like the group replacing (the juco players) is probably more talented, more athletic, more speed, more arm strength, but they had just never played. That’s what we’re into right now,” said Cohen.
This season’s offensive struggles were exacerbated by injuries to the few experienced players MSU had returning. Outfielder Brent Brownlee and third baseman Daryl Norris missed time with knee injuries and were never fully healthy, and center fielder C.T. Bradford had his season cut short by a shoulder injury and resulting surgery.
The pitching staff is what carried the Bulldogs through, especially the second half of the SEC schedule and beyond. MSU went from 5-10 in league play to 16-14, and then it won the SEC Tournament by surviving a grueling six-day grind.
The first sign that it wasn’t going to be State’s weekend in Tallahassee was the three home runs allowed by ace Chris Stratton in a 5-0 loss to Samford. It was a rare misstep for him and one of the few times the pitchers didn’t come through.
Stratton will likely be playing minor-league ball very soon, but the pitching will still be a major strength next season. Along with the returnees, MSU has some strong freshman arms like Jonathan Holder and Brandon Woodruff.
Cohen has made MSU baseball relevant again, taking it to the NCAA postseason twice after not even making the SEC Tournament for three consecutive years. He’s anxious for the next phase to take hold.
“We’re already there pitching. For the most part we’re already there, really close defensively,” Cohen said. “We’re not a very good offensive club yet. When that happens, I think we have a chance to be among the elite programs in the country.”