By all appearances, Mississippi State's pitching staff has made great strides this season. It's collective ERA is 2.89 entering this weekend's SEC-opening series at No. 2 Vanderbilt. Last season, State's ERA entering league play was 4.24 – and it only got worse from there, rising to 6.87 by season's end, 11th in the SEC.
In today's story previewing the series, MSU coach John Cohen said he sees his pitching staff becoming what Vandy has now, which is one of the best pitching staffs in the country. The Commodores (17-1) boast a 2.46 ERA, and today's starter, junior righty Sonny Gray (4-0, 1.71), is a big-time Major League prospect expected to go in the first round of this year's draft.
"Their staff has just become known well for just consistency," said MSU right-hander Devin Jones (2-2, 1.37), who will start opposite Gray tonight. "I feel like that's the part where we differ a little bit – they're a little bit more consistent. I feel like we'll definitely get there at some point in time."
More on Gray: He's thrown for the national team the past two summers. Over his last three starts, he's given up two runs on eight hits while striking out 30 in 22 innings.
Vandy's other starters, junior lefty Grayson Garvin (2-1, 3.55) and senior righty Taylor Hill (1-0, 3.13), aren't slouches either. So MSU will face righty, lefty, righty, which means Cohen will continue shifting his lineups. I went through the last three weekends' worth of lineups for State, thinking it would be helpful in trying to figure out who would start today's game. Not so helpful.
"On Friday we're going to face a right-hander who's got better command and a really good slider," Cohen said. "So we have to construct a lineup that's going to do that. It'll probably be a little more left-handed than it has been the last two games."
Whoever is starting, MSU (14-4) hopes to keep up the hitting of its last two games. After batting just .246 over a six-game stretch, the Bulldogs hit .352 in a pair of mid-week wins against Eastern Illinois and Lipscomb.
Third baseman Jarrod Parks said all the Bulldogs had to do to fix the problem was "a slight change in the barrell angle," and Cohen didn't think the word "slump" was appropriate.
"I would not throw the 's' word – 'slump' means you're not recognizing pitches and you're consistently not putting good swings on the ball," Cohen said. "That's not where we are right now."