BRAD LOCKE: Bulldogs will go as far as pitching, defense can carry them

By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal

Looks like John Cohen knew what he was doing when he stockpiled the pitching talent in his first couple of years on the job.
Mississippi State, while perhaps not a top-25 team, has a top-25 pitching staff. I don’t know exactly where you’d rank the Bulldog hurlers, but consider this statistic: Over their last seven games, MSU’s pitchers have allowed nine earned runs in 70 innings. That’s an earned run average of 1.16.
In SEC games, the ERA is 3.41, third in the league. Friday night starter Chris Stratton (8-0, 2.39 ERA), a junior from Tupelo, leads the staff and is a likely first-round pick in this summer’s Major League draft.
Junior Kendall Graveman (3-3, 3.04) has been strong on Saturdays. Sunday has been a revolving door, but there have been solid performances there, most recently this past weekend. Junior Luis Pollorena tossed 51/3 shutout innings as MSU beat rival Ole Miss, 4-2.
That win came despite just two hits from MSU’s offense. The bats have been a constant source of frustration for Cohen, and injuries to key position players have exacerbated the problem. Those issues might not resolve themselves down the stretch, as MSU vies for an NCAA regional bid for the second consecutive season.
Against Ole Miss, the Bulldogs batted just .143. Hunter Renfroe was 0 for 10, and big first baseman Wes Rea was 0 for 8 with four strikeouts – he’s battling a shoulder injury. Mitch Slauter had the best weekend, going 4 of 12 with three RBIs, and he had both of MSU’s hits on Sunday.
Who needs hits?
Cohen can find ways to counteract the offensive deficiency, such as the five hit-by-pitches his hitters collected Sunday. There are ways to move runners around the bases without getting a lot of hits.
The defense has played a huge role, too. MSU has a .972 fielding percentage in league play, and it’s had more chances (884) than anybody. State is tied for second in double plays turned (24) and has allowed a league-low two sacrifice flies in SEC games.
That last stat is partly due to the arm of Renfroe. The sophomore corner outfielder has eight outfield assists for the entire season, and six of those were him gunning a runner down at home plate. He moved to center on Sunday in place of the injured C.T. Bradford and leaped over the wall to rob Ole Miss of a home run.
At 27-17 overall, 10-11 in SEC play, the Bulldogs are in solid shape as far as an SEC Tournament berth and an NCAA bid, but a lot of work remains. After Alabama this weekend, it’s a trip to No. 7 Florida and then a home series with No. 3 Kentucky.
That’s a tough path, and this team will go as far as the pitching and defense can carry it.
brad.locke@journalinc.com