BRAD LOCKE: These Bulldogs believe they can win

STARKVILLE – After plumbing the depths of my twisted mind for the proper metaphor, I’ve come up empty. So I guess I’ll just be straightforward in describing this Mississippi State baseball team.
One day they’re brilliant, the next they’re bums.
The Bulldogs find themselves in the midst of some sort of metamorphosis, the middle stage where you’re not really quite sure what you’re looking at.
Take Friday’s 7-5 win over Florida. Starting pitcher Devin Jones struggled, but the Bulldogs got some big hits against the SEC’s best pitcher (Hudson Randall) and pulled the upset.
Then Saturday happened. Ace pitcher Chris Stratton was battered every which way and wound up having the worst outing of his career. Florida struck early and often and didn’t let up in an 18-0 win.
On Sunday, the MSU bats remained mostly silent, but the pitching was better. An error by shortstop Jonathan Ogden led to two Florida runs, though, and that proved to be the difference as a Bulldog rally in the ninth fell short. Final: 3-1.
Ogden’s weekend seemed to pretty well symbolize the state of MSU’s program. On Friday he jacked two home runs, then Sunday he made a pair inexplicable errors, and he has a team-high 12 miscues on the season.
After Sunday’s game, coach John Cohen said, “We’ll take 150 ground balls a day, and he will throw every ball across, hit the guy in the chest, and he’ll make every single play. It’s hard to work with a guy and make suggestions when in practice he does it the right way, and it’s an out every single time.”

Ah, there’s the rub
That’s the rub with this team. They’re well-coached, they know what to do, and they look great in practice.
However, inside the crucible of the SEC – there’s a good metaphor! – the flashes of promise are often overshadowed by long stretches of apparent incompetence. It’s not incompetence, of course – I don’t think – but merely a sign of a major rebuilding project that is only partly finished.
Here’s the good news, though: It’s getting there.
MSU is 21-12 overall, 5-7 in SEC play, so its next league win will match its 2010 total. Those who project NCAA regional brackets have State making it in as a No. 2 or No. 3 seed. I hold to my original prediction that the Bulldogs will finish around .500 in SEC play, which means they have a really good shot at making the SEC Tournament field for the first time since 2007.
The signs of progress are clear. In his third season, Cohen has turned the Bulldogs into a respectable program, a team that’s gone 6-4 against ranked opponents and has one of the best bullpens in the league.
MSU is still having to rely too heavily on freshmen – at one point last weekend, there were five on the field at once – but most of them are producing when asked. And the player development is starting to take hold as well.
Staying healthy helps, too. Starting pitcher Nick Routt looks like he’s back at full strength, and the oft-injured Brent Brownlee should be back in the outfield full-time this weekend at Arkansas.
And one thing hasn’t changed about Cohen’s team: The belief that any game can be won. You saw it Sunday, when the players lined the dugout railing in the ninth inning, caps backwards, joined by their good-luck charm, Mr. Chip – a walking stick with a tiny Bulldog head carved on top.
“I’m proud of them for that,” Cohen said, “but the competing stuff needs to end at some point in time, and a W needs to step forward.”

Brad Locke (brad.locke@journalinc.com) covers Mississippi State for the Daily Journal and blogs daily at NEMS360.com.

Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal