By Paul Jones
STARKVILLE – When John Cohen took over the MSU baseball program, he knew it would be a bumpy ride. And that tough process of returning the Diamond Dogs to the top of the SEC was evident in Cohen’s first year.
After finishing 25-29 in 2009, including a 9-20 mark in league play, Cohen set his sights on bringing more talent to the program.
Judging by their offseason recruiting efforts, Cohen and company feel better days could be ahead for 2010.
MSU opens its season on Friday, when the Diamond Dogs open a three-game series against Rhode Island at Dudy Noble Field.
“We feel like this club is a lot better in a lot of ways,” said Cohen. “We feel like we’ve made some great improvements. Obviously, we had a really nice recruiting class. It was ranked eighth-best in the nation by Baseball America and I think 15th by Collegiate Baseball.
“It’s a pitching-rich class, too, and that was one of the things we felt like we had to address immediately. The collection of arms that we have I think is pretty good.”
But those arms will be short on experience. Last year’s staff ranked last in the SEC with a 6.57 earned run average. Only 2009 freshman All-American Nick Routt, senior Tyler Whitney and sophomore Devin Jones return as guys that logged innings a year ago.
While Routt is expected to draw a weekend rotation spot and Jones will be the ace in the bullpen, little else is settled on State’s young pitching staff. Among the candidates include Whitney, and rookies Chris Stratton, a former Tupelo standout, C.C. Watson, Luke Bole, Kendall Graveman and Ben Bracewell among others.
“This issue is, it is very young,” Cohen said of his pitching staff. “We’re going to have some guys take the mound who have great stuff, great velocity, great second pitches. They are going to make some mistakes but we are going to have to live with those mistakes. And we are going to have to get better as the year goes on.
“Our goals for the freshmen is we want them to be sophomores by the end of this year – from a maturity standpoint and a skill level standpoint.”
Cohen also expects his offense and defense to display dramatic improvements. While Cohen and his staff were busy inking several top prospects, their best recruiting coup may be Connor Powers. The Bulldog first baseman was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers last June but opted to return for his senior season.
In 2009, Powers hit .301 and led the team with 19 home runs and 63 RBIs.
Cohen is also banking on production from another senior infielder in Russ Sneed, who hit .333 with nine homers and 43 RBIs.
“Connor Powers has, to me, become a different player,” Cohen said. “Through the fall and the early part of the spring, he has been able to eliminate a lot of swing and miss. As good of a defender as he was at first base last year, I think he’s even better this year.
“I think Russ Sneed is very similiar (to Powers) in (defense). His biggest obstacle is his second hip surgery that he had. I think Russ is now ready to compete in a way he hasn’t been able to in a long time. he has worked very, very hard through rehab to get there.”
Before Diamond Dog fans begin thinking of trips to Omaha – site of the College World Series – again, Cohen continues to note it will be a process. First things first, the Bulldogs have missed out on the SEC Tournament three of the last four years.
Reaching Hoover, Ala., would be a step in the right direction.
“This club is going to have to come together very quickly,” said Cohen. “But there are a lot of pieces of the puzzle that are new. Anytime you have players you hope that it all comes together quickly.
“But I am thrilled with this group and I love the way they compete. I love the fact that we can do a lot of different things to our opponents. I think, offensively, this club will be better. Defensively, it will be significantly better for a lot of different reasons.”