By Brad Locke
STARKVILLE – Mississippi State’s baseball players desperately want to avoid a repeat of the 2008 season, when they finished in last place in the SEC. They might want it too much.
As the Bulldogs open a three-game series against Auburn today at Dudy Noble Field, they continue “searching to find an identity,” as first-year coach John Cohen put it. State (15-13, 3-6 SEC) has lost five of its last six league games and suffered a 7-1 loss at Louisiana-Monroe on Wednesday.
“They all went through 23-33 last year, and then went through 9-21″ in SEC play, Cohen said. “These kids are fighting not to do that again. … And in some ways, competing harder’s hurt our kids. They try to do too much.”
Senior outfielder Grant Hogue, who leads MSU with 17 steals in 17 tries, agrees.
“We don’t need to keep trying to do too much ourselves, we need to give it to the next person,” Hogue said. “We need to stay within ourselves, stop pressing.”
What MSU needs, Cohen said, is an identity. He compared them to a pickup basketball team waiting to see who’s going to assert himself as a scorer.
Cohen said the results aren’t reflective of how often he’s gone over certain game situations with the players. There is some sort of disconnect between the practice field and game day.
“Frankly, the kids aren’t getting it. You just keep fighting through it,” he said. “It’s not like the kids aren’t trying, they just really struggle to meet the demands of what it’s going to take.”
Cohen has shuffled his lineup in hopes of finding the right combination. For example, in nine SEC games, second baseman Jet Butler has been in the second, third, fifth and sixth spots in the batting order.
The junior leads MSU with a .367 average to go with 23 RBIs.
As a team, State is hitting .289, last in the SEC. That doesn’t provide first-year Auburn coach John Pawlowski any comfort. Though he’s new to the SEC, Pawlowski is familiar with Cohen – his College of Charleston squad beat Cohen’s Kentucky team to win the 2006 Lexington regional.
“He motivates his guys and has got a great approach,” Pawlowski said, “and they know how to play the game.”
The question is, can the Bulldogs execute what they know on a consistent basis?
“When you are where we are right now,” Cohen said, “taking a deep breath after every pitch, we need some good things to happen for us.”
n Tonight: Auburn LHP Grant Dayton (2-3, 3.18) vs. Mississippi State LHP Tyler Whitney (2-2, 3.81)
n Saturday: Auburn RHP Jon Luke Jacobs (3-0, 4.78) vs. Mississippi State LHP Nick Routt (3-1, 2.79)
n Sunday: Auburn RHP Taylor Thompson (2-1, 7.98) vs. Miss. State TBA