By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Mississippi State’s season won’t hinge completely on what transpires at Dudy Noble Field this weekend. But if the Bulldogs can’t toughen up between the ears, any and all postseason hopes could quickly slip away.
MSU (21-16, 5-10 SEC) opens a three-game home series today against Tennessee (22-15, 7-8), with first pitch scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Fourth-year coach John Cohen’s frustration has continued to grow as he’s watched player after player go down with injury or struggle to return from one.
After dropping all three games at South Carolina last weekend, State fell to rival Ole Miss on Tuesday, 6-3, in the annual Governor’s Cup. Bulldog batters struck out 16 times.
“We’re beaten up in every shape, form or fashion,” Cohen said. “That’s why the only thing we have left is mental toughness, and that escaped us (Tuesday) night. That’s something you have to recapture. It’s just a mental toughness to be able to get through all of this.”
Outfielders Brent Brownlee (knee) and C.T. Bradford (shoulder) have been playing hurt, as has third baseman Daryl Norris (knee). And now shortstop Adam Frazier is fighting through a sore knee.
“I have never dealt with this in 20 years (of coaching). Ever. It just keeps on coming at us,” said Cohen, who’s unsure Brownlee can remain a starter – he pinch hit Tuesday.
As for Frazier, he said his right knee had some inflammation but doesn’t expect it to keep him out of the lineup this weekend.
“You talk about mental toughness, you’ve just got to be tough and drive through it and try to win some ballgames,” Frazier said. “If we get it turned around (today) and get a win, that’s all we need is just one win and we’ll be back rolling again.”
MSU needs to get rolling soon. If the 10-team SEC Tournament were to start today, State wouldn’t be in the field. It’s also at risk of not earning an NCAA regional at-large bid.
There are five SEC weekends left to play, and Cohen doesn’t think this series is do-or-die, “but certainly you increasingly make things difficult for yourself down the stretch if you don’t play well this weekend,” he said.
Tennessee lost two of three to Florida last weekend. The Volunteers are hitting just .240 in SEC play, which ranks last in the league.
They’re under the direction of a new coach, Dave Serrano. He’s got some solid pitching – a 3.60 ERA versus SEC teams – to go against a youthful MSU lineup, and he likes to run on the basepaths.
The Bulldogs worked some Wednesday on taking a better approach at the plate so as to avoid a repeat of Tuesday’s 16 strikeouts. That goes back to the mental toughness Cohen so desires.
It also involves focusing on the moment and not getting caught up in the long-term implications this weekend could have on the Bulldogs’ season.
“I guess there’s a little bit of concern being at the bottom of the standings right now,” Frazier said, “but you take it one game at a time. That’s all you can do, really.”