John Cohen is quick to concede that Ole Miss is the better team – for now.
Mississippi State’s first-year coach has a keen eye on the future, however, and that’s what he’s working toward. When his Bulldogs visit Oxford this weekend – Game 1 is 6:30 tonight at newly renovated Swayze Field – they’ll be facing a team that’s having the kind of success Cohen is sure will soon visit Starkville.
“Quite frankly, it’s an exciting time for Ole Miss,” Cohen said, and indeed it is.
The Rebels (36-13, 16-8 SEC) are ranked No. 7 in the nation and tied for the SEC’s best overall record. The Bulldogs (21-26, 6-17), meanwhile, are in danger of missing the SEC Tournament for the second straight year, which has never happened to them before.
But, Cohen added, Ole Miss will “catch us when we’re down, and they better get us when we’re down, because we’re not gonna be down for long.”
That ought to add some spice to the weekend.
MSU is four games back of the tournament’s eighth and final berth with six games to play, so the best the Bulldogs can probably hope for is to upset the Rebels’ bid for their first regular-season league title in 32 years.
“If we took two of three from them,” MSU pitcher Chad Crosswhite said, “that’d definitely make our season a heck of a lot better.”
Cohen has more to worry about than just playing spoiler. While MSU is hitting .308 in SEC games, its pitching staff has been shredded by league foes for 7.79 earned runs per game.
The Bulldogs have also been plagued by some ill-timed fielding miscues that have mystified Cohen and even his own players.
“Opponents aren’t beating us right now,” he said, “the game is.”
Ole Miss, which has won seven of its last nine SEC games and swept Auburn last weekend, is clicking in all phases. Its 4.09 ERA in league games is tops, it’s batting .294 in those games, and its 20 errors are second-fewest in the SEC.
“You look forward to coming out and getting better, especially when we’re winning,” Ole Miss first baseman Matt Smith said. “Everything seems to come much easier.”
The Bittle question
The big question for Rebels coach Mike Bianco this weekend is the status of Sunday starter Scott Bittle (5-2, 2.17 ERA), who is nursing a biceps injury on his throwing arm.
“Each day he’s felt better and better,” Bianco said. “I hate to sound like a football coach, but he’s still day-to-day, but we’re hopeful he’ll be able to throw on Sunday. But we don’t know that, and we won’t know that until Sunday.”
MSU, which lost both games of a rain-shortened series against Alabama last weekend, fell 8-1 to Ole Miss in the Governor’s Cup in Pearl on April 14. Between that and the Bulldogs’ record, it’d be easy for Ole Miss to relax a bit.
Smith said the Rebels can’t afford to let a last-place team spoil a good thing, especially not at home, not in front of what’s expected to be a packed house each game.
He expects his team to be as focused as they’ve ever been.
“It makes you want to beat them more,” Smith said. “You definitely don’t want to lose to a team that is struggling like that, especially when we’re doing good.”
Parrish Alford contributed to this story.
– Tonight: Mississippi State LHP Tyler Whitney (2-4, 5.0) vs. Ole Miss LHP Drew Pomeranz (5-2, 3.27)
– Saturday: Mississippi State LHP Nick Routt (4-3, 3.54) vs. Ole Miss LHP Brett Bukvich (8-1, 3.63)
– Sunday: Mississippi State TBA vs. Ole Miss TBA
Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal