By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
By John Cohen’s measurements, Mississippi State’s rebuilding process is right on schedule.
That might be hard to see from the outside, considering the 14-11 record, including a 2-4 mark in SEC play; and considering the youth of this team, as evidenced by the fact that 53 percent of MSU’s innings have been thrown by freshmen; and considering the lack of offensive punch – the Bulldogs are tied with Tennessee for last in the SEC in batting average (.280).
Cohen, who in his second season is trying to keep State from a third consecutive last-place finish in the SEC, said he can see the progress being made as the Bulldogs head into this weekend’s series at South Carolina.
“From the word go, the minute we stepped into this program, looking at it statistically and from every angle possible, and talking to all the scouts in the community, we are exactly right now where all of us thought we would be,” Cohen said.
“Now that doesn’t mean you’re negative about it; in fact, you’re really positive, because I think we’re ahead of schedule in some areas, I really do.”
One of those areas is pitching. Despite its youth – last weekend, three freshmen drew starts against Georgia – State’s team ERA is way down from last season. At 4.78, it ranks 10th in the SEC; last season’s 6.59 was dead last.
The bullpen has been especially reliable of late, with solid innings logged by the likes of Ben Bracewell, Devin Jones and Caleb Reed.
“I think when this group gets older and you have several cycles of this type of pitching every year, and they’re protected by the older guys, I think now you have one of the best pitching staffs in the country,” Cohen said.
As far as hitting and fielding, MSU isn’t greatly improved in those areas from last season, at least not statistically.
But again, a lot of newcomers and youngsters are being relied on.
That doesn’t make the struggles any less frustrating. Take Tuesday night’s 5-3 loss to Ole Miss: On a perfect throw from senior right fielder Luke Adkins to home plate, well ahead of the base runner, junior catcher Cody Freeman dropped the ball.
“Cody Freeman will catch that ball 999 times out of 1,000,” said Cohen. “I’m standing right over his shoulder (in practice), and I watch him do it every single day.”
There have been several such inexplicable moments for MSU this season. Cohen believes he prepares his team as well as anyone, but it’s not translating onto the field yet.
“I really believe in some cases we’re trying too hard, in every phase of the game we’re trying too hard,” he said. “A lot of coaches just let their kids play, and their preparation isn’t off the charts. I think our preparation is off the charts, and in some ways I think it might be hurting us a little bit.
“We can’t just let our kids play, because we have too many new components.”
This weekend’s foe, No. 12-ranked South Carolina (20-5, 5-1), represents what Cohen is aiming for his program to become. In his 13-plus years as coach, Ray Tanner has built a machine in Columbia, leading the Gamecocks to 10 consecutive NCAA Regional appearances and three College World Series.
Right now, MSU is trying to catch teams like South Carolina. Cohen believes that’s not far off.
“I know where, when and how we’re going to get to that tipping point to where we get back to the top of the Southeastern Conference,” he said. “But quite frankly, they’re ahead of us, the league’s ahead of us. And we’re going to get to a point where they’re not ahead of us any more.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.