Baseball: Bulldogs Open SEC Play at Florida

Mississippi State’s baseball team opens up SEC play later today at Florida (6:30 p.m., FSN). The Bulldogs (11-6) will see just how ready their newcomers are for the big time. The starting lineup – pitcher included – for today could include four junior college transfers and two true freshmen, including starting pitcher Kendall Graveman. Another true freshman, Tupelo’s Cris Stratton, will start Saturday.

The new guys had some issues early on this season, particularly in the field, but coach John Cohen likes the direction they’re headed.

“I’ll put our shortstop, Jonathan Ogden, defensively with any shortstop in the SEC. He’s really good. He has started really making some plays for us. … Our third baseman, (Nick) Vickerson, has done a great job at third base defending. He has really done a nice job. … I feel like our infield is really starting to pay well defensively. It’s fun to watch those guys compete.”

But how will they fare in the SEC? MSU has finished dead last in the league each of the past two seasons, and No. 6-ranked Florida (13-3) is the defending Eastern Division champ. Cohen said he doesn’t see much difference between teams in the SEC, and it sounded like he was including his own squad in that discussion.

“I think Florida’s very good. Are they better than Oklahoma? Are they better than UCLA?” asked Cohen, whose team lost to both those clubs earlier this season. “Are they better than anybody else in the league? That remains to be seen. There’s just a hair difference between the top of our league and the bottom of our league, and I don’t even think there is a bottom of our league at this point. Anybody playing in this league is as good as anybody else.”

The only two seniors likely to start are outfielder Luke Adkins and first baseman Connor Powers. Both are playing well: Adkins is batting .345 with a team-leading 18 runs scored; Powers leads the Bulldogs in average (.409), home runs (8) and RBIs (32). Powers was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers last year but decided to return to Starkville.

The key to his improvement this year?

“Just trying to relax and just hit pitches that are strikes. I know that sounds really simple. I’ve always been a really aggressive hitter, and it’s always been hard for me not to swing at pretty much everything. I’m really trying to make sure I get a good pitch to hit.” He’s struck out just 10 times in 66 at-bats.

The Bulldogs will need Adkins and Powers to keep up the pace as the newbies come along. “He’s obviously taken some big swings for us this spring thus far,” Cohen said of Powers. “He’s been a great leader as far as the other guys, and quite frankly we need that, because we don’t have a lot of older guys in the program.”