Ready or not, Bulldogs dive into SEC action
– One week after losing three of four to Hawaii, MSU will host SEC East powerhouse.
By Brad Locke
STARKVILLE – John Cohen refuses to sugarcoat his team’s shortcomings, but he also refuses to see them as a handicap in the long term.
Cohen’s Mississippi State squad opens SEC play today at home, hosting South Carolina (10-2) in a three-game set. The Bulldogs (10-4) think they’re ready for SEC competition, but it’s no secret it will be a long and painful road ahead for a team that, as Cohen said, is short on talent.
The first-year coach observed, after losing three of four to Hawaii last weekend, “We are overmatched in certain situations with this club right now, and we’re going to have to be perfect in areas where we’re not perfect.”
State swept a doubleheader from Valparaiso on Wednesday, but even then, a five-run rally was required to take Game 2.
MSU, which finished last in the SEC last year, has shown flashes of promise and had periods of ineptitude. Take the pitching staff, which has been knocked around some but seen guys like Tyler Whitney and Nick Routt flourish and earn weekend starting roles.
Whitney (1-0, 0.82 ERA), a junior left-hander, and Routt (2-0, 1.42), a freshman lefty, will both start this weekend. But as of Thursday, Cohen had not announced when, and the third starter will be determined later.
“I think the biggest thing is we’ve been able to establish a strike zone early,” Whitney said. “I think confidence is up, I think our preparation is better than in the past.”
Of Routt, Cohen said, “He is well beyond his years as far as understanding what pitching’s all about. … He is the one guy that has really come a long way in a short amount of time.”
MSU will need more of those kind of guys. Because although Cohen’s attacking style of play, both pitching and on offense, will keep the Bulldogs in some games, sometimes they’ll be attacking with a rubber hammer.
Struggling at the plate
State is hitting .282 as a team, which ranks 11th in the SEC. It’s last in slugging (.428), 11th in on-base percentage (.392), and 11th in runs scored (90).
As with the pitching, the offense is a mixture of good and bad.
Junior infielder Jet Butler leads the Bulldogs with a .447 average and has 11 RBIs. Junior first baseman Connor Powers has lived up to his surname, batting .327 with three home runs and a team-leading 17 RBIs.
Powers said the key for him has been not trying too hard. His teammates should take note.
“I think any time there’s a lot of people going for a select number of spots, people are going to be going too hard,” said Powers, who is one of only two Bulldogs to play in all 14 games, starting 13 of them.
Cohen is still trying to find a lineup he can stick with, but until then, he’s urging his team to forge ahead despite being ill-equipped in some areas.
“Right now we’re 180 pounds trying to block the 300-pound defensive end,” Cohen said. “We’re getting run over a little bit.”
Rebels wary of series with unranked ‘Dores
– Unlike recent meetings, Ole Miss will face a Vandy team that’s flying under the radar.
By Parrish Alford
Unranked in the major polls, Vanderbilt hasn’t stirred the consciousness of the college baseball nation, but the Commodores are very much on the radar of Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco.
The 14th-ranked Rebels, after winning two games against Austin Peay this week, open SEC play in Nashville against Vanderbilt tonight.
Ole Miss (9-3) won four out of five against Vanderbilt (10-4) last season, the fourth in Hoover to put the Rebels in the championship game of the SEC tournament.
“I know they lost some big hitters, but one think you can always count on from a Vandy club is they’re going to pitch and play defense,” Bianco said.
Those are two things Bianco wants to see the Rebels do better. Along those lines he’ll tweak his pitching rotation, moving weekend starters Drew Pomeranz and Phillip Irwin up a day and moving junior college transfer Aaron Barrett, the Friday starter since the season began, to Sunday.
Game times at Vanderbilt are 6 p.m. today, 3 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday.
Bianco said the Rebels haven’t “shown up” in a couple of games on the mound.
“Although I think Aaron’s terrific and one of the best arms we’ve got, he hasn’t had a lot of success out there.”
In three starts Barrett is 0-1 with a 9.24 earned run average. He’s been accurate, allowing only three walks, but he’s given up almost two hits per inning with 23 basehits in 12 2-3 innings.
The pitching has required some on-the-go attention, but Bianco began the season knowing he wanted to improve his defense.
The Rebels’ .966 fielding percentage was eighth in the league last year.
Presently Ole Miss is eighth in the league and fielding .963.
With an injury to veteran Evan Button and an early suspension to sophomore Tim Ferguson, there’s been a lot of shuffling on the infield.
One move that looks to be taking hold is junior second baseman Zach Miller’s switch to third.
“The ball comes up on you quicker, and I’ve had to adjust to that.
“Coach wants me to make plays no matter where he puts me,” Miller said. “I think my fielding is coming, but I have a ways to go on the situational stuff.
“I feel confident that I can make the routine plays, and I’m trying to make the great plays.”