Dogs Try To Maintain Momentum In Rivalry Week

Adam Frazier

They've gritted and gutted their way through an extended rough stretch without excuses. So now that some bounces, not to mention base hits, have gone their way the Diamond Dogs aren't too proud to accept help. "I guess it's finally we're catching breaks instead of the other team catching breaks," said Adam Frazier.

This was one good way to look at Mississippi State's weekend. The Bulldogs did catch, or rather watch, a bounce go their way in a 14th inning as a Tennessee wild pitch scored the winning run and completed an absolutely crucial sweep. The series boosted State to 24-16 and, more importantly, to 8-10 SEC with four league weekends left.

It means that after losing four-straight games and falling to a game out of the ten-team SEC Tournament standings, the Bulldogs suddenly find themselves tied for seventh overall and only a game out of tied for fifth, as well as out of second-best in the Western Division. Of course even a week into the second half of the conference schedule the SEC remains so muddled in the middle that State is also a loss from falling back into tenth or eleventh. Meaning, they are not out of the league woods just yet.

But neither are the Bulldogs stuck in the cellar or, emotionally, down in any dumps. Just the opposite, said rotation pitcher Kendall Graveman. "The second half of a season really determines a season. We have a lot of confidence in that locker room, you can feel the energy and we're excited to play baseball right now."

They ought to be excited. Win or lose, Mississippi State has been anything but boring this SEC season. The difficulty in most of the first five weeks was all the drama came with too much trauma, with three extra-inning losses and four more by one or two runs. Even allowing for the well-documented injury issues that almost crippled the club going into SEC season, it's been more frustration than any young squad ought to face.

Yet with their season seemingly hanging by the proverbial thread, these players not only won another series, they swept it. And, did it with two adrenalin-soaked extra inning wins around an uncharacteristically easy success.

"They certainly needed something good to happen," Coach John Cohen agreed. "That's why I feel we can go on a run in the second half. Because of how bad these kids want this."

Nobody will lack want-to this week, either dugout, because the Bulldogs will face state rivals in all four games. State takes on Southern Mississippi (23-16) Tuesday evening in the annual matchup at Pearl's Trustmark Park. MSU won last year's edition 5-4, though the game both programs remember better was an unplanned rematch at Georgia Tech. That was in the first round of the Atlanta Regional and State pulled off a modest upset with a 3-0 victory that triggered a post-season run.

Realistically the respective teams won't recognize each other tomorrow. Graduation and draft mean CF C.T. Bradford is the only Bulldog who started last year's Regional game in Tuesday's lineup, for example. That won't dilute the rivalry aspect a bit of course. Besides, each squad arrives with their own league momentum as USM is coming off a sweep of Memphis. The post-season RPI implications only further spice this re-matchup.

Actually, one other State starter in Atlanta is available. And last Tuesday, after Luis Pollorena threw 5.1 relief innings in the Governor's Cup game with a run and three hits, Cohen gave every indication the lefthander would get the ball for the return trip to the same park, against a program he dominated for six scoreless innings in the Regional and got the win against in April.

Pollorena threw the last 3.0 Saturday innings to get the 3-2 win over Tennessee which might keep him out of this Tuesday's starting slot. Though, he only tossed 24 pitches…and has had two days to rest…and is in a setting where the junior simply thrives. "I mean, I like that park," the popular Pollo said. "People say I should play for the Braves and just stay in double-A your whole career! But if they ask me to go, I'm ready to go."

Speaking of ready to go, Pollorena proved that as the pinch-runner in Thursday's eleventh inning after DH Trey Porter led off with a double. A former position player and batter in junior college, Pollorena got to third base on a bunt despite a throw that way; another over-due Bulldog break. Then he slid home with the winning run on a short fly ball by C Mitch Slauter. "I'm just trying to help out the team, whatever I can do."

The will-do attitude epitomizes so much of what Mississippi State has had to try for the past six weeks working around injury disruptions. More tangibly, pitching and defense have had to carry the club and that was all the more obvious in sweeping Tennessee. The Bulldogs batted just .196 for the winning weekend, and of the 20 base hits only seven went for more than one base. Nothing left the home yard, though that is something State accepts. Besides, they slugged some home runs at South Carolina and had no wins to show for it.

This explained, hopefully, for a confused TV audience why big 1B Wes Rea was dropping a bunt to advance Pollorena in an 11th inning. Numbers don't lie. "If you look at the combined home runs for us and our opponents, you're just not going to win by waiting to hit a ball out of this ballpark," Cohen said. "So we have to generate it and if a 6-6, 290-pound guy has to do that, he's going to do it."

State swept because Tennessee was even less productive, held to .175 batting and an on-base rate of just .256. But, the Volunteers didn't expect to hit a high average; they wanted to reach, then run, and did steal three official bases. The trick was how well State handled other situations, especially in extra innings. Bulldog pitchers were masterful in covering bunts and getting outs at second or third base, or even at home plate as squeeze attempts were outed. This is something the Dogs have been doing well already in 2012, now they just execute even more efficiently.

And as starting pitcher Chris Stratton said, "Great defense will help you get through a game a lot quicker." By the same token great pitching keeps games moving. And Stratton has been truly great the last six Fridays. His 7-0 overall record ought to be at least three more wins better.

The junior tossed a full nine innings in game-one, and while he had to hand over a 2-2 tie to eventual winner Caleb Reed it was close enough to a complete game. The obvious fact is Mississippi State's season, and post-season hopes, just about hinge on getting a game-one gem each week. A burden? Not to Stratton.

"It's fun! It's responsibility but it's a lot of fun. It's what I play baseball for, and I'm just ready to come out and set the tone."

Though, over the past month Graveman has risen to the game-two occasion well enough to become something of an ace in his own right. And the sophomore righthander did get an official complete game in the second win, his second of this season. Interestingly, both are by 7-1 scores, but in the five weeks since that win at LSU Graveman has rounded-out his repertoire. Against Tennessee, "I was able to throw three pitches and make them for strikeouts," he said.

Because Stratton and Graveman ate up innings, there were plenty arms—including Reed again—available for a game-three marathon. Even better, the expedited-for-TV schedule means a stronger roster for this midweek than usual. Most expect rookie righty Brandon Woodruff (0-1, 4.24) to get another Tuesday start, but Cohen has unused-lefthanders Nick Routt and Jacob Lindgren in mind for Southern Mississippi as well. And Pollorena itching to pitch more, too.

Trustmark Park certainly favors pitchers, though this year's Eagle order is not as oriented to big-swinging as previous years. For that matter the Bulldogs mustered just six singles against Ole Miss last Tuesday in Pearl. If the numbers hold up, offense will be at a premium for both sides this time. Of course State has had to get used to infrequent hitting and lots of left-on-base Bulldogs.

The key is not getting rattled, Pollorena said. "We're trying to get our offense going. They've struggled a little bit, but we know it's there. So as long as we throw strikes and get outs and keep us in it that is the most important thing."

True. But the head coach still wants more runs on the board, because State is getting guys on bases. Not many SEC series can be won with sub-.200 batting, even at home. "You're still disappointed because we're not doing some things a lot better," Cohen said. Don't misunderstand, he is excited about the pitching prowess which is still improving. And the play-making has been excellent most games and often exceptional. State leads the SEC in double-plays turned, and against Tennessee good fielding and great throws meant five Volunteers were called out at home plate.

So much is being done well by this team, that the offensive frustrations loom that much larger. Then again, what if two or three Bulldogs were to suddenly find their stroke? Or if some more of those well-struck ground balls skipped past opponent gloves? That is just how close Mississippi State stands to getting it together, Cohen believes.

"Our kids are just trying so hard, that's why I really think we could go on a run in the second half offensively. So if we can get to a point where we're executing and putting the barrel where we want it I think we can score runs and support this pitching staff that has done nothing but give us everything, every time."

Tuesday isn't the only rivalry rematch of this week. The Bulldogs return home for an even more intense weekend as they host Ole Miss (27-13, 9-9 SEC). Sweeping one series has put Mississippi State back in the league pack, but again that status is only as strong as the latest scores.

So, there is a lot left to be done. And won, before the Dogs can start feeling any degree of comfort. "We just have to keep it rolling, keep the team energy going," Frazier said. "I feel we came together more this week than the whole season, and when you're doing that you're winning ball games."

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