The first winning weekend of SEC season for Mississippi State, in fact. After three frustrating series, all hinging on one-run or extra-inning losses, the Diamond Dogs enjoyed success. They beat Florida 7-3 and 2-0 in the first two games, and if not for one awful inning in game three could have put the broom to the visiting Gators. Instead a 2-0 lead became a 8-2 deficit in the top of the fifth, with an eventual 8-3 decision.
Fortunately the breakdown came midway and by such margin that the Bulldogs had the rest of the game to see a bigger 2013 picture. They are 26-9 and have clawed closer to breaking even in the league standings at 5-7. Sure, 6-6 would have been better, Frazier agreed Sunday.
“A home series that’s what you’re supposed to do. We wanted to get that’s sweep to get us back on track but we’ll take the positive, we got the series.”
Now they take a more upbeat attitude on the road, beginning tonight with a short trip to familiar territory. State meets Ole Miss in the Governors Cup game (6:30) at Pearl’s Trustmark Park. This is the seventh edition of an annual, non-conference contest between the rivals which began in 1980 as the Mayors Trophy game in Jackson. It moved to Pearl in 2007, and the six meetings so far have been split with the Rebels taking the 2012 game.
RHP Brandon Woodruff (1-1, 4.15) will get another Tuesday start. The sophomore had struggled in some March midweek opportunities, but rebounded last week in a 6-4 win at South Alabama. He was held out of Sunday relief work after that game got out of hand to stay on schedule for Tuesday.
Because this matchup doesn’t count in conference standings, how each program approaches it pitching-wise often varies depending on their overall season situation. Naturally neither team wants to wipe-out the staff in advance of the next SEC series, and that applies more than ever this year. The Bulldogs are headed to Texas A&M and putting their tenuous early-April momentum on the line.
Also, with recent revisions to the rotation, it is unlikely State can put their preferred Trustmark Park pitcher on the field one final time. LHP Luis Pollorena (5-1, 3.29) has thrived in the AA-size yard against in-state opposition. But he moved into the Friday starting job two series ago and will remain in the rotation, not seeing the Rebels until the regular season series in May.
Based on how he threw in Mobile last week, Woodruff is getting both his confidence and command back. And though seven Bulldogs tossed Sunday none of the usual relievers were worn-down over the weekend, so everyone but Pollorena, RHP Kendall Graveman, and LHP Jacob Lindgren should be available as needed.
Besides the obvious rivalry motivations, this game absolutely counts in RPI terms. Not that either team is hurting there with both their SEC West schedules and the quality of non-conference games played. Mississippi State has scored big so far with an 8-0 midweek record, including a 13-5 win over Southern Mississippi in Pearl. But even just four weekends into SEC season there are already projections that State and Ole Miss will be battling for one available NCAA Regional host slot.
“That’s looking a little far ahead,” Frazier said. “But we always want to beat Ole Miss, and it’s a fun atmosphere down there. We need to get a win and keep it going through next weekend and stay on the right path.”
What has baffled the Bulldogs and frustrated fans is just how close this team has been to that right path all along. Sunday was the first time they were simply beaten by any major margin, or more accurately by a specific pitch or single big late-game swing. So many close calls can be encouraging but also can grind down confidence. Compounding the aggravation was that in all four series State out-hit the opponent and even out-scored the winning team for the weekend.
So putting up a weekend W mattered as much in MSU minds as the standings. “That was our whole goal coming into this weekend, to get a series win,” Graveman said. “And we knew we were a good enough team to win a series.”
Graveman has certainly carried his share, or more, of the load. The senior has put together consecutive complete-game victories in the Saturday slot, the most recent earning him SEC Pitcher of the Week for shutting out Florida. He has provided the steady presence in a rotation that has been in-flux otherwise. Pollorena’s win over Florida, and a close (of course) call a week before at Arkansas, is encouraging as far as the front-end. So too was the Sunday return of Lindgren after missing a turn with elbow anxieties. He wasn’t even absolutely certain of starting game-three with the Gators until a morning checkup.
Four scoreless innings showed the soph is nearly back on Friday night form, until a couple of hits in the fatal fifth and a rotten-luck misstep covering a bunt. At first it looked as if Lindgren had sprained the ankle; post-game reports were more positive. “I think he’s going to be fine,” Coach John Cohen said, hopefully. Though it was a bases-loaded, no-outs jam Lindgren would have stayed in for at least another batter or two, the coach also said, while relievers were readied normally and not in a forced rush.
“Lindgren was dealing,” Frazier said. “Then his coming out I guess game them a big boost and we couldn’t recover after that.”
Still Lindgren’s work indicated he is on the way back. With another good Tuesday showing Woodruff might well make State move him into the rotation for the Auburn series…which Cohen has predicted will happen eventually for the soph righty. For that matter RHP Evan Mitchell, who lost his job to Pollorena, is far from written-off for the second half of SEC season. This will keep LHP Ross Mitchell and RHP Ben Bracewell in their ideal relief roles, instead of getting forced into starting spots as has been considered.
As series stats show, State is still out-swinging opponents. But the inevitable toll of SEC pitching is showing in individual averages. Frazier has had a rough couple of weeks, 3-of-14 against Florida for example, and has slipped to .345 for the season…which of course shows how hot he was for the first six weeks. RF Hunter Renfroe was 2-of-10, though that was when he had something to swing at. If not for DH Alex Detz warming back up Renfroe would have had nobody on base in front of him. He’s still .417 for the season with 10 home runs.
State has even tried spreading-out the order, by moving CF C.T. Bradford from the two-spot to sixth. The goal is to get more production in the last half, and while results were inconclusive at best this past weekend there are signs of other plate-life. Left-handed LF Jacob Robson is making the alternation with righty Demarcus Henderson at the bottom of the order, while a surprising ‘cleanup’ assignment to 2B Brett Pirtle worked well against Florida. He was 5-of-12, best in the series for State. His development and Detz’ work have helped off-set the struggles of Frazier and Bradford, both of whom are assuredly going to regain their strokes.
A five-SEC-game stretch of errorless defense ended, and in spectacular fashion, Sunday, but fielding gaffes didn’t really lose the game either. “You don’t want to get down based on one inning, but that certainly was a bad inning for us,” Cohen said. And State still leads the SEC with 46 double-plays, which frustrated a free-swinging Florida team into changing their plate approach to bunting.
Pitching and defense predominate at Pearl’s spacious park of course, and State speed on the paths is another positive…if Bulldogs can make base that is. They shelled Southern Miss for 15 hits a month ago and scored seven runs through the first three innings. But that was against poor pitching, and Ole Miss has better arms to offer. They will go with a sophomore righthander of their own, Josh Laxar (2-0, 2.45).
State leaves Thursday for the next SEC weekend, as well as the first trip to College Station since the 1998 Bulldogs won a NCAA Regional there.