Still, the 2013 record does show two out-of-conference setbacks. Both were on the weekend, and both to Central Arkansas. Those blemishes came in early March yet there sting suddenly feels fresh again as the Bulldogs prepare for a rematch, at the scene of the crime too…and with a whole lot more at stake.
"Yeah, that's our two losses in the non-conference play," RHP Jonathan Holder said. "We'd like to out there and get back at them."
Holder threw 1.0 inning in two of those games too, the Friday win and Sunday loss. He was charged with four runs, all earned, on three hits. Wanting to even an account doesn't diminish Holder's regard for the Bear batters a bit.
"Central Arkansas does a good job of taking balls and swinging at strikes, and are really disciplined at the plate. They have older guys that know how to do the little things to win ball games." Such as get plunked—with a ludicrous 117 HBPs through 59 games—or walk or whatever. The Bears only had 21 hits in the three games, but drew 6 and 5 plunkings in their wins. Holder gave two of those in the Sunday loss.
"We had a couple of bad games against Central Arkansas," Holder said. "But we've come a long way since then. They're a good team, but then again anybody that makes a regional is a good team."
SLAMMING AND JAMMING: For his part Holder is a good-becoming-great closer. Actually he probably qualifies for ‘great' already. After all, the sophomore just set the Mississippi State season record for saves, now with 16 out of 23 appearances. He's ‘blown' just two of them but it worked out well anyway with two winning decisions.
Plus, he now has 25 career saves, which ranks second all-time at State after just two seasons. He's behind only Van Johnson's 29 saves in 1995-98. And for a measure of just how efficient Holder is, he's struck out 79 in 45.0 innings. Bullpen compadre Ross Mitchell has thrown 77.2 innings with 38 strikeouts for contrast. Not that the loosely-wrapped lefthander throws for strikeouts much anyway of course.
Because the NCAA treats, or attempts to, Regionals as ‘neutral' site events many of the aspects players and fans enjoy about home games aren't permitted. Still it is a good bet that when, not if but when, Holder is summoned from whichever bullpen he occupies that particular evening, a certain soundtrack will be played. Holder has become almost as known for his walk-up music, Johnny Cash's ‘God's Gonna Cut You Down' as what he does on the hill.
In fact, last week at Hoover for whatever unknown and unreported reason, that song was cued-up and played as Holder entered to save the Texas A&M game. Bulldog players and Mississippi State fans went wild at the unexpected tune.
"I don't know how it happened, but I heard it at the end of my warm-up," said Holder. "And it pumped me up a little bit." Enough so to record three fast outs and get save #16.
RIGHT (SIDE) APPROACH: Cohen reaffirmed State's plan to start RHP Kendall Graveman (5-5, 3.04) Friday, as announced Wednesday. The senior is easily the most seasoned starter on this staff, yet this will be only the second time in 2013 Graveman has opened a series or weekend. Much like his junior year, Graveman is most often the ‘middle' man in Mississippi State's rotation, an idea Cohen has copied from mentor Pat McMahon who always wanted the most reliable and durable starter going second or third.
The matchup will challenge Graveman's particular gifts as Central Arkansas has ridiculous walk and hit-by-pitch numbers. When he started (game three) in the regular season series Graveman did go 5.2 innings with four runs, three earned; but only walked one Bear with seven strikeouts. The stat of most concern to Cohen isn't so much strikeouts or reaches or maybe even runs, within obvious limits.
It is about innings this time. Much as MSU loves its bullpen, this is a Friday where the starter needs to get a true ‘quality' start. Thus, Graveman is the guy to Cohen. "We looked at Central Arkansas, discussed them and our club a lot. Kendall is a senior, a captain, an engineering major…which means he's a glutton for punishment!" Not that the 1990 State alumnus with an English major means any offence to engineers, of course.
Seriously though, "We're excited about throwing him out there and hopefully getting us pretty deep into a ball game. We feel if he can get five or six into a ball game, with the strength of our bullpen, that's a plus," said Cohen. After that, "You frame your bullpen a little differently. Because they're more right-handed that brings Myles Gentry and Ben Bracewell more into focus. And of course John Holder is in focus every game."
The question really is just how to set-up the relief roles this week. Or, not. Unlike a series, or super Regional; and certainly unlike the extended SEC Tournament, a NCAA Regional is subject to change. Whether staying in the winners bracket, battling back in the losers half, or even coping with weather, coaches must be at their most flexible in a Regional. With, Cohen acknowledged, the pressure of having to come out of Sunday still alive for another week.
Which means minimal thinking-ahead and an obsession with the moment. "We put so much stock into that day." Meaning, if an arm isn't endangered with another turn, that pitcher is on-call each and every day. "Sometimes you have to shut it down but we're so fortunate we have kids that want the baseball all the time."
None more so than Holder. He showed some over-work signs in the South Carolina series but was super-sharp again at Hoover, snapping off the curveball and spotting his fastball. And in this win-or-else situation, look for #14 to live in the bullpen. "If you're asking if Jonathan Holder is going to throw two, three-straight days to win a Regional, the answer is yes."
REMEMBER WHEN? As regularly reminded, this is the first first-round Regional played on Dudy Noble Field since 2003. In 2007 the famous field entertained a super Regional which was indeed super, with over-capacity crowds watching those Diamond Dogs take down Clemson in two games. Because ticket revenue is turned over to the NCAA, receipts must match announced attendance; so suspicions that those packed house may have actually exceeded the 1989 on-campus record of 14,991 cannot be confirmed. Or denied.
Cohen played on that '89 team of course. And, the 1990 team which did what its predecessor could not by winning its home-field Regional to earn a College World Series berth. It is that '90 Regional which is being recalled more than any other this week, even more than the '85 or '97 seasons which also produced victories.
"In fact I've had so many people tweet and text me Jim's famous call of Burke Masters," Cohen said. That being Masters' third-round, eighth-inning grand slam that turned a 8-7 deficit with Florida State into eventually a 11-8 victory. Cohen wasn't one of the three teammates on a base, he was in the on-deck circle at the time. But he saw it from an ideal angle.
Now he's hearing it all over as Ellis' radio call is repeated regularly, sounding just as dramatic today as 23 Mays ago. "It's goosebumps. It makes your hair stand on end. I know a lot of those people are still around…even though I don't like dating myself!" Cohen played in three home-field Regionals (1988-89-90) and watched another as a '87 redshirt freshman.
As an assistant or head coach he's been a part of nine more Regionals since then, including hosts at Florida and Kentucky. This though is his first chance to coach Mississippi State in NCAA play at Dudy Noble Field. Which, Cohen said, at its best in a Regional weekend with everything on the line, is nigh-unimaginable. Not just on campus, either
"I was having this discussion with my wife, when you've lived in a college town all your life, something special is going on and everybody knows about it. It encompasses the whole town." More than that, "You think of it as a Homecoming. People come from miles and miles around to be a part of this. And you don't' want to disappoint those people."
PARTY TIME: Nobody left disappointed—well, other than the Tigers—in 2007 when Mississippi State's Mitch Moreland slammed the door on Clemson to seal a two-game sweep and super Regional success. Even those not around in-person were celebrating, such as a young Gulf Coast kid named Wes Rea. "I saw everything that was going on."
He still sees it in fact, as the post-win party spilled all over Dudy Noble Field. Authorities wisely stood aside and let the over-packed stadium join their heroes—including one fan who cycled around the field somehow dodging all the pedestrian traffic. Those attending here in 2013 might consider themselves warned, too.
"People are already telling us if y'all win this we're going to storm the field on Sunday," said a bemused Rea. "I don't know if they allow that or not. But stuff like that makes for great highlights and we see it over and over again. If that happens great; if security ends up on the field I don't know, we'll have to deal with it."
Meanwhile the Bulldogs are dealing with the duality of enjoying hosting…without getting too energized, caught-up in the frenzy surrounding campus and town and for that matter entire state. There's a goodly portion of this roster about get experience Regional pressure for the first time period, much less on the home field. Those are obvious distraction risks, Rea said.
"But they got a chance earlier this year to play in front of 14,000 people," he reminded about the Super Saturday crowd, which was the officially-second-biggest ever at Polk-Dement Stadium. " That's crazy, and they've already seen some big crowds.
"But even guys that have been here three and four years haven't seen the 15,000 crowds and we haven't hosted a Regional. So it's going to be new for everybody."