As well he should be. After three more competitive contests in the three-day event, including two wins over Southeast Missouri State and one with the Spartans, the Bulldogs did get their complete act together to sweep their Challenge. Batting, fielding, and most of all pitching—at least after the initial inning—Mississippi State dominated the day and improved to 8-3 on the pre-SEC season. Michigan State left campus at 6-4, having taken both games from SEMO but lost their pair with the host team.
The mood after weekend-three of their 2010 season was just as much brighter and better as the weather, compared to the previous one when the Bulldogs were swept by Southeastern Louisiana. Interestingly, as first baseman Connor Powers pointed out, bad weather might have contributed to righting things. Mississippi State took advantage of their Tuesday game being weathered-out to loosen up and get ready for the next opportunity.
"Last weekend was obviously tough," the senior co-captain said. "We had that rainout game this week and I think it kind of helped everybody relax a little bit and it carried over to this weekend."
Powers himself carried a strong start to his season into the Challenge weekend. Against the Spartans he slugged a pair of three-run homers, in the third and seventh innings, and finished with seven total RBI for the day; more than enough to outscore Michigan State himself. The two shots gave him seven homers for the season and 45 for his career, tying for 7th place on the all-time Bulldog list with Tommy Raffo (1987-90).
"They gave me some pitches to hit, and the wind favored me," Powers said. Not that Sunday's Spartans were the only moundsmen so victimized; for the four-game weekend Powers batted .455 with 15 of his team's 32 total RBI and three homers. C Cody Freeman added a solo homer in the Bulldog Sunday seventh, his second shot of the weekend.
But State's offense got plenty of unintended help, too, as the first four of Michigan State's six pitchers issued ten walks and three hit batsmen. "We did a really good job of taking pitches today," Powers said. "Any time pitchers when they start getting on a streak it's like they don't know what to do, and the first guy obviously had trouble."
The first guy was Kyle Corcoran (0-1) who only lasted one-plus inning with five MSU runs against him on a single base hit. He walked five, hit a pair of Dogs and struck out none to take the loss.
State starter Luke Bole had a far better day in earning his first college decision, a win. He was the Dog who benefitted most from not having a midweek game because he'd been booked to start against South Alabama. The extra downtime worked to Bole's favor because on Sunday he had a new tool ready at last.
"Coach (Butch) Thompson and I have been working on a changeup since fall and I just found it today," the freshman said. "I don't know how but I found it. I had a good bullpen Tuesday the day I was supposed to pitch and came here and threw today and felt fine." Bole worked 5.1 innings with seven hits, four runs, no walks and two strikeouts.
"Luke wasn't as sharp as he's been in the pen, he's been really special in the bullpen," Cohen said. "He pitched some good pitches today but we know it's better. In fact when he came off the mound I said great job today but I know we can do better than that. And he agreed."
If that seemed over-critical of the coach, it was because the Spartans did put up three runs in the top of the first inning off the rookie. A hot hopper by leadoff man Eli Boike evaded Powers' glove for a scratch single and Brandon Eckerle was plunked. Jonathan Roof punched a hit through the left gap for one RBI, and a bunt advanced both runners where the second wild pitch of Bole's inning scored Eckerle.
It also brought Roof to the third corner where a fly ball from Bo Felt delivered a third RBI, even if CF Jaron Shepherd robbed him with a great running, diving grab. Shepherd had to run down another drive at the centerfield wall to end the inning with State only down 3-0.
But the first assault didn't shake Bole up much if at all as he reeled off four more scoreless innings by retiring 12 of 15 faced. He knew he had a handle on the game, and his changeup, "When they started popping up to shortstop. I got into a real good groove, I was nervous going out there but after that it was good."
His counterpart Corcoran wasn't as fortunate, though his first full inning could have been much worse than the one run State pushed across. He walked the bases full with one out for Shepherd to get that initial tally on a fly ball. Another fly stranded three Staters, but the second time around the Dogs were more efficient. LF Trey Johnson was plunked and 3B Nick Vickerson walked, and 2B Sam Frost showed bunt until a 1-2 count.
Then he swung away and dropped a double—the first Bulldog hit of the day--in the left-center gap that scored Johnson. Another walk finished Corcoran with Tim Simpson entering to face the heart of State's order. He plunked 3B Russ Sneed to even the score up, and keep the sacks stuffed with no outs for Powers, who watched ball-four himself for a 4-3 State lead.
Simpson managed a foul-tip of Freeman for the first out and normally the roller off Shepherd's bat to the right side would have been a double-play. But then this was Shepherd, getting down the line ahead of the relay safely, allowing RF Luke Adkins to score. Simpson needed a long fly-ball to leave the bases full and get off the field down only 5-3.
Vickerson led off State's third turn with a bunt-single and on two down Adkins hit safely through the right side. Simpson had been flirting with a balk call since entering and finally earned one to advance both Dogs. Though, they'd have scored from anywhere when Powers went opposite-field on Simpson with a high drive that just cleared rightfield for the first three-runner.
"It was a fastball away, I'd been taking a lot of pitches to start off the weekend and I had a feeling it was about that time they'd try to steal a first-pitch strike. So I just let it go." The Spartans switched moundsmen in the MSU fourth with righty Joe Zwierzynski, who challenged the home P.A. and radio as much as Bulldog batters. Consecutive one-out walks had Ogden and Johnson on and with two outs State called a double-steal. Catcher John Martinez' throw skipped by his third baseman to score Ogden for a 9-3 margin through four.
That was more than enough support for Bole to work into the sixth. "Somebody told me as long as you can keep it under four runs we're going to win the ball game. That's what happened." After a one-out single by Andrew Carpenter made it 9-4, C.C. Watson took the ball from Bole and needed only a couple of pitches. Vickerson snared a sinker off the bat of Chris Roberts for one out and fired across to first to catch Carpenter diving back too late. And the Bulldogs got that run back quickly enough as Ogden doubled to the left-center gap to score Freeman. This was off right Andrew Waszak, who had to get a called-K to leave another couple of Dogs on.
Spartan first baseman Jeff Holm, a lefthanded sidearmer, was sent to the hill for the bottom of the seventh and was immediately battered. Jet Butler subbed-in to swing and singled the first pitch, with new DH Ryan Duffy walking. This set up Powers for his second three-run blast of the afternoon, and no, he felt no sympathy for a fellow first-sacker. "No, it's a tough game, a round ball and round bat, I don't care who's pitching." With bases cleared it meant Freeman only scored himself by following Powers' example with a shot over left-centerfield. Shortly afterwards at 5:22 the four infield sprinklers came on to amusement of most.
With a ten-run difference both squads put some other arms on the mound for experience. Bulldog rookie Matt Lane's debut was educational as Eckerle tripled and later scored on a passed ball. A couple of walks meant two were on and two out when Roberts drove one to the track; MSU's Johnson got the glove up only to have the ball glance off for an error and sixth Spartan run. But the seventh was stopped a whole stride in front of the plate as Adkins got the ball in quickly and sub-C Wes Thigpen cut off the plate on Carpenter.
Lane sat the ninth-inning side to finish on an encouraging note. "Matt is a guy who we feel is going to pitch well," Cohen said. "I thought C.C. came in and pitched really, really well." Watson worked 1.2 innings with a strikeout and no hits or walks.
Much as the Bulldogs enjoyed swinging the sticks against a series of struggling Spartans, they remained as realistic as their coach. Even Powers was not making too much of his Sunday slugging. "They gave me some pitches to hit, and the wind favored me," he said, noting a helpful breeze for a rare time this early season. "You have to make sure you get it up there." And the four-game team average was still just .267. But the on-base rate of .467 was more to Cohen's favor, as were seven successful steals in eight tries and many more extra-base moves on the paths.
"We're going to have to win by running offensively and being a great defensive club. And we took a huge stride today. We had ten walks today and three HBPs. That's who we have to be, you can't defend on fly balls in this ballpark. We need to pressure people, and we were able to do that today; and defend and pitch."
A staff 3.41 era was certainly a step in the right—and left—direction for this young group of moundsmen, as was a 26 strikeouts/10 walks ratio. No less than seven freshmen threw at least an inning with game-three starter Chris Stratton's 7.1 stint longest of the Challenge. "All the freshmen did good," said Bole, "just hope we can keep it up during the season." State allowed the four victims .254 hitting with a single home run and only 15 RBI.
But nothing made Cohen happier, and the club more comfortable, than a defense that looked entirely different than last weekend when errors and uncharged gaffes contributed to being swept…admittedly by a team that is now nationally ranked. Still the coaching staff was looking for fixes all week and came up with freshman Frost at second base all four games for one. He handled all 17 chances that came his way. Former second baseman Vickerson got one start and more sub-innings at third and on Sunday… "He was unbelievable," Powers said. And Ogden, who had some surprising shakiness in the first two weeks, was even better this series.
"The way he and Ogden and Frost defended the infield we're really pleased," said Cohen. Of course all involved are more than pleased with Shepherd who was nothing less than spectacular running down balls all weekend, even robbing teammates of routine catches with his remarkable range. "Anytime they hit the ball in centerfield with two outs, I just run to the dugout," Power half-joked. "It's an out."
But from here on out things only get more challenging for State. They have a Wednesday game with Western Kentucky, then head to Corpus Christi for the WhataBurger College Classic. That is the sort of event that will demand an all-phase effort against first-rank competition.
"It's going to be really good for us before conference to be playing teams like Oklahoma, UCLA, Corpus Christi," said Powers. "Those are quality teams." Cohen and Thompson have a day or two to set pitching plans for the coming five games in as many dates. The early notion is to use senior Tyler Whitney, who didn't work this weekend, for Western Kentucky but that isn't "100% sure" according to Cohen just yet.
And there is still so much to have lined up before the Bulldogs head to Gainesville for the March 19-21 Florida series. But this Challenge sweep was a promising sign to the coach.
"I put a lot more stock this time of year into how we're playing and how it's going to translate to two weeks from now when we open up league play," Cohen said. "I know what the league presents and this is the type of performance you have to have to win league games. That's what I'm most pleased about."