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Mississippi State head coach John Cohen doesn't have a problem looking at legendary former LSU coach Skip Bertman for some wisdom.
It was many years ago, but Cohen vividly remembers Bertman explaining the importance of facing some early season adversity, which in theory, set the stage for a stronger team and finish to the regular season.
As a younger coach at the time, Cohen didn't understand what Bertman meant by that. Now, more than ever, sitting at 15-8 overall fresh off a national runner-up campaign, he knows exactly what the legendary skipper meant as his club welcomes Vanderbilt this weekend.
"I think our coaching staff has treated the early part of the season by taking a lot of risks with our personnel," Cohen said. "I always remember Bertman saying you really should lose some games early on so you can figure out which personnel set works.
Preston Brown makes the move to the weekend rotation against Vandy. (MSU photo)
"You might put your best nine out there from the start, but it might not work out by the end of the year because you went too conservative to start the year," he explained. "But the plan is, you hope it helps the team down the stretch. Who knows what's going to happen the next couple of months, but I do know we're going to be a much better club by the end of conference play. We've got a lot of moving parts right now."
Expectations have changed for the Bulldogs over the past year. Mississippi State entered the 2013 campaign expected to do something special. However, few thought the Bulldogs would play for a national title. But they did. State assembled one of the more memorable runs through the College World Series, using heroics in the Charlottesville Super Regional, and clutch performances once in Omaha to reach the national title series against UCLA.
MSU fell short of the national title, but that didn't matter once the curtain fell on the '13 season. This was a new program, and with that came new expectations. Though the season is still young, the Bulldogs have had trouble at times replacing guys like Adam Frazier and Hunter Renfroe, among others, while the primary concern moving forward through Southeastern Conference play is stabilizing the starting rotation and overall pitching staff.
Mississippi State made many headlines last season by having quite the unorthodox approach to starting pitching. In Omaha, the Bulldogs didn't hesitate to pull pitchers in the second or third innings with guys like lefthander Ross Mitchell in the bullpen. But things were supposed to be different this spring. The Bulldogs welcomed back hard-throwing righthanded pitcher Brandon Woodruff from injury, and going into the season, he was expected to bring a Chris Stratton-esque presence to the mound. That hasn't happened yet, as Woodruff was yanked from the weekend rotation to begin SEC play last weekend with a 7.43 ERA in just 13 1/3 innings. Woodruff has a power arm with the ability to get up to 95, but things just haven't come full circle just yet.
"The thing about Brandon is he's really still in his infancy as a pitcher. He's going to be really good, and I think he'll be a big leaguer someday. Right now, though, he just hasn't commanded things as well as we'd like," he said. "If you told me right now he'd be throwing it better than anyone in two months, I'd believe you. He just needs to command both sides of the plate."
Cohen said the Bulldogs have a plan in place for Woodruff. Besides pitching out of the bullpen at times on the weekend, he didn't rule out the possibility of the righty getting his stuff ironed out with some midweek starts.
Even with Woodruff's situation, the Bulldogs feel like they might be headed a positive direction from a starting pitching standpoint. MSU surprised some last weekend when it moved outstanding lefthanded reliever Ross Mitchell to the rotation against Georgia. He gave the Bulldogs a massive boost after suffering a tough loss in the series opener, striking out five and allowing just a run on four hits in a complete game performance in his second career start.
"I think having him in the bullpen was a tremendous luxury for us, but you're talking about one of the best arms in the league," he said. "The thing we really like is he engages our defense because he induces so many ground balls. That's just a critical trait to have this day and age in college baseball."
Without Mitchell in the bullpen, MSU has zero problem looking to rising lefty Jacob Lindgren and husky righty Jonathan Holder in the later innings. Lindgren was just OK last season with a 4.18 ERA in 56 innings, but is much improved this spring with a 92-94 mph fastball, along with good command of the strike zone.
"Lindgren is really flashing some electric stuff right now. He's throwing through the zone and he's great at fielding his position," he said. "He's just doing a great job of commanding the zone. That's the primary thing with Jacob."
As for the starting rotation, the Bulldogs surprised some this weekend by not starting veteran Ben Bracewell. However, junior righty Trevor Fitts is doing a great job of utilizing his fastball and working off of it, while the biggest surprise of the weekend is sophomore righty Preston Brown's entrance to the weekend rotation as the Friday starter. Brown tallied a 3.38 ERA as a freshman last season, but is vastly improved this spring with a 0.75 ERA thus far in 24 innings, along with 22 strikeouts and 11 walks.
"We're going to go with Preston in that role this weekend, because we think he deserves the start and he's a guy who can sink the ball well, thus inducing groundouts," he said. "We feel like we can defend at a high level, and he's the perfect fit for that approach."
Cohen and the Bulldogs have their toughest test yet this weekend with the Commodores coming to Starkville, Miss. But regardless of what happens in this series, Cohen, win or lose, will continue to look back at Bertman's simple words of wisdom as motivation.
The Bulldogs look forward to continuing to do things the unorthodox way.
MORE SERIES TO WATCH
No. 1 Florida State at No. 14 Clemson: Boy, have the Tigers been waiting for a statement series like this one since getting swept by rival South Carolina a few weeks ago. Clemson ace righthanded pitcher Daniel Gossett (2.83) must start the weekend off on the right foot, while for the Seminoles, the rise of reliever Gage Smith (0.87, 15 appearances) is a story worth following. The top-ranked Seminoles definitely have the edge in this series.
No. 2 South Carolina at No. 23 Kentucky: We always talk about what the Gamecocks have on the mound, but how about the offense? Connor Bright (.417) is on a tear offensively, while hobbled Max Schrock, who could be limited this weekend because of an injury, continues to be a clutch hitter. Meanwhile, UK has had success at home against the Gamecocks in the past, and it hopes to continue that trend. Two-way star A.J. Reed has been an absolute beast this season. In addition to a 1.91 ERA, he's hitting .403 with nine homers and 31 RBIs.
Arizona State at No. 5 Oregon State: The last time Ryan Kellogg (4.18) took the mound at Goss Stadium (last year), he threw a no-hitter against the Beavers. This time around, ASU just needs him to have a solid performance. Ace lefthanded pitcher Brett Lilek (0.96) is a bright spot for the Sun Devils, while for OSU, lefties Ben Wetzler (0.76) and Jace Fry (1.56) have been terrific the past couple of weeks, with Fry two weeks removed from a no-hitter.
Georgia at No. 11 LSU: Scott Stricklin's Bulldogs were unable to make a big statement last weekend against Mississippi State, but hope to make it happen this weekend against the Tigers. Georgia has a good one in outfielder Hunter Cole (.360/1/14), while on the mound, tall freshman righty Robert Tyler (2.13) only will be better as the season progresses. For the Tigers, Kade Scivicque (.400/2/12) is a pleasant surprise, while ace righthanded pitcher Aaron Nola (0.27) is having an unbelievable campaign.
No. 9 North Carolina State at Maryland: This is an important weekend for both of these clubs. The Wolfpack needs to show it can easily bounce back from a tough series like last weekend against Florida State, while Maryland squandered yet another potential upset opportunity against North Carolina last weekend. The big key for Maryland is getting righthanded pitcher Jake Stinnett (2.91) to toss a gem with the Pack handing the ball to lefty Carlos Rodon (2.45).
Long Beach State at No. 13 Cal State Fullerton: Fresh off a huge home series win over Indiana last weekend, the Dirtbags hope to make even more noise this weekend as they face rival Fullerton in a non-conference series. Talented Garrett Hampson (.346/0/5) is living up to expectations so far this spring, while for the Titans, the big key to the weekend is third baseman Matt Chapman rising to the occasion. Fullerton will be without righthanded pitcher Justin Garza this weekend. Garza experienced some tightness in his arm, and doctors advised him to sit out another weekend.
College of Charleston at No. 21 Houston: It's the battle of the Cougars in the Space City, as Charleston looks to enter the PG Top 25 with a road series win. Monte Lee's Cougars, as detailed in this feature, typically are known for their offense, but this year, it's all about the pitching. Talented young righthanded pitcher Bailey Ober is having a strong spring thus far, while for UH, righthander Jake Lemoine (1.07) and righty Aaron Garza (0.97) have exceeded expectations.
Auburn at No. 16 Tennessee: This series should be a treat for those who love hard-nosed baseball. Both the Tigers and Volunteers have performed at a high level here recently, with AU having one of the better freshmen in the country in righthanded pitcher Keegan Thompson, who has a 0.69 ERA in 39 innings. For the Vols, the offense has been particularly productive with freshman Nick Senzel (.400) and shortstop A.J. Simcox (.366) leading the way.
Florida Atlantic at No. 15 Rice: FAU is off to a 14-7 start this season, but could make a statement this weekend with a road series win over the Owls. FAU closer Kevin Alexander will miss an undisclosed amount of time because of mononucleosis, while Jeremy Strawn (2.12) and Austin Gomber (4.35) are two guys with front-line potential. As for Rice, junior college transfer John Clay Reeves (.415) is sizzling hot right now, while the pitching staff is in good shape even without Jordan Stephens. Zech Lemond (1.40) and lefty Blake Fox (1.38) have proven to be a dynamic duo the past couple of weeks.
Kansas State at Oklahoma: The marquee series in the Big 12 this weekend, the Wildcats put their 12-game winning streak on the line against the Sooners. KSU's led offensively by the usual suspects, but what stands out is the season Levi MaVorhis is having on the mound with a 2.70 ERA in 33 1/3 innings, along with 28 strikeouts and four walks. For the Sooners, junior Mac James (.442) is having a terrific year, while reliever Ralph Garza Jr. (0.96) has been a rock out of the bullpen. You can read more about Oklahoma in our Pete Hughes Q & A.
San Diego State at UNLV: The Mountain West Conference regular season title race is outstanding with the Aztecs, Rebels, New Mexico and Fresno State all vying for the top spot. This weekend, Ty France (.446), Tim Zier (.354) and hot-hitting Greg Allen (.349) hope to lead SDSU to a series victory, while UNLV will rest things on the arm of hard-throwing righthander Erick Fedde, who's living up to expectations with a 1.59 ERA in 34 innings, along with 35 strikeouts and 11 walks.
No. 3 Virginia at Miami (Fla.): It's safe to say the Hurricanes have been struggling as of late, so this weekend's series against the Cavaliers might just be a must-win to get this team back on track. Miami's David Thompson (.328/0/10) is having a nice year at the plate, but otherwise, the 'Canes need to step up offensively this weekend with a .251 batting average. Meanwhile, the 'Hoos have enjoyed the services of lefthanded pitcher Nathan Kirby, who has a 0.59 ERA in 30 2/3 innings, along with 28 strikeouts and six walks.
* No. 20 UC Santa Barbara doesn't have a huge test this weekend at home with Wagner on the docket, but it's a big weekend with the return of righthanded pitcher Austin Pettibone. Pettibone has been out since the start of the season because of an injury, yet, the Gauchos have continued to win. Pettibone, though, is a big return for the Gauchos after he tallied a 2.98 ERA in 117 2/3 innings last season, along with 61 strikeouts and 20 walks.
* Long Beach State hopes to pull off an upset of rival Cal State Fullerton this weekend, but there could be some good news either way if lefthanded pitcher Ryan Strufing has a good bullpen session. Strufing has been sidelined this season with an injury after expecting to be in the starting rotation. Should his bullpen session this weekend go as planned, he could soon return to action. The lefty redshirted last season because of an injury, but had a 2.99 ERA in 90 1/3 innings two years ago.
* Texas righthanded pitcher Ty Marlow will miss the remainder of the 2014 season after having surgery on his UCL. Marlow was a quality reliever for the Longhorns last year, and followed that up with a strong summer at the Texas Collegiate League.
* Cal Poly hard-throwing righthanded pitcher Reed Reilly will return to the mound this weekend. Reilly missed the action last weekend after experiencing spasms in his hamstring. However, tests came back negative and he should be ready to throw for the Mustangs. Reilly has appeared in nine games and has a 2.57 ERA in 14 innings.
* Top five RPI teams entering the weekend: 1) South Carolina 2) Florida State 3) Rice 4) Ole Miss 5) Houston
* Top five SOS's entering the weekend: 1) Brown 2) Stanford 3) Purdue 4) UNC Wilmington 5) Arizona State