By MATTHEW STEVENS
Mississippi State pitching coach Butch Thompson knows the spotlight on the spot of the diamond 10 inches high and 60 and a half feet from home plate.
“If we haven’t gotten some things figured out on the mound this year, we’ve got problems,” Thompson said at the MSU First Pitch celebration last weekend.
Mississippi State finished with the second-worst earned run average in the Southeastern Conference and failed to have a single pitcher with an ERA under 6.00 in league play last season.
The Bulldogs will hand the baseball to junior right-hander Devin Jones today for MSU’s Opening Day assignment as the Eupora native faces Akron at 4 p.m. at Dudy Noble Field.
“I suppose I like the sound of Devin Jones – opening day starter – but it’s really about giving our club a chance to win every time I go out there to pitch,” Jones said. “Coach Thompson told me and I couldn’t be more excited. I’m going to have to control that before I get out there.”
Jones has made numerous changes to his pitching style including going to a more streamline motion compared to the herky-jerky power delivery that he featured last year when he opened 2010 as the Bulldogs closer.
“Last year I got really into just blowing up radar guns and trying to throw the ball as hard as I can and what I didn’t realize is in this league – it doesn’t matter how hard you throw because if a hitter knows fastball is coming, you’ll get rocked,” Jones said.
Jones, who was drafted in the 48th round by the Cleveland Indians in 2008 out of Eupora High School, finished last year with a disappointing 8.16 earned run average in 22 appearances resulting in just one save because as the 6-foot-3, 180-pounder put it in an interview this offseason, “I simply had no idea how to pitch.”
“Put it this way – I’m completely convinced that if I’d signed to play professionally out of high school, I’d be out of baseball by now because all I could do is throw hard,” Jones said. “Coming from a small town, all I had to do was throw it and was never taught how to use all my pitches. I didn’t know how to move the ball properly, work both sides of the plate and really had no control.”
Jones was drafted because of his power arm that lit up a radar gun and allowed him to dominated Class 2A competition in the state of Mississippi to the tune of 86 strikeouts in 49 innings of mound duty as a senior in high school. Two summers ago, Jones touched 97-98 miles per hour in the Cape Cod League with some of the best college baseball talent in the country.
“There were times last year, the ball would come out of my hand and I had no idea where the ball would go,” Jones said. “My job this year as I see it is to make sure everybody isn't out there for 4 or 4 and half hours. Get in and get out is my motto."
Jones says he has now developed a changeup to go with his fastball and slider but admits his power in is the 90-92 mile-per-hour range but with more location to last the 80-90 quality innings this year that Cohen says he must have from the trio in his weekend rotation.
“The thing with Devin is we feel like he’s got 10-15 round stuff and we want him to believe and have that confidence in his other pitches, not just try and blow guys away with 95-plus miles per hour fastball,” Cohen said.
Jones and sophomore Chris Stratton, who will make his 2011 debut Saturday morning against Lamar, will be counted on to lead a more experienced pitching staff after being pounded last season against Southeastern Conference competition.
“If we don’t get at least 80 innings out of guys like Chris Stratton and Devin Jones, we’ll be in trouble,” Cohen said. “I’ve gone through the past two years where we’ve relied on freshman pitchers and I don’t want to do that ever again.”
The pitching staffs on every team will benefit to the new college bats as the NCAA has shifted to a new technology that makes aluminum bats behave more like their wooden counterparts.
“I’ve already seen balls that I thought were crushed and sure enough they’ve been lazy pop flies to the outfield,” Jones said. “What that does is give guys confidence to find the plate and not think you’re going to give up a cheap home run to the ninth hitter.”
The third spot in that weekend rotation is still a mystery to be solved in non-conference play where the Bulldogs play 18 of their first 19 games at Polk-Dement Stadium in Starkville. The early candidates for that role could be sophomore left-hander Chad Girodo and junior college transfer Tim Statz from St. Louis. Both southpaws will see pitching starts this weekend.
The unknown quantity is the healthy status of junior left-hander Nick Routt, who was a Freshman All-SEC selection two years ago before suffering a strain to the Ulnar Collateral Ligament of his pitching elbow six games into his 2010 season.
“He’s made some positive strides,” Cohen said. “We’re going to see where he is and I know Nick really wants to get out there and pitch.”
The MSU offense, which has lost five of its top seven run producers from last season, will rely more on speed and contact hitting to compete in 2011.
“I’ve finally got the athletes that we’ve always needed and you have to have in this league to be successful,” Cohen said. “The main thing is with these new bats and our ability on the bases – we’re going to cause pitchers a lot of problems and win a lot of games that way.”
Senior infielder Nick Vickerson, who led the team with 58 runs scored and 10 stolen bases, sports the top batting average (.328) among returning players and will sport an interesting debate for the Bulldogs coaching staff as they try to figure out how to keep him in the everyday lineup while third baseman Jarrod Parks returns for his fifth and final season after successfully rehabbing a severe back injury.
“I’m sure if one plays third base then the other may be the DH because I feel Nick and I have the best chance to be the top two hitters on the team,” Parks said. “It doesn’t really even matter between us because we’re such good friends, it doesn’t even matter. We’re not going to lose sleep over who starts and who doesn’t.”
Bulldogs fans will get many chances early, 18 of its first 19 games at home, to see if this squad can make it back to the conference tournament in Hoover for the first time since 2007 when they last made it to Omaha for the College World Series.
“With players and quite frankly media talking about your club, I’m just at the point where I don’t want to talk about it, I just want it to happen,” Cohen said. “We want to happen on the field.”