By MATTHEW STEVENS
Despite the under .500 record, Georgia has Mississippi State's attention this weekend.
UGA, who has the nation's toughest non-conference schedule, can match any Southeastern Conference team in terms of pitching with most of its arms having been drafted high out of high school or were a top rated prospect in their area.
The starter MSU (19-6, 4-2 in SEC play) will face on Saturday is one of the premier pitchers in the country in junior right-hander Michael Palozzone as the Lassiter, Ga., native has already been drafted twice (18th round by Atlanta out of high school and 32nd round last year by Cleveland) and boasts the eighth best earned run average in the Southeastern Conference.
Palozzone, a 6-foot-4 prospect with three major league quality pitches, shocked scouts with an ERA number over eight throughout last season but has bounced back in a Saturday afternoon role with a 3-1 record and a 2.15 ERA. The junior has struck out 31 batters in six starts while walking only three.
"Palazzone is one of the best in our league and they'll shove it in the strikeout," Mississippi State head coach John Cohen said. "They're just not going give you anything."
Georgia (11-14, 3-3) will run out sophomore Alex Wood, who has recovered in a big way from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow last season. Wood has been named SEC Pitcher of the Week already after getting his first career win in impressive fashion this past Friday as he led the Bulldogs to a 6-2 victory over No. 10 UCLA. Wood registered 11 strikeouts in seven innings pitched at Jackie Robinson Stadium in Los Angeles, allowing one run on four hits with no walks while being matched against UCLA ace Gerrit Cole, who is projected to be a first round draft pick and perhaps the first college pitcher taken in this year's draft.
"Alex is turning into a giant slayer and we're so pleased for him," Georgia head coach David Perno said in a university release. "He's gritty, tough, poised and confident out there. He can handle the moment."
MSU will roll Eupora native Devin Jones out for his third consecutive Friday night start in SEC play which has been an incredible struggle for the junior right-hander.
Jones comes into Athens tonight with a 14.21 ERA with league opponents hitting .407 against him.
Cohen and MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson have intentionally held back its top relievers in preparation for Jones finding trouble once again.
"The problem with Devin hasn't been walks or really hurting himself but he's been finding the strike zone but simply getting hit," Cohen said in the weekly teleconference Wednesday morning.
Mississippi State may need another big weekend from its bats as Georgia has allowed seven or more runs in nine of their 25 contests this season. Fresh off a weekend sweep at Auburn at Dudy Noble Field in which they hit .387 as a team, MSU will lean on the senior leadership of Jarrod Parks and Cody Freeman in the middle of their lineup for the offensive punch. Parks and Freeman have combined for 18 of the team's extra-base hits.
"They're well-coached and talented so we'll have to play extremely well to come out of there with any victories," Cohen said of Georgia.
Cohen confirmed to The Starkville Daily News Thursday morning junior outfielder Brent Brownlee will be out for at least the next two weeks with a stress fracture in his foot.
The MRI exam that Brownlee received this week revealed the injury he suffered in the first Southeastern Conference weekend at No. 2 Vanderbilt while stepping on a base in an awkward way.
Brownlee, an Oxford native, is hitting .283 in 16 starts for the 2011 season with three doubles and the player who Cohen calls “the best defensive center fielder in the Southeastern Conference” has a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage.
Cohen stated the likely outfield rotation will include freshman C.T. Bradford in center and seniors Jaron Shepherd along with Nick Vickerson in right and left field.
MSU freshman second baseman Adam Frazier, a native of nearby Bishop, Ga., may have found a spot in the past two games during the series against Auburn at second base. Frazier will return to his home state batting .375 and three stolen bases in just 11 games.
"I feel like the (second base) job is there to be taken and hopefully earn it with my play here in the near future," Frazier said. "I still look at it as a open competition even at this point in the season."
Georgia's main problem has been at the plate as Perno's club is last in the SEC in nearly every offensive category this season after being shut down in early season three-game tilts against Stetson, Baylor and Florida State. One of the reasons for the decline in production was the tragic loss of a major bat in the lineup in outfielder Johnathan Taylor, who had neck surgery to stabilize his spine earlier this season after he was injured in a collision with a teammate during a game.
The 20-year-old junior is the second Georgia baseball player to suffer a serious spinal injury in less than two years. Second baseman Chance Veazey was paralyzed below the waist when his scooter collided with a vehicle on campus in October 2009, before he played his first game for the Bulldogs.
He had appeared in 117 games for the Bulldogs, including 91 starts, with a career average of .312.
"Our thoughts and prayers go out to J.T. and his family during this difficult time," Perno said in a statement. "J.T. is very tough and that is going to help him during his recovery."
First pitch of this series tonight at Foley Field in Athens Ga., is slated for 5:30 p.m.