While all the eyes are on the pitching rotation change at Mississippi State, the nine guys in the lineup know none of that strategy matters if they can get key hits this weekend.
Against another quality team with a solid pitching staff, MSU must end their struggles hitting with runners in scoring position when they travel to No. 25 Arkansas for a three-game tilt in Fayetteville.
“It's funny because it seems it’s the same subject with every coach in the league – situational hitting and I know my buddy (Alabama head coach) Mitch Gaspard talks about that every day,” Mississippi State head coach John Cohen said. “This year I have not seen many teams where you say ‘they have an unbelievable college offense.”
Cohen referenced his frustrations with the loss Wednesday night in the resumed game at Alabama-Birmingham in which the Bulldogs (21-12, 5-7 in Southeastern Conference) couldn’t grab the lead even though the contest started with MSU down by one run but had two runners on base with no outs.
When play picked back up, a UAB error loaded the bases and Bulldogs senior catcher Wes Thigpen drove home the game-tying run with a sacrifice fly but stranded runners before getting a lead.
“Thigpen hits a ball right on the screws right at the left fielder so it’s hard to get upset when guys are doing what they're supposed to do,” Cohen said. “There’s a lot of streaky luck that goes into what we do because I’ll tell you that in the Auburn series where we swept, we had some bad swings but got hits.”
In an ironic twist, Mississippi State may miss out seeing the Razorbacks ace pitcher until possibly Sunday afternoon if not the entire series due to a blister on the pitching hand of right-hander D.J. Baxendale (5-1, 1.62 ERA). The sophomore, who was Arkansas’ closer last year, has been getting treatment on the blister all week, but Razorbacks head coach Dave Van Horn is being very pessimistic about the status of his best pitcher.
Van Horn will be handing the ball to freshman right-handed pitcher Brandon Moore (2-1, 3.40) in Friday's opener (7 p.m., SportSouth-TV) and fans can expect MSU’s strategy for young pitchers, taking pitches and getting their pitch count up with walks and high-count situations, be extremely similar to how they handled Gators newcomer Karsten Whitson.
“Here's the deal, the guy you thought we’d struggle the most with would be Hudson Randall and his 0.54 ERA so it's so unpredictable day in and day out,” Cohen said. “It’s so unpredictable in our league because the so-called worst of their three might pitch the best so you just don't know.”
Arkansas (24-8, 6-6 in SEC play) has won six games in a row after sweeping LSU in Baum Stadium, a place the Razorbacks have only lost three games this season.
“We made up a lot of ground,” Van Horn said after sweeping LSU on Sunday. “We knew that we needed to win this series — at a minimum — and when we did that last night, the guys said they weren’t satisfied and they proved it a little bit.”
Reigning SEC Co-freshman of the Week Dominic Ficociello leads the Razorbacks offense this season with a .336 batting average with a team-high 28 RBIs. Junior Bo Bigham, currently on a career-long 12-game hitting streak is batting .311 with a team-leading 13 stolen bases. Senior Kyle Robinson and junior James McCann provide the power in the middle of the order both with five home runs.
Cohen announced Tuesday both sophomore right-hander Chris Stratton and left-handed Nick Routt have been moved up to the Friday and Saturday night spots at No. 25 Arkansas this weekend while leaving wiggle room for the Sunday position.
Stratton (4-3) leads MSU with wins but the sophomore from Tupelo has yet to pitch in the Friday night role, normally reserved to face the opponents' ace pitcher, in his MSU career.
“I don't think he feels any pressure in any way when you have that much help in the bullpen,” Cohen said. “He’ll have to throw it in the strike zone and be more economic with his pitches but we’re big believers in Chris Stratton and he’s what you want in that role.”
Since officially moving him out of the rotation, Cohen left the door open Thursday for junior Eupora native Devin Jones to go back to his reliever role that he unsuccessfully attempted last season or MSU coming back with him Sunday afternoon for a start (1:05 p.m.).
“Devin handled it exactly like we thought he would and again he’s a very talented young man where we could look up five or six years from now and see him pitching in the major leagues,” Cohen said. “If we have a one inning stint and we need a slider, we could use him there. He’s handled this exactly the way we thought he would.”