In a crucial finishing month to the 2011 season, Mississippi State is no longer relying on young players and newcomers to get them through a Southeastern Conference slate.
It’s all about how far can the seniors take this club.
Last weekend Mississippi State had as many as seven seniors in its starting lineup and as the Bulldogs (26-18, 7-13 in SEC play) make that seven-hour bus ride to Tennessee for a three-game tilt with the Volunteers, they can look at a statistic sheet and see three senior players (Jarrod Parks, Nick Vickerson and Jaron Shepherd) in the top four in hitting.
At one point last weekend against Alabama, Mississippi State’s entire starting infield was filled with nothing but seniors signifying the final stages of the transformation of the program under third-year head coach John Cohen in a season where they still stand only two games back in the Western Division of the league.
“I could see them evolve in their work and this is a time where your seniors need to shine,” Cohen said.
Two of the players that led the Bulldogs offense last weekend against the Tide were Jaron Shepherd and Nick Vickerson hoping to end their college careers by making their first trip to the league tournament in Hoover, Ala., and an NCAA Regional berth.
Vickerson, a Tuscaloosa, Ala., native, pounded his hometown team for a .533 average with three extra-base hits and two RBIs and a stolen base while starting all three games of the weekend for the first time in the month of April. While his struggles in the field have been documented, the Florida State transfer had a perfect fielding percentage after 16 chances throughout the weekend.
Shepherd led MSU in multiple offensive categories (.625 batting average, two home runs, three runs, .667 on-base percentage and 1.500 slugging percentage) despite suffering a foot injury in the first game of the Saturday doubleheader where he had his first multi-home run contest.
“It's funny – both of those kids have professional futures and could be major league players by the time they’re 25-26 years old,” Cohen said. “They’re still in the infancy of learning the game that will make them really good down the road.”
Bulldog senior third baseman Jarrod Parks reached base in his six plate appearances in Tuesday night’s 15-9 win at South Alabama, raising his SEC-leading batting average to .410 and his league-best on-base percentage to .545. Parks singled to extend his career-best hitting streak to 17 games and reached base via walks three times and as a hit batsman twice.
Mississippi State has made a third strategic change to the starting pitching rotation as sophomore Luis Pollorena (5-3, 1.65 ERA) will make his first start since arriving on the Starkville campus today (5 p.m.) after dominating his relief role as the set-up guy to Bulldogs junior closer Caleb Reed.
“It's pretty much the same thing as coming out of the bullpen,” Pollorena said. “What I’ll do is throw strikes and let the defense work."
The southpaw, who was the Alabama Community College Player of the Year as a starting pitcher last year at Marion (Ala.) Military Institute, will continue to try and dominate SEC hitters with his fastball and cutter that have developed him as more than a lefty-lefty matchup guy for Mississippi State.
"There's no secret that Pollorena's been one of our best guys," Cohen said. "And that's been our biggest weakness, is getting a strong five or six innings, seven-inning performance.”
Cohen and MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson are hoping that by moving sophomore right Chris Stratton (4-5, 4.98) to the Sunday role (1:06 p.m., SportSouth TV), that the 6-foot-2 hard-throwing right-hander can watch the Volunteers lineup and map out a gameplan before taking the mound to help his confidence. The plan to start Stratton on Sunday will only come about if the Tupelo native isn’t used out of the bullpen the first two days of the series.
“I think in this day and age with the bats in college baseball, it really does help for that guy to be able to chart and study their lineup,” Cohen said. “There’s no doubt Chris is a mature and talented young man but it’s just a mental thing with him right now.”
Cohen is hoping the change in routine for the sophomore will help him because in his inability to maintain the strike zone especially with his fastball, a normal pep talk just won’t do.
“It’s like telling a golfer that’s 10 feet away, you need to hit this putt – no kidding,” Cohen said.
Tennessee (22-20, 5-16) is coming off a weekend where they were not only swept by No. 3 Vanderbilt but outscored 39-5 in the three games against the Commodores.
The Vols do have one of the most dynamic players in college baseball in second baseman Khayyan Norfork, who is a transfer from Jackson State, leading the Southeastern Conference in stolen bases with 25. The Bulldogs haven’t won a league series in Knoxville, Tenn., since 2001.