Mississippi State’s baseball can look around the Dudy Noble Field clubhouse and have the same thought – we’re all in same boat.
Not one member of the 32-member 2011 roster has ever reached either the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Hoover, Ala., or an NCAA Regional Tournament and as they approach the final six games of the league slate, Bulldogs head coach John Cohen likes the desire out of his eight seniors that would like to change that stat immediately.
“I think it started a lot earlier (this season) with the older kids looking around saying we got to do this,” Cohen said. “Quite honestly, our seniors are the guys on the field doing it on a consistent basis.”
As Mississippi State (30-18, 11-13 in SEC play) travels for what Cohen calls “the biggest week of our season” when they start a three-game tilt with in-state rival Ole Miss, the Bulldogs players are fully aware where they are in the Western Division race, Ratings Percentage Index and what they need to do to qualify for its first NCAA berth since 2007. Tonight's ESPNU telecast starts at 6:36 p.m
“I think sometimes they put a little too much pressure on themselves but yeah, they know what's at stake and are really aware of everything,” Cohen said. “Having played here myself (Cohen lettered at State from 87-90) we had no access to that information and our guys now are acutely aware.”
Not only are they aware of where MSU stands in the conference and national scene, but have showcased a sense of desperation in order to keep their season and the college career of eight seniors alive.
“This group desperately wants to get to Hoover and NCAA and I honestly believe will do anything within their power to do that,” Cohen said. “That's a neat feeling to have as a coach and a great experience for a coach that’s been doing this for over 20 years when your teams has that component to it.”
Senior third baseman Jarrod Parks, who is leading the SEC in batting average with a .418 mark and currently has the league’s longest hitting streak at 21-straight contests, has been playing the entire 2011 season with an ailing back but in case he needed it, can look at the guy defensively to his left for inspiration to keep going.
The Bulldogs senior shortstop Jonathan Ogden is being monitored every day by the MSU coaching staff for a severely pulled abdomen muscle and also maintains four stitches in his nose after slightly breaking the nasal bone two weeks ago against Alabama.
Cohen gave hints to the media this week that Ogden could be held out a game similarly to what happened last weekend at Tennessee when he was held out of Saturday’s game in order to make sure he was healthy for the Friday night and Sunday afternoon contests.
“It’s an offensive matchup for him and the thing about him is we need him at his best because we feel like Adam Frazier is a viable option if he’s not healthy,” Cohen said.
Mississippi State comes into Oxford on a five-game winning streak after sweeping the Volunteers and putting themselves in a three-way tie for seventh place in the conference with Ole Miss and Auburn. The winner of this Thursday-Saturday series can put themselves into position to earn at least a share of the Western Division championship, something a Mississippi schools has only done once (Ole Miss tied LSU in 2005) since they split the league in 1992.
“They understand the significance as far as the SEC,” Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco said. “It’s hard to go to this school and not understand the rivalry. If you’re a student (at Ole Miss) and you watch football and you watch basketball and you read the papers and the internet, you know about (the rivalry).”
MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson may be able to cross one worry off his list as he seemingly has found consistency in the starting rotation with sophomore left-hander Luis Pollorena, junior left-hander Nick Routt and sophomore right-hander Chris Stratton all having positive outings in the three-game sweep at Knoxville, Tenn.
“The biggest improvement they’ve made is on the mound,” said Bianco. “They pitch a lot better than they have in the last couple of years.”
After struggling in the Friday night role throughout April, Stratton allowed just two earned runs over 5 2/3 innings that included nine strikeouts to get his fifth win of the season.
“He was finishing pitches,” Cohen said. “If he has the ability to go through two days and watch a lineup, he’s a cerebral kid and while busing home and watching the replay from behind, his breaking ball was outstanding. I think he could’ve beaten anybody the way he pitched.”
The question for Ole Miss (27-21, 11-13) lies in the limited availability of relief pitcher Jake Morgan and how many times this weekend Bianco will have the closer available to throw out of the bullpen. The senior, who has yet to allow a run in SEC play this season, is recently coming back from a shoulder injury that his head coach says doesn’t affect the rotator cuff.
“His is more in the AC joint, which is where the clavicle continues out here,” Bianco said. “The way the shoulder rotates, he feels it on extension. He’s a guy that’s very honest. If he can pitch, he’s going to pitch. We’ve talked about this. I trust him.”
The final two games of this short week series are night games on Sportsouth with Friday’s first pitch scheduled for 6:36 p.m. and Saturday’s contest to begin at 7:06 p.m.