The 2011 Mississippi State baseball season ended with an improbable run to Gainesville, Fla., and an NCAA Super Regional.
The Bulldogs were mere outs away from returning to the Mecca of college baseball in Omaha, Neb., which is the College World Series.
This season MSU are poised to complete that quest.
“The two things that everybody has in common in Omaha is their ability to pitch and perform,” said John Cohen, who is entering his fourth season of coaching the Bulldogs. “Usually those two things go together so much because when you have great arms, they cause swing and miss and boy do you have a good fielding percentage when it is strike three.
“The other thing is that great pitching causes soft contact so that the average pop up or big hop ground ball, you’re not going to make a mistake on. That’s where it all starts for us. I think the strength of our team is on the mound.”
When you look back over Cohen’s first three seasons, there is no question pitching has been the missing link.
State has been able to score runs, but it simply had trouble getting guys out, especially in big situations. This season however, a veteran group is expected to be difference makers on the mound.
“Well we won’t have 35 freshman starts like we did two years ago,” said Cohen as he gave a half-hearted laugh. “That’s a recipe for disaster. I will say that barring injury, the leadership of this club is on the mound. I really trust our kids and their work ethic on the mound. Again, you’re not just talking about what they do on the mound. The real leaders are on the mound and they all lead by example.”
Arguably the most productive Bulldog has been Caleb Reed.
Last season, Reed paced MSU with a 1.55 ERA and was second only to Chris Stratton in innings pitched with 64. He has been a rock for the Bulldogs as he has been the one hurler who could stop the bleeding, getting outs late in the game.
Reed is one guy Cohen can turn to as an example to his younger players.
“I love the leadership we have," Cohen said. "Caleb Reed is an all-American, just a great story. It is so important to have people in your program to where you can say to young arms to go do it the way this guy is going it. Caleb is that guy for us.”
Reed is expected to remain in the bullpen this season to continue his role as the stopper for MSU.
When it comes to the starting rotation for the Bulldogs, Stratton stands at the top of the list.
Stratton has a reputation of having electric stuff and has shown over the past couple of seasons that he can pitch extended outings and has been the one pitcher State could count on to get a quality start each time out.
When it comes to where Stratton may fall in the rotation, it could be either as the Friday night starter or in his familiar role as the Saturday hurler.
Nick Routt returns healthy and has really worked on his craft in the off-season. He’ll remain in the weekend rotation in either the Friday or Saturday spots.
The x-factor in this year’s rotation could easily be the return of Ben Bracewell. He has fully recovered from elbow surgery and is in a position to help the Bulldogs this season.
The hard-throwing Bracewell has come out of the bullpen, but this season his role may be a little different.
The coaching staff is considering having him as a matchup pitcher as the Sunday starter. There’s the feeling he could give MSU an edge on Sunday’s when the opposing lineup calls for a righty on the mound.
Bracewell may still be used in relief, but his possible addition to the starting rotation gives Cohen another option.
“I think when you look at the amount of skill that a Chris Stratton has and getting Ben Bracewell back,” said Cohen. “You look at the fact that Routt had a solid summer and has changed some things about the way he pitches. We’ve got a solid makeup.’
Evan Mitchell was a true bright spot for the Bulldogs last season carrying a 4.62 ERA with a 6-2 record. He should figure into the weekend plans once again this season.
Louis Pollorena will return to his natural role as a ‘setup man’ for MSU. He pitched out of necessity in the starting rotation last season, but is truly dominate in middle relief.
Two Bulldogs who are expected to have a much larger role on the mound this season are Taylor Stark and C.T. Bradford. Neither of the young men were used as much as they were expected to and now with Bradford healthy following his surgery to repair a sports hernia, they will both contribute this spring.
MSU is stacked with experienced pitchers, from Chad Girodo to Andrew Busby, Tim Statz to Kendall Graveman, the Bulldogs finally have numbers on their side when it comes to pitching.
Even though they won’t be pushed harder than necessary, Cohen likes the several young arms the Bulldogs have on the roster.
“When you look at our freshman guys, I don’t think we are going to have to hurry them through the process but I think they are very talented kids,” Cohen said. "Jacob Lingren has a chance to be, if nothing else, a left-on-left matchup guy but he could be much more than that. Tanner Gaines has come a long way. He has great arm and a great breaking ball. Trevor Fitz, as a freshman, has a chance to pitch a lot. Will Cox’s pitching ability is as good as any freshman I’ve seen in a long time. Brandon Woodruff might be the most talented player on our entire team.”
The MSU pitching staff has potential and one of the strengths is its athletic ability.
Cohen also likes the leadership qualities of the group.
“The best teams in the country don’t have three coaches," Cohen said. "They have 20 kids that act like coaches. That’s what you want and I think that’s what we are getting from the mound.”
Preseason practice begins today for the Bulldogs with a 4 p.m. scrimmage.
Stratton and Bracewell are set to open on the mound in the scheduled five-inning game. Today’s scrimmage and all of Mississippi State’s baseball practices are open to the public. Afternoon scrimmage games are also planned for Saturday (12:30 p.m.) and Sunday (2:30 p.m.).