Rogers: Mississippi State’s Elite TendenciesFeatures
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Mississippi State picked a terrific time to make its loudest statement of the season.
The Bulldogs entered the 2016 campaign with high expectations. Some wondered why we ranked the Maroon and White so high in the preseason, but the pieces appeared to be there to potentially form into one of the nation’s elite teams. MSU had a stable of projectable arms, there were more than enough bats back from last year’s club to take a major step forward in that department, and perhaps most important, this team had sufficient experience, something so desperately needed in the rugged Southeastern Conference.
John Cohen’s club hasn’t always been ultra-consistent this season. They had a tumultuous first weekend against Florida Atlantic, and even a pair of midweek losses earlier this week had the faithful in Starkville, Miss., grumbling a bit. But, when it has mattered most, the past two weekends, the Bulldogs elevated their level of play and now have a road series win over No. 2 Vanderbilt to their credit after winning 5-4 in thrilling fashion on a blistery night in the Music City.
“I think it [offensive approach] was a lot better tonight. We still had a ton of swings and misses, but we found a way to take big swings with two strikeouts and two outs, and score,” Cohen said. “I think all five runs were scored with two outs, so credit our kids that they kept battling against a very good club. Vanderbilt has a very nice pitching staff and we’re running some youngsters out there and they’re doing some big things.”
Despite winning the series opener on Friday, the Bulldogs flipped the offensive script from that performance on Saturday. The Bulldogs left a boatload of runners on base in the opener and it almost cost them a victory. But things were vastly different in Game Two. The Bulldogs, down 1-0 after three innings, struck gold in the fourth inning and the circumstances were interesting. Gavin Collins and Nathaniel Lowe struck out on a pair of 91-92 mph fastballs from Vanderbilt lefthander Ben Bowden, but Jack Kruger, who has been an instrumental addition kept the inning alive with a two-out double. Reid Humphreys, who has developed into a much more consistent hitter this season, followed that up with a big-time two-run blast over the wall in left field on an 84 mph breaking ball that moved over the heart of the plate – his first home run of the season – to give the Bulldogs a 2-1 advantage and the momentum.
“I think Reid has a much, much better plan for the breaking ball, and I think he kind of found that stride the second half of the Cape Cod League season. I think he found his stroke at that point,” Cohen said. “But the other thing, I think pitching has really helped him. It has helped him find his competitive instinct and he even wanted the ball there in the ninth inning.”
Humphreys was just one of several players that stepped up in the series-clinching victory. While Vanderbilt and MSU swapped runs in the bottom half of the fourth and top of the fifth innings to make it 3-2 in the Bulldogs’ favor, they’d need more heroics after Vandy star outfielder Bryan Reynolds hit a moonshot two-run homer in the seventh inning to give the Commodores a 4-3 advantage.
The gritty Bulldogs didn’t let the momentum shift long, as Jake Mangum, one of several impressive and talented members of this MSU freshman class, laced a two-out, two-RBI single to left field in the top of the eighth inning to put the Bulldogs back ahead, and for good.
In a fitting set of events, the Bulldogs closed out the contest relieving righthander Austin Sexton for a pair of freshman arms in Kale Breaux and Noah Hughes. Breaux, who sat his typical 89-91 and up to 92 from the left side, tossed an inning of shutout ball, while Hughes was terrific as well, sitting in the upper-80s with his fastball and striking out a pair of hitters while not allowing a hit in two innings of work. In particular, Sexton didn’t have a flawless start, but showed a lot of potential. He sat anywhere from 88-89, touching 90 with his fastball, while also showing good feel for upper-70s changeups and sliders.
The series win over the Commodores solidifies some things about the Bulldogs. Sure, they’re an unfinished product, as no team is complete this early in the season. But the prognosis looks promising. Dakota Hudson and Austin Sexton look like a formidable one-two punch, the Bulldogs may not have a Jonathan Holder on the back end of the bullpen, but possess an impressive stable of relievers. Meanwhile, the offensive lineup still has some work to do, but there’s some real balance. Jacob Robson, Brent Rooker and Gavin Collins make up a very solid 1-2-3 atop the lineup, while Mangum and fellow electric freshman Luke Alexander give the Bulldogs spark plugs at the bottom of the lineup. Meanwhile, the defensive makeup of this club has been fun to watch the past two days. Alexander and Gavin Collins have been consistent and made some good plays, while second baseman Ryan Gridley has been very steady outside of an error in Friday’s series opener. The outfield is also stable with athleticism present given the presence of Humphreys, Robson and the duo of Mangum and Rooker.
“One of the issues you have when you’re playing a lot of younger guys is consistency. Getting Jack [Kruger] back on the field tonight was huge, as the older guys really know how to manage the staff. The issue you run into is when you have a freshman pitching to a freshman,” Cohen said. “We look forward to having Jack back there behind the plate and getting him more comfortable, but we also have so much faith in our freshmen. We just want to bring them along with a certain pace, as there is no such thing as training wheels in the SEC. You have to be ready to produce.”
Surging Mississippi State has a marquee road series win and now has a chance at an improbable series sweep over the Commodores.
The past two games have sincerely opened some eyes. Call it a statement made.