March 10, 2012 10:35:50 PM
STARKVILLE - For 15 games, the Mississippi State University baseball team hasn't looked like an inexperienced team at the plate and in the field.
MSU (13-3) had what Cohen called a "teaching moment" yesterday afternoon in a 6-1 defeat to Mercer University in a game where they only had seven at-bats with runners in scoring position all game. The loss snapped a season-best seven-game win streak for the Bulldogs.
"When you at the numbers of freshman and sophomores that are on this baseball field for us right now and the number of Division 1 games they've played in, I think we're in a learning phase right now," Cohen said.
The learning stage began in the fourth inning with MSU down 3-0 and 290-pound first baseman Wes Rea coming to the plate. After getting the count to 2-0, Mercer pitching coach Brent Shade walked to the mound to discuss a new approach to his starting hurler Brandon Barker.
"We really needed to move the runners there and you're in a tough spot with Wes because he can change the game with one swing of the bat there," Cohen said.
Cohen did the same with the two runners on and included Rea in the debate because the plan was to try a hit-and-run action with the pitcher needing to throw a strike. The discussion at the mound had instant impact as Barker threw a fastball away and out of the zone but Rea attacked it for a shallow fly ball to right field for no damage.
"If I walk him there then it's a rally for them no question about it so we decided I had to get him to swing at something out of the zone," Barker said.
The middle of of the Bulldogs order (3-through-6 in the lineup) were a combined 2-for-16 Saturday and the players replacing the three starters out with injuries (Demarcus Henderson, Brayden Jones and Brandon Woodruff) all combined for just one hit.
"I knew they had power but I was confident that if I threw it where I wanted then I could get outs," Barker said. "What works against them is the bottom of the order is where you can go attack."
Barker (2-0), who was working his two and four-seam fastball to both sides of the plate Saturday, was able to get the Bulldogs to hit into three double plays while managing to surrender seven total hits in the game. MSU stranded six base runners and did not plate a run until trailing 3-0 in the sixth inning. The right-hander dominated MSU allowing just six hits and one earned run over eight innings and 93 pitches in the effort.
"Quite frankly we're going to need that every weekend out of Brandon to be successful in league play," Mercer coach Craig Gibson said.
Mercer's offensive day was led by cleanup hitter Nick Backlund as the sophomore junior college transfer from San Jose, Calif., had 4-for-4 day at the plate including a solo home run in the third inning off MSU starter Nick Routt. Backlund, who wasn't highly recruited out of high school or Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Ore., is currently hitting .484 in 62 at-bats this season with seven home runs and 28 RBIs while slugging a monstrous .931 in 16 games.
"I'd never seen (Nick) play before he arrived on campus I'll be honest," Gibson said. "Our assistant coach (Justin Holmes) knew some people on the west coast and he's really been better than we expected."
Routt (1-1) appeared to struggle in his fourth start of the season but the senior left-hander said after taking his first loss since the 2011 Southeastern Conference Tournament in Hoover, Ala., that his location wasn't entirely off but Mercer (12-4) were simply taking solid approaches at the plate.
"I was trying to mix my fastball in like I did against the (University of Connecticut) which we had success with but they were able to hit the ball out in front," Routt said.
Mercer 6 (12-4)
Mississippi State (13-3) 1
W - Brandon Barker (2-0) 8 IP, 6 H, R, BB, K, in 93 pitches
L - Nick Routt (1-1) 4 IP, 9 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 6 K in 71 pitches
Most Valuable Player: Mercer designated hitter Nick Backlund (4-for-4, 2 R, RBI, HR)
Turning Point: 7th inning - Mercer touched MSU reliever Evan Mitchell for three runs including a solo home run by Logan Gaines and a two-run double from Evan Boyd.
Next game: Sunday, 1 p.m. vs. Mercer
All of the Dispatch MSU Sports Blog readers: feel free to follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/matthewcstevens for up-to-date Mississippi State coverage.
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