February 16, 2014 6:44:29 PM
PLAYER OF THE GAME: Mississippi State second baseman Brett Pirtle (1 for 4 with a 3-RBI triple in the third inning)
STARKVILLE -- For those who had forgot or missed out on the last couple of seasons, welcome to the John Cohen era of Mississippi State baseball offense.
Take pitches, get on base, get to their bullpen and capitalize a few times with runners in scoring position. When you hold a team to three extra base hits for the weekend and just six runs in three games, that strategy will keep producing at Dudy Noble Field.
Cohen, MSU's sixth-year head coach, used that method Sunday for his 500th career victory and 173rd while managing his alma mater in a 7-2 win Sunday.
"The bell cow for me has always been the pitching and the defense and when that shows up you always have a chance to win," Cohen said. "Hopefully we'll continue to do that."
MSU senior Brett Pirtle cleared the bases in the third inning on a lazor shot to right field to make it 4-0 and give the No. 8 Bulldogs (2-1) all the scoring they needed. Pirtle, who hit in the 4-hole for 39 of the 71 games last season, was moved back to cleanup after Opening Night and found success by hitting 3 for 7 in his old spot in the order.
"I'm just going to go up there swinging but what moving to fourth does I think is allow me to hit with runners on so I can be more aggressive knowing I'm going to get pitches in the zone," Pirtle said.
Pirtle, the 170-pound middle infielder, find a first-pitch changeup from Western Carolina starting pitcher T.J. Fussell. The 24-year-old, who received his clearance from the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility in November, was fooling MSU hitters early with off-speed and breaking stuff. However, it was Pirtle that used his maturity to know what was coming in his second at-bat.
"He became easy to key on with that first-pitch change with runners on and he threw it low and in where I like it so it was something I had to attack," Pirtle said.
Pirtle ended the weekend with a team-high .364 average, a .417 on-base percentage and was one of three MSU players to have three runs scored.
MSU coaches ended the weekend disappointed with the 33 strikeouts for the weekend but countered that swing-and-miss action with 37 walks and/or hit by pitch appearances to produce runs against a veteran WCU starting rotation.
"We didn't have a great offensive weekend and were out of sync with a lot of new offensive pieces that are trying to figure some things out," Cohen said. "We got the big hits when it mattered and did a great job with the strike zone."
After finding himself on the bench for Saturday, MSU senior outfielder Demarcus Henderson showed his all-around skills the following day. The athletic 5-foot-10 outfielder had a double and two runs scored along with being part of a unique double play combination. Henderson caught a ball at the right field wall and tricked WCU junior Dale Urquhart into thinking it was over his head. After catching the ball, Henderson was part of a 9-4-2-3 relay for the second out.
"We have six guys that can just go and flat out run to the baseball and that gives you a chance as long as the ball stays in the ballpark," Cohen said. "We don't practice the 9-4-2-3 double play but we do practice running to get that ball in the outfield. He's such a special defender."
In his highly anticipated collegiate debut, Dakota Hudson allowed just a solo home run over four innings in a 51-pitch outing. The freshman from Dunlap, Tenn., who verbally committed to MSU after his sophomore year of high school, showcased a consistent 94-97 miles per hour fastball that produced two first-inning strikeouts.
"It was a great experience to throw on this stage but for me, I just tried to remember to have fun," Hudson said. "I got lots of help today, whether it was from my catcher or my outfielders tracking down fly balls so that let me breath easier," Hudson said. "The upperclassmen really did a great job getting me to understand that getting a start here was going to happen sooner rather than later. Because of that, I wasn't really nervous."
Hudson was on a 50-pitch limit and was removed with a 5-1 lead but MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson said he'll continue to work with the 18-year-old on a consistent breaking ball and a two-seam fastball that has movement.
"I think everybody is nervous to make that first start on this stage but he just hides it better than most," Thompson said. "He had the perfect start though because he had success the first time through the order but then they cheated on that fastball and he realized we still have some work to do in order to get deeper in a game."
WCU (1-2) continues to search for adequate arms out of its bullpen as relievers gave up two more runs Sunday to bring its bullpen ERA to 8.21 over the weekend.
MSU will next be in action at Dudy Noble Field Wednesday when they host Memphis (3-0) for a 4 p.m. scheduled first pitch. The Tigers swept Western Michigan in a weekend series and defeated MSU 7-6 in its last trip to Starkville in 2012.
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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