September 28, 2012 12:45:01 PM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State University baseball coach John Cohen opens fall practice today with a "unique" situation he'd like to make routine.
Cohen enters his fifth season as coach at his alma mater with one starting positional spot and one spot in the pitching rotation to fill from last season.
The return of junior center fielder C.T. Bradford from a major shoulder injury essentially takes care of the one every-day spot to fill due to the graduation of Brent Brownlee.
However, the role of Friday night starting pitcher remains open. The performance of someone in that role will help determine if MSU can make its third consecutive NCAA tournament regional.
"It's such a great question because every young man that starts wants to pitch on Friday night because it's the prime spotlighted game in a weekend in our sport," Cohen said Thursday. "You have to have something special to be a Friday night guy, and not everybody has that."
Last season, MSU relied on junior right-hander Chris Stratton, who went 11-2 with a 2.38 ERA. He was one of 11 pitchers with 11 victories last season and was named the Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year. He also struck out 127 in 109 2/3 innings. In June, the San Francisco Giants selected Stratton in the first round of the 2012 Major League Baseball First-Year Player draft. He was the first MSU player to be drafted in the first round since 2003 when the Pittsburgh Pirates selected Paul Maholm eighth.
One candidate to replace Stratton is senior right-hander Kendall Graveman, who is healthy after battling a groin injury at the end of last season. The Miami Marlins drafted Graveman in the 36th round, but he opted to return to MSU.
"I congratulated him for winning a Cape Cod League championship this summer and asked him if they get rings and he said, 'Yeah, coach, but that's not the ring I want. I want the highest one you can achieve in college baseball,' " Cohen said. "You need that type of leadership heading into a season."
Last season, Graveman led MSU with 16 starts. He had 59 strikeouts in 89 2/3 innings and was the Bulldogs' regular Saturday
starter. In his three-year career, Graveman is 11-8 with one save and a 4.03 ERA.
"Kendall is an All-Star and has grabbed the reins to lead the team," Cohen said. "He wants to win a national championship."
Sophomore Brandon Woodruff is another candidate to pitch on Friday nights. He is a former fifth-round pick of the Texas Rangers in the 2011 MLB First-Year Player draft.
"Brandon's one of those guys that could just emerge as maybe one of those 80-, 90-, 100-inning guys as a starter if he gets on a roll," Cohen said.
The chance to be a Friday night starting pitcher in the SEC ballpark is one reason Woodruff turned down a signing bonus of more than $500,000 to pitch at MSU.
"I've said before that I want to play college baseball," Woodruff said in July 2011. "I want to get an education and have the college experience, and that to me is worth more than signing a contract to begin a professional career."
The decision about who will be MSU's first starting pitcher on a Friday night in the SEC may not be answered until weeks before that opening night. Stratton, who opened SEC play with a 17-strikeout performance at LSU last season, worked four to five innings and split outings with another pitcher for the first two months of the season before earning the chance to be a full-time starter.
"Chris Stratton is a guy who made that jump a year ago," Cohen said. "At this point in time a year ago, we weren't sure what Chris Stratton's role was going to be, or what he was going to be able to do."