March 15, 2013 9:14:12 AM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- Welcome to the first true litmus test for the Mississippi State University baseball team.
No. 13 MSU (18-2) will take on No. 7 LSU at 6:30 tonight in game one of its first Southeastern Conference series of the season. The series is one of two (No. 6 University of Mississippi will face No. 11 University of Arkansas) in the league matching top 25 programs.
"Three and four years ago, you just never sensed a confidence, a looseness from a group like this group has," MSU coach John Cohen said. "This group is very confident, but you can have all the confidence in the world, but if you play against a club like LSU and you don't play well, you're not going to win games."
This weekend's series represents an opportunity for MSU, which is coming off back-to-back losses to the University of Central Arkansas, a chance to build confidence. This season, the Bulldogs hope to contend for a national championship. Their fast start has increased excitement surrounding the program, but MSU will step up its level of competition in a 30-game SEC slate.
"I believe we're ready despite having things to work on in all aspects of the game, but as long as we don't try to force things and do too much, we know we have the talent in that clubhouse to beat anybody," MSU junior outfielder Hunter Renfroe said.
Despite suffering a slight fracture in his right hand, Renfroe leads the team in batting (.436), slugging percentage (.873), RBIs (23), and home runs (a career-high five).
LSU (16-1) may be the perfect test for a program trying to return to national prominence. Last season's defending regular-season champions will try to knock off the Bulldogs in a series for the seventh-consecutive year.
"LSU is a great club, and we know they are, but we know every year they're going to be great," Renfroe said. "We're not afraid to go out and compete with them just like when we knocked them off in the Southeastern Conference tournament last year."
In that dramatic 4-3 victory in Hoover, Ala., last year, MSU sophomore left-hander Jacob Lindgren received his first career start and survived a rough first inning to hold the Tigers to three runs in six innings in front of a capacity crowd. Lindgren, who was hit in the left knee with a line drive Friday and suffered a bone bruise, will start tonight. The Gulfport native has been waiting for this opportunity since the start of the season.
"I've had that weekend circled on my calendar, no question," Lindgren said. "I proved once I can beat LSU, but now I hope to do it on a much bigger stage."
X-rays and a MRI scan of Lindgren's knee were negative for fractures or ligament damage. Cohen said Lindgren threw a very good bullpen session Tuesday morning and will be one half of a pitching duel with sophomore right-hander Aaron Nola, a freshman All-American last season. Nola and Lindgren also are two of the most highly touted prospects in college baseball.
"We're going to face arguably the best starting pitching in college baseball this weekend," Cohen told Baseball America this week. "I think LSU's playing really well in all phases of the game. It'll be a tremendous challenge."
The series also will feature the SEC's best in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, extra-base hits, and total bases. MSU leads the league in opponents batting average, strikeouts, and double plays.
"If Jacob Lindgren can get us five innings -- or even six innings into a ballgame, then it sets up our bullpen nicely to have a chance to win baseball games," Cohen said.
Even though students are on spring break, MSU hopes its fans can give it advantages at Dudy Noble Field. Freshman infielder Kyle Hann, who is from Ontario, Canada, chose MSU because of the electric atmosphere for SEC weekends he'd heard about from more than 1,000 miles away.
"I'm really looking forward to being a part of that, and may even be a little nervous to play in front of that many people," said Hann, who had a pair of hits Tuesday against the University of Southern Mississippi at Trustmark Park in Pearl.