April 12, 2013 2:15:14 AM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- After learning of his new role on the Mississippi State University pitching staff, the numerous members of friends and family of Luis Pollorena knew they'd have to arrive earlier this weekend to see him.
In a interview with The Dispatch last week, Pollorena said he'll have over a dozen people from his hometown of Laredo, Texas coming as MSU travels to Texas A&M University for the first weekend series between the two programs since 1998.
This weekend's trip to College Station is the third all-time for MSU baseball after they claimed a pair of wins (17-9, 11-9) during a 1986 spring break trip to A&M and won the 1998 NCAA Central Regional Tournament hosted by the Aggies. The Pat McMahon-coached Bulldogs also nipped Washington (7-6) and Rice (15-14) at Olsen Field en route to the regional title and the seventh of MSU's eight advancements to the NCAA College World Series.
Cohen, who played for McMahon, said Thursday his first reaction to knowing A&M baseball would be in the SEC was not outrage because the conference was already strong without them.
"My first thought is if we're going to play 10 weekends, what's the difference," Cohen said. "Everybody (in the SEC) is good so substituting A&M for a possible weekend vs. possibly South Carolina."
His parents and friends will be watching Pollorena live for the first time tonight when the Bulldogs face A&M in a 6:35 p.m. series opener. Despite never crossing a state border, the distance from Laredo, Texas to the Aggie campus in College Station, Texas is similar in miles to going from Starkville to Tallahassee, Fla.
"I appreciate the question of playing in front of home fans when you're on the road seeing as how I'm from Tuscaloosa, Alabama," Cohen said. "I'm just sure that on every road trip we go on there's a player that was disregarded by his home state school."
Since a injury to sophomore left-hander Jacob Lindgren and the ineffectiveness of junior right-hander Evan Mitchell, Pollorena has adapted to the Friday night starting pitcher role in the Southeastern Conference despite his obvious physical limitations. At 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, Pollorena still believes his lack of height is something he can use to his advantage especially against college hitters which he says still believes underestimate his arsenal of pitches.
"I think it's the height thing (because) they see me on that mound and think 'well this guy must not be able to throw hard or get me out at all'," Pollorena said. "It's just another thing that people have doubted me about in my career."
Pollorena, who struggled in his first fall camp two years ago upon arriving at MSU from Marian (Ala.) Military Institute, credits going to the most consistent member of the Bulldogs pitching staff in Kendall Graveman for not only encouragement but helpful criticism on his pitching mechanics.
"Kendall and I talk almost everyday because even though he's a righty and I'm a lefty, our approaches to the game and to pitching are almost identical," Pollorena said. "We try to work down in the zone and constantly talk about how to change speeds to create deception. We just so similar in styles, personality and competitiveness it's scary."
Pollorena (5-1, 3.29) has gone from situational lefty specialist out of the bullpen to a starting pitcher in the last two weekends which has resulted in acceptable outings of six innings or more.
Even in a 5-4 loss at the University of Arkansas two weeks ago, Pollorena's 129-pitch performance told his coaching staff everything they needed to see in their senior leader. Pollorena followed that performance up with a quality start in a Friday night victory over the University of Florida.
"There's a reason why they have faith to pitch Pollorena on Friday nights and that's because he battles, throws strikes & is a quality pitcher," Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said.
Now that Cohen is taking his team to a critical Western Division weekend road series, he said in his Thursday morning teleconference that he's not worried about Pollorena being too excited to concentrate on the task at hand. Pollorena has already overcome so much more adversity like battling childhood leukemia long before he arrived at Marian (Ala.) Military Institute where Cohen saw him over online video.
"My mother always tells me that I have two birthdays now -- the one where I was born and the one where I became disease free," Pollorena said. "For them to see me pitch is just motivation because they're my support system."
Pollorena will work opposite tonight against Aggie sophomore righty Daniel Mengden (4-1, 1.86).
The Houston native has allowed just five earned runs in 26 2/3 innings of conference play this season.
Mengden is making his 13th career start, his ninth weekend start, his second Friday night start and leads the Aggies with four victories.
Pollorena is one of two MSU players from the Lone Star state along with starting second baseman Brett Pirtle as the Tyler, Texas native is currently hitting .341 in conference play and working perfectly with shortstop Adam Frazier in the Bulldogs middle defense.
"Pirtle is a just a fundamental sound player that always fits our program and I can't tell you how special that defensive play he made Tuesday night was in our victory over Ole Miss in Pearl," Cohen said.
Saturday's 12:30 p.m. game will be televised regionally by SportSouth while Sunday's series finale is set for a 1 p.m. start. The radio broadcast of all three games of the inaugural MSU-Texas A&M SEC series will be carried on the statewide MSU Baseball Radio Network.