April 26, 2013 10:55:47 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- At 5-foot-8, 176 pounds, Brett Pirtle doesn't look like a typical Division I cleanup hitter.
That's fine because Mississippi State University baseball coach John Cohen doesn't care or know what a typical college baseball lineup looks like anymore.
"I don't think anybody is doing the traditional thing anymore in college baseball," Cohen said Thursday morning in his weekly teleconference.
For the past 12 games, Cohen has turned the spot behind Hunter Renfroe, MSU's best hitter and a candidate for Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, to a relative unknown who hit .222 at his junior college the previous season.
The results have been stunning.
"What makes him so dangerous is he is a switch hitter where you can match him up with somebody in your bullpen based on a specific lefty-lefty guy or vise versa," Cohen said. "The other thing is he is a contact guy that understands staying out of the double play when there's a runner on first base."
Pirtle's success has helped fuel the offense and has pushed MSU into third place in the SEC Western Division. MSU will look to climb even higher this weekend when it takes on No. 3 Vanderbilt University (36-6, 16-2 SEC) this weekend in a three-game series in Nashville, Tenn. Game one will be 6:30 tonight.
"The good news is we feel like the guy hitting in front of Pirtle is pretty darn good and takes a lot of pressure off whoever is behind him by absolutely destroying quality pitching before he ever gets in the box," Cohen said.
Pirtle has hit .309 in conference play with nine RBIs and three extra-base hits while loading up on fastballs. On Tuesday, Pirtle had his first career four-hit performance in a 12-1 victory against the University of Memphis at AutoZone Park. Playing in the home of the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds, Pirtle went 4-for-5, including the team's first two hits, scored three runs, and drove in two more.
"My approach really hasn't changed no matter where I am in the batting order," Pirtle said. "It's the same mind-set of trying to take a pitch up the middle on a line drive or hard ground ball preferably a fastball I can drive."
Cohen said Thursday he doesn't look at Pirtle's physical build when he selects a cleanup hitter. Instead, he values Pirtle's versatility as a switch hitter option and his patience at the plate to avoid strikeouts. Even though he is hitting in a spot in the lineup typically reserved for a power hitter, the MSU coaches may ask Pirtle to guarantee contact on a hit-and-run play or to lay down a sacrifice bunt to move Renfroe to second base.
"The four-hole hitter in our lineup has to be able to move runners along any way we ask them to," Cohen said. "Whether that is doing what he did Tuesday night or on a bunt play that we work on every day is the skill set needed."
This weekend, Pirtle will need to rely on his .373 on-base percentage in league play to help MSU (33-10, 10-8) win the series at Hawkins Field. Vanderbilt's starting rotation of juniors Kevin Ziomek and T.J. Pecoraro and sophomore Tyler Beede has a WHIP (walks + hits/innings pitched) of 1.048. In 23 starts, Ziomek, Beede, and Pecoraro are 18-3 with a 2.07 ERA.
"(Beede) was a freshman last year, and now he's one of the premier guys not only in our league, but in the country," Cohen said. "The left-hander, Ziomek, my god, I was watching him on film, and he's got three really good pitches."
MSU, which won three of four games against Vanderbilt last season, including the 2012 SEC tournament championship game in Hoover, Ala., comes in looking to solidify its chances to play host to its first NCAA Regional in more than a decade. Both teams are in the top 10 of the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) and are 25-10 record this season against schools in the top 50 of the latest RPI.
"They're a club that could very easily end up in Omaha and make a run because they've got depth, they defend it well, and it's a championship-level club," Cohen said.
MSU will counter with what has become its traditional SEC pitching rotation senior left-hander Luis Pollorena (6-1, 3.38) today opposite of Ziomek (7-2, 2.20). Senior right-hander Kendall Graveman (5-3, 2.06) is scheduled to start Saturday for MSU against Beede (10-0, 1.51), while sophomore left-hander Jacob Lindgren (4-1, 2.54) is expected to go Sunday against Pecoraro (1-1, 4.72). Cohen said Lindgren likely will start unless his ankle deteriorates.
"The reason I keep mentioning that is there days where he runs on it where it's great and then there are other days where it's a little bit more sore," Cohen said. "It's kind of a two steps forward, one step back type of thing. As long as the ankle is good, he can go pitch on Sunday."