February 17, 2014 1:34:47 PM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- John Cohen and the Mississippi State baseball team used a familiar formula Sunday to earn a landmark victory.
Whether it has been at Northwestern State, Kentucky, or his alma mater MSU, Cohen has relied on a recipe of taking pitches, getting on base, using his bullpen, and capitalizing with runners in scoring position to have success as a head coach. When your team holds the opponent to three extra-base hits and six runs in three games, that strategy will produce results.
Cohen and No. 8 MSU used that method to beat Western Carolina 7-2 before a crowd of 8,061 at Dudy Noble Field. The victory allowed MSU (2-1) to take the season-opening series from the Catamounts (1-2). It also helped Cohen earn his 500th career victory (173rd at MSU).
"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," said Cohen, who is in his sixth year as head coach at MSU. "Hopefully we'll continue to do that."
MSU senior Brett Pirtle cleared the bases with a three-run triple in the third inning to give the Bulldogs a 4-0 lead. Pirtle, who hit fourth in the batting order in 39 of 71 games last season, was moved back to cleanup after Opening Night and found success by going 3-for-7 in his old spot.
"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, a 170-pound middle infielder, tripled on a first-pitch changeup from starting pitcher T.J. Fussell, a 24-year-old who received his clearance from the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility in November. Fussell fooled MSU hitters early with off-speed and breaking pitches, but Pirtle 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 and a .417 on-base percentage. He was one of three MSU players to score three runs.
MSU coaches ended the weekend disappointed the Bulldogs struck out 33 times, but they countered that with 37 walks and/or hit by pitches to produce runs.
"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."
MSU senior outfielder Demarcus Henderson showed his all-around skills in the victory. The athletic 5-foot-10 outfielder had a double and scored two runs. He also was part of a unique double play combination. Henderson caught a ball at the right field wall and tricked 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 anticipated debut, Dakota Hudson allowed a solo home run in 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 mph fastball that produced two first-inning strikeouts.
"It was a great experience to throw on this stage, but 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 breathe easier," Hudson said. "The upperclassmen really did a great job getting me to understand 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 to develop a consistent breaking ball and a two-seam fastball with 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 to get deeper in a game."
WCU's relievers gave up two more runs Sunday to bring the team's bullpen ERA to 8.21.
MSU will play host to Memphis (3-0) at 4 p.m. Wednesday. Memphis swept Western Michigan in a weekend series. It defeated MSU 7-6 in its last trip to Starkville in 2012.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.