April 16, 2014 10:40:11 PM
Matthew Stevens - email@example.com
STARKVILLE --Mississippi State baseball wants a clean slate before the final part of the regular season. And that includes being clean shaven.
All previous preconceived notions have been disregarded, the previously unsuccessful tactics have been withdrawn and old habits have died a hard death.
Included in those habits is MSU coach John Cohen's lifting of the restriction on facial hair for his players. MSU junior pitcher Trevor Fitts said Monday on the radio coaches show at Buffalo Wild Wings that the Bulldogs coaching staff required they shave their beards before the afternoon practice.
"We had a lot of discussion about where we needed to go and earning certain things," Cohen said Tuesday. "That was one of the things that came into the fray. That came into the discussion, there's no doubt about it."
Cohen said many changes would be made to the program's routine starting in Monday's practice that was forced to be conducted in the Palmeiro Center due to nonstop rain.
"I guess you'll have to show up at practice (Monday) to find that out," Cohen said. "I think what we've done in the second half has been done very well, if you look at it statistically. Days like today are times where we're not representing ourselves very well."
Fitts was the player who presented Cohen with a 10-minute PowerPoint presentation requesting the players be allowed to have facial hair for the 2013 season.
"I kept watching this presentation thinking, 'Is having my players clean shaven all the time for me or for our players?' " Cohen said in 2013. "Meaning if we're going to make them work their tails off ... and I started thinking about allowing my guys to have fun and have a good time on the bench. I suddenly realized that's important, too."
By Tuesday's game against Alcorn State, it was clear Cohen and the MSU staff has distinguished this current Bulldogs team can't be treated the same as the 2013 team that made it to the CWS Championship Series in Omaha, Neb.
The famous Fitts beard was gone. Wes Rea had shaved and responded to the demand by going 2 of 4 with a RBI and two runs scored in the 16-2 victory over Alcorn State.
"We talked (in Monday's practice) about our goals and what we want out of this season personally and as a team," Rea said. "The goals are always the same at Mississippi State and that's a national championship. Everything we can go get is still in front of us."
Another privilege Rea lost was his traditional spot in the batting order as he hit eighth Tuesday night. It's unclear if he'll continue to hit lower in the lineup as the 270-pounder is hitting a pedestrian .246 with three home runs and and a team-leading 28 RBIs.
It was Rea that spoke last season about the team goals being essentially Omaha or bust after seeing the chemistry in the preseason. Rea even posted on Twitter that fans "should book their hotel rooms for June 13-26 in Omaha" in the fall. The message showed his confidence about the talent and chemistry in the MSU locker room.
As a result, the Bulldogs have bonded to overcome the toughest schedule in the SEC and to earn the program's first trip to the College World Series since 2007.
"We got to school in August and the guys just meshed well," Rea said after winning the Charlottesville Super Regional in 2013. "It felt like we have something special in the locker room and we'd never really had with a ball club. We knew going to Omaha was our goal, and if you don't talk about your goals then you're never going to reach them."
After losing its second consecutive conference series to Ole Miss, MSU stands one game behind where they stood in the SEC standings but at that point in 2013 they were 30-9 and much higher in the Ratings Percentage Index. What is unclear is if Cohen and the MSU players can rally in final five conference series to set themselves up for another postseason run.
"Maybe the mindset before the team meeting was bad because we've played bad of late but you look back at where we were after getting swept at Vanderbilt and the sticks weren't going well," Rea said. "I look back and address the negatives first but we just need to think positively and get the bats going."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.