February 18, 2010 9:43:00 AM
David Miller -
STARKVILLE -- Pitching was an emphasis for the Mississippi State baseball team heading into the offseason.
With a new stable of young arms someone''s got to set an example.
The Bulldogs will turn to sophomore Nick Routt to lead a relatively green group of pitchers this season after the Maryland native turned in a stellar true freshman year in 2009.
Routt led the Bulldogs with a 5-3 record, 4.15 ERA and 86 2/3 innings in ''09. The left-hander turned into the ace of John Cohen''s pitching staff and will look to pick up where he left off after registering four complete games and entrenching himself as the Bulldogs'' Saturday starter last year.
As a team, though, the Bulldogs registered a league-worst 6.59 ERA.
Cohen, in his second season as Bulldogs skipper, is hopeful MSU''s young pitchers can follow in Routt''s footsteps and make good on his prediction that six of the incoming arms would account for 200 innings this season.
"If our freshmen can make the same adjustments Nick Routt made during the course of his freshman year, I think it''ll be special," Cohen said during last week''s preseason press conference. "The numbers tell you that it won''t happen, but that''s our expectation level and I know some of these guys will make that jump."
Mississippi State''s pitching woes last season centered around a lack of relief pitching and veterans on the roster who didn''t produce the type of results needed to keep the Bulldogs in games.
Ricky Bowen was expected to be the ace of the rotation last season, but ended up winning just two games and finishing with an 8.44 ERA.
Chad Crosswhite and Lee Swindle, both of whom accounted for a combined 1-9 record and an combined ERA over over seven, are gone.
What gives Cohen so much confidence in his team''s young guns is their natural talent, which makes up the bulk of his No. 8-ranked recruiting class (Baseball America).
Routt said Wednesday that he expects Tupelo native Chris Stratton to lock up a spot in the weekend rotation once Southeastern Conference play rolls around.
When the rigors of league play come, Mississippi State''s freshman hurlers will start to get a gist of just how difficult the jump from high school senior to college newcomer can be, Routt said.
"It''s all a surprise and you really don''t know what to expect," he said. "It all comes from your preparation. When you prepare well it builds confidence. The more you feel prepared, the better you''ll play because you work so hard for this one moment and it''s going to pay off."
One thing Cohen likes about this year''s group of pitchers is their versatility, which will afford him the opportunity to experiment early in the season. He stated last week Eupora native Devin Jones had significantly improved his form and is now pegged to close games.
"If we need to get them out with a breaking ball we can do that," Cohen said. "We''re going to have that available at the front end of the game and back end of the game. If we need some velocity, we have that. If we need some movement, we have that."
Routt, who admitted he feels the leadership role has been placed upon him as the team''s leading returning pitcher, has also added some versatility to his game by developing a reliable curve ball to face left-handed hitters. He said he''s added 3 to 5 more miles per hour to his fastball and feels he has improved his defense on the mound.
"It''s more of a go-to pitch against lefties for me," Routt said of his curveball. "The changeup runs into lefties a lot and has a hard time missing the barrel. But a curveball running the other way it''ll miss a lot of barrels and get more strikeouts.
"I feel comfortable with it being a go-to pitch if I need it to be." Routt and the Bulldogs open the season Friday at home against Rhode Island.