February 12, 2011 11:19:00 PM
STARKVILLE -- Last season, Mississippi State baseball coach John Cohen reluctantly relied on freshman pitchers.
He had no choice in his second year of overhauling the MSU roster, and he hopes a season of being "punched in the face" helps his pitching staff take a major step forward this year.
Of the five freshman pitchers MSU used in league play last season, Tupelo native Chris Stratton was the exception to the norm. Unlike other first-year players who typically struggle in the Southeastern Conference, he earned a role as a weekend starter against league foes and finished 5-3.
The rest of last season''s freshman group had an ERA around eight in 53 innings. The Bulldogs had 35 freshman starts on the mound last season.
"I really don''t want to have to experience that again in my professional career," Cohen said Friday at the team''s preseason media conference.
The situation was frustrating for Cohen and the Bulldogs, who went 23-33 and 6-24 in the SEC last season. However, Cohen said the Bulldogs are closer to the promising light at the end of the tunnel.
Stratton, who has developed a cut fastball and changeup with better movement, will be the centerpiece of the rotation.
After leading the Bulldogs with 78 1/3 innings in 2010, Stratton said he was idle for all of June before starting a long-toss program with pitching coach Butch Thompson.
Cohen said last season''s ace will be counted on for even more this season.
"If Chris doesn''t pitch 80-100 innings this year, it''s really gonna affect us," Cohen said. "I think he is a much more polished guy. I think he knows what to expect."
Stratton isn''t alone, as a trio of juniors are expected to provide the stability the Bulldogs lacked last year.
Caleb Reed, who tossed 43 innings in SEC play last season, has progressed from a guy who "struggled to get it to home plate" to being one of the trusted leaders on the mound, Cohen said. Reed had an ERA of 9.00 and a batting average of .346.
Fellow junior Devin Jones also struggled against SEC teams with an ERA of 10.67 in 14 1/3 innings. Cohen touts Jones as a "very nice draft pick" at the end of the year, and he hopes the prospect of playing pro ball is added incentive to getting him to keep working hard.
Cohen added Jones, like many freshmen, was more concerned with the velocity of his pitches than the placement. The realization that less pitches aids overall effectiveness helped Jones average 10 pitches per inning during intrasquad games in the fall.
"Even now, I think he''s happy to be 88-92, in that range and create great movement with his two-seam fastball," Cohen said. "I think instead of throwing the daylights out of a slider, I think he''s more in tune with throwing a very good slider that''s gonna produce an early swing."
The junior who''ll be an X-factor is left-hander Nick Routt, who was limited to 19 innings last season after having a nerve displaced in his elbow. The former Freshman All-SEC selection was a question mark to return during league play last season, and his status for the start of the 2011 season is uncertain despite the fact he participated in a 60-pitch bullpen session Friday.
Routt''s return to the lineup would be a perfect complement to Stratton, Reed, and Jones, all of whom are righties.
"We feel like Nick has made some positive strides," Cohen said. "We don''t think he''s out of the woods yet in terms of being fully healthy, but we will see where he is. "
Sophomore pitchers Kendall Graveman, Chad Girodo, and Ben Bracewell could provide bullpen depth if they don''t crack the weekend rotation or earn mid-week starts.
Freshmen Daryl Norris and C.T. Bradford, two of MSU''s five incoming newcomers who were drafted after their senior year in high school, will pitch, hit, and play the field this season, Cohen said.
How much of an impact Norris and Bradford will have on the pitching staff will depend on how much time Norris spends at first base and Bradford in the outfield. Bradford would provide another left-hander to the pitching group.
While Norris and Bradford provide versatility, settling into one position could prove difficult for a freshman, much less a freshman on the mound.
What kind of advice can upperclassmen give to the first-year players who are learning so much?
"Just not to get overwhelmed from how much effort it''s gonna take," third baseman Jarrod Parks said. "Remembering pickoffs, pitches, and all the stuff we do hitting. Just stay calm and don''t get sped up."