March 18, 2011 8:25:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- A year older, Mississippi State''s baseball team enters conference play with more tools and experience than it did last season.
With a more stable group of pitchers and reliable gloves in the infield, the Bulldogs hope the third year under coach John Cohen produces better results in the Southeastern Conference.
They''ll begin that mission at 6 tonight against Vanderbilt (14-1) at Hawkins Field. The teams will meet again at 2 p.m. Saturday and at 1 p.m. Sunday.
MSU (11-4) finished 6-24 in the SEC last season, relying on a pitching staff filled with freshmen.
Still without a senior in the group, there''s more experience and two established weekend starters in Devin Jones (2-2, 1.37 ERA) and Chris Stratton (3-0, 1.65).
The Bulldogs have freshmen Daryl Norris and CT Bradford in the starting lineup this season and have used 12 position players.
Cohen feels his team''s progression from last year has been ideal, but he admits the true test will come tonight against the Commodores, who are ranked No. 1 in the latest National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association poll. The Commodores are ranked second by Baseball America, Perfect Game, and in USA Today / ESPN Coaches'' poll, while Collegiate Baseball has them third.
"There''s a difference in our skill level," Cohen said. "All of our freshmen from a year ago are better. I think we have freshmen who are in roles that freshmen should be put in to help. I just think we''re a better pitching staff and more athletic defensively. I think we''re a little bit more of a threat on the bases.
"But we know SEC play is another animal. I''m happy with where our team is, but I don''t think any coach in the SEC is feeling totally confident heading into this weekend."
While the Bulldogs have remained injury-free and haven''t had to play inexperienced players, their five backups, which includes four freshmen, have just 32 at-bats.
Cohen, however, believes the bench players have received adequate repetitions ahead of league play.
"I think the nature of the bats and the nature of our ballpark kind of lends itself to more of a tighter game," Cohen explained, "but I don''t think playing time is an accurate barometer on how much they''re improving every day with the work they''re doing in practice. I think those guys are ready to help us in conference."
Vanderbilt has won its last 10 games against MSU and possesses one of the SEC''s most lethal pitching staffs. Tonight''s starter, Sonny Gray, is 4-0 with a 1.71 ERA in 26 1/3 innings. He''s a projected first-round pick in the Major League Baseball draft.
Gray leads the staff with 36 strikeouts, and is one of four pitchers with 20 or more this season.
Cohen is confident his team has seen enough high-velocity pitchers, including Lipscomb left-hander Chris Nunn, whom the Bulldogs chased in the second inning of their 14-4 win Wednesday, to compete this weekend.
"Are you prepared to face a Sonny Gray-type guy?," Cohen asked. "It''s all based on the law of averages. If you face a guy like this, and we will every single Friday night, you hope you''re successful more than you''re not. But you''re going to have days when the pitcher is on or you''re going to hit balls right at people.
"Against a guy like Sonny Gray, you just have to take advantage of any opportunity that lends itself and hope that those situations arise."
Cohen encouraged by Nick Routt''s season debut
For close to a year, pitcher Nick Routt has been on the mend after elbow surgery.
The junior left-hander was supposed to be the cornerstone of the Bulldogs'' rotation last season after earning Freshman all-SEC honors in 2009.
On Wednesday, Routt returned to the mound and threw 48 pitches in a 14-4 win against Lipscomb. He allowed one run on two hits and struck out four.
Cohen said all but six of Routt''s pitches were fastballs.
"I don''t think there was any hesitance (in throwing other pitches), but he really wanted to work on command of his fastball," Cohen said. "That''s kind of the building block for everything else."
Routt will throw in an intrasquad game Tuesday before Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson decide if he''ll pitch in relief next weekend, or start next Sunday. If Routt earns a start, he''ll be limited to about 70 pitches, Cohen said.
"He was trying to get the feel for his delivery in a game situation, and we feel very encouraged and he was, too," Cohen said. "He had real good rotation on his fastball and some late movement."
1. Tennessee routs No. 3 Mississippi State COLLEGE SPORTS
2. Season opener at Columbus Speedway a success LOCAL SPORTS
3. Tennessee's win against MSU flips script LOCAL COLUMNS
5. Starkville Academy boys fall in state title game HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS