April 1, 2011 9:06:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- It would be easy for Mississippi State''s baseball program is back on course after its recent accomplishments.
The Bulldogs have won five straight, including a series sweep of Auburn, their first since 2007. They''ve cracked a national poll for the first time in three seasons under coach John Cohen and are coming off a season-high 18-run performance in a victory against Alabama A&M.
"I like our chemistry. I like the way our kids compete. I like the things we''re doing defensively and on the mound, for the most part," Cohen said. "I''m proud of our older kids. They''ve been tremendous leaders. But boy do we have an ocean to swim and a mountain to climb with eight weekends left in the league, and our kids know it."
Mississippi State (19-6, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) will travel to Georgia (11-14, 3-3) to kick off a three-game series at 5:30 p.m. today that could result in MSU leading the SEC Western Division and/or overall standings with favorable results.
UGA rebounded with two wins against LSU last weekend but lost to Clemson 11-5 on Tuesday.
Though Georgia is three games below .500, Cohen has reminded his players about the difficulty of winning on the road. Georgia is 6-9 against top 25 teams this season and has played more top 25 teams than anyone in the country.
Plus, UGA is playing with a heavy heart for the second straight season.
Georgia outfielder Jonathan Taylor was paralyzed after colliding with a teammate against Florida State on March 6. He has since been moved out of intensive care.
The Georgia baseball program dealt with tragedy in 2009 when freshman Chance Veazey injured his back in a car wreck.
In many ways, escaping the first two SEC weekends with a .500 league record is a good start, Cohen said.
"Coach (David) Perno at Georgia has had some horrific things happen to them in the past year," Cohen said. "Forget about the baseball part of it, but the emotional part of it and what it does to a team to have a teammate go down to something that is completely unforeseen.
"But I think they''re starting to find themselves, and at their best I think Georgia can compete with anybody in our league."
Cohen said Michael Palazzone, Georgia''s scheduled starting pitcher for Saturday''s game, is the team''s most impressive player. Palazzone enters the weekend at 3-1 with a 2.15 ERA.
Outside of Palazzone and tonight''s starter Alex Wood, the rest of Georgia''s staff has been inconsistent, giving up 12 home runs with an ERA over six.
No. 24 MSU enters the series without outfielder Brent Brownlee, who will miss two weeks due to a stress fracture in his foot. Brownlee hasn''t played since injuring his foot running bases against Vanderbilt. Cohen hoped the junior speedster, noted for being MSU''s best outfield defender, could play a part last weekend against Auburn.
Though MSU is relatively injury-free outside of Brownlee, his loss complicates things in the outfield.
Last weekend, Cohen used several combinations, including second baseman Nick Vickerson in the outfield. Cohen admits Vickerson, despite being one of his team''s better athletes, has limited experience in the outfield. Jarrod Shepherd also struggles to play left field.
Cohen said Shepherd, who worked at all three positions in the fall, could start in right field and Vickerson in left. Freshman CT Bradford could play center field in place of Brownlee.
First baseman/designated hitter Ryan Collins is another outfield option.
"With Shepherd, Brownlee, and CT, and even Collins, I think you''re one of the more athletic outfields in the country," Cohen said. "When you take Brent Brownlee out of the mix, it changes things for you.
"Even having Brent to run around there for two innings when you have a lead and bring in your relief guy at the end of the game, or even just to put him on the bases, it hurts not having him in the lineup."