April 8, 2011 9:14:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- John Cohen knows his Mississippi State baseball team will face a challenge at 6:30 tonight when it kicks off a three-game weekend series against the University of Florida
"They''re a very complete club that can contend for a national championship," the MSU coach said Wednesday.
No. 4 Florida (24-6, 7-2 Southeastern Conference) is the best team MSU (20-9, 4-5) has played at Dudy Noble Field this season. The Gators have the top pitching staff in the SEC and are ninth in the NCAA with a 2.33 ERA. Florida leads the country with 1.76 walks allowed per game.
Florida has the league''s top pitcher: right-hander Hudson Randall (5-0, 0.54 ERA). He has walked one in seven starts this season, and led the SEC in ERA in league games as a freshman last season.
Florida can swing the bats, too. The Gators rank in the top 25 nationally in batting average (.311), total hits (313), and slugging percentage (.448).
Playing in the SEC presents similar challenges each weekend. Cohen admits, though, Florida, the reigning SEC champion, 2010 NCAA champion South Carolina, and Vanderbilt have separated themselves in the league.
There''s no margin for error against those clubs, and Florida is a perfect example, Cohen said.
"They just don''t give you anything," he said. "That''s how we''re trying to build this program. We''re trying to build it around not giving our opponents anything. That was the frustration of stepping in this program. Our pitching staff was about giving away free runs, and that''s where we''re trying to head, and that''s where Florida does a great job."
MSU will look for its first win against Florida since 2007, when it took two of three in Gainesville and eventually earned a trip to the College World Series.
MSU''s weekend of rotation of Devin Jones (2-4, 3.82 ERA), Chris Stratton (4-2, 3.04 ERA), and Nick Routt (0-1, 2.61 ERA) will remain the same. Games Saturday and Sunday will start at noon.
Cohen hopes the excitement of Super Bulldog Weekend and the large crowds usually associated with the annual weekend celebration will provide a boost.
"Having played here and played in this environment, it''s just like having another player on the field," Cohen said. "It''s like having a 10th defender on the field when you have that kind of crowd that gets involved. In college baseball you just don''t see that kind of crowd that often."
Channeling the energy of the crowd -- MSU earned two of its six league wins last season during Super Bulldog Weekend -- and playing to the strengths of its team and ballpark are essential to earning results this weekend, Cohen said.
MSU enters the series with the league''s best fielding percentage (.977), which has been a key in its 5-2 mark against ranked opponents. MSU beat Southern Miss 5-4 on Tuesday but was swept by Georgia last weekend after mustering just five runs in three games. The series loss marked the second time in SEC play MSU had struggled against quality pitching.
Cohen concedes his team hasn''t been hitting the ball well with runners in scoring position, but he said his team''s style didn''t translate to a road park.
"We worked so hard at being a line-drive, ground-ball team," Cohen said, "and that really bit us when we went to Georgia because there were about three or four average fly balls that left the yard -- and they weren''t us, it was Georgia. That''s a real credit to them for knowing their ballpark.
"We are just not built to do that. We are not the type of club that can go flyball, then try to get back into line drive, ground ball because we work so hard every day on minimizing the amount of flyballs we hit."