February 22, 2014 10:03:28 PM
STARKVILLE -- Through seven games, there's one simple conclusion that can be reached at Dudy Noble Field: Mississippi State just isn't very good right now.
The Bulldogs fifth-year head coach admitted as much after his team lost the back half of a doubleheader Saturday to a Holy Cross squad that was starting its 2014 season this weekend.
"We're really not where we want to be at this time of the year," Cohen said. "We're just not playing well."
The Bulldogs, ranked No. 8 in the preseason Baseball America poll and jumped one spot this week, is the only team ranked in their Top 25 to lose multiple games to unranked mid-major programs. These confusing and frustrating results are just weeks after the Bulldogs team was triumphantly touting its quiet confidence that another trip to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., was a expectation.
In one of the most anticipated seasons of baseball at MSU in over 20 years, MSU (4-3) lost to a team Saturday that hadn't been outside for practice in the spring before arriving in Starkville Thursday for this four-game set.
"The game will find you when you're struggling the most and the game is finding those guys for not only our younger, inexperienced guys but our older guys as well," Cohen said.
The older guys, who were high contributors to MSU's run to the CWS final last season, are making critical errors in the first five games. Seniors Alex Detz, Wes Rea and Demarcus Henderson all made a combined four errors in the two games against Holy Cross Saturday. The Bulldogs took the opening game of the doubleheader thanks to Rea's power surge of two home runs in the contest. Rea would finish the day with three total home runs but his eight RBIs were not enough to account for MSU's fundamental deficiencies on the mound and in the field.
The loss on Saturday represented the second comeback loss that a team has accomplished against MSU All-American closer Jonathan Holder. Holder has now blown saves in back-to-back opportunities and according to Cohen, may have to put on a disabled list due to a finger injury suffered before the season started.
"We got a leader on our team in Jonathan Holder that just isn't right," Cohen said. "He's got a finger deal that has to get fixed here and we'll have to maybe wait until it is. He's giving up hard contact right now."
Opponents are currently hitting .278 against Jonathan Holder in 18 at-bats and he's given up three runs in four innings this season.
Last season MSU lost just two non-conference games in the first two months of the season as it rolled through its schedule to build up its confidence for Southeastern Conference play. After five games of inconsistent hitting, collapses on defense and head-scratching pitching performances, MSU may need to find late wins to overcome these early stumbles against mid-major opponents.
"We have to be able to bury teams like this when we have the chance and we just haven't figured out how to do that yet," Rea said.
Rea is the first player in the Cohen era at MSU to record an RBI in each of the team's first seven games. Rea became the first MSU player to hit two home runs in a single game since All-American Hunter Renfroe did so against Arkansas on March 23, 2012.
Rea's power display overshadowed MSU's inability to drive in runs in the first game of the doubleheader but a complete meltdown from a freshman's college debut on the mound made a similar comeback near impossible in the second game.
Austin Sexton, a highly recruited product from Huntsville, Ala., allowed three unearned runs in the opening inning of the 7-6 loss. Sexton surrendered three walks and a hit by pitch in his 26-pitch outing where only 12 of them were strikes. Sexton's start marked the second time this season that a MSU starting pitcher was unable to get out of the second inning.
"This game was lost in the first inning and we just can't keep digging holes for ourselves early in ball games," Cohen said. "We just gave up that three spot in the first inning and playing catch up in a game because we can't control the game early."
Before this week, MSU had only lost 16 games under Cohen when leading after six innings in 151 attempts. After consecutive breakdowns in the late innings, MSU players are still turning to a law of averages theory to help them cope with this losing stretch.
"I don't know if it's just a bad stretch or if he needs to figure something out but we'll always believe in Jonathan Holder," Rea said. "He's one of the best closers in America for a reason."
In the first game of the series Friday night, MSU had to use some base running magic to maneuver a victory over Holy Cross (1-2). Sophomore outfielder Jacob Robson had a career-high three stolen bases and a remarkable running catch in left field as MSU got back to its small ball roots in a 6-2 win.
In what was the Crusaders first game of the 2014 season, nine different pitches went to the rubber for the 2013 Patriot League regular season champions and MSU took full advantage of that inexperience. The Bulldogs stole eight bases as a team Friday night, one short of the school record last accomplished in 1995.
"We did a good job of sticking to our tools and our identity tonight and it worked," Robson said. "We have tons of speed on the team, especially in the outfield, so we don't care who we are playing, we're going to use our speed all the time."
MSU used seven walks, eight stolen bases and excellent defense to pick up a much needed win for confidence purposes.
"Gradually we're starting to let the game come to us offensively and that's a comfort level," Cohen said. "We need to just let it happen and not try to go to effort. A lot of clubs struggle with that because with 4,000 people in the stands you want to show them how much you've improved instead of letting the game come to you."
By Saturday afternoon, all that comfort and confidence was washed away mentally as they walked off the field was a crushing one-run loss.
"Right now we're not playing at all very well and we're playing teams that are more than capable of beating us," Cohen said. "That's what's going to continue to happen if we don't turn this around but I still think we're going to be fine in a month or so."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.
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