March 6, 2014 10:05:50 PM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State is doing everything it can to have a healthier version of two veteran players when they travel to Arizona.
Bulldogs coach John Cohen and the rest of the MSU staff have been admittedly cautious in handling the injuries of center fielder C.T. Bradford and Jonathan Holder before they prepare for their first road games of the 2014 season. No. 12 MSU (11-4) will embark on a 3-team and four-game event in the Hi Corbett Classic in Tucson, Ariz., that will feature 2012 national champion Arizona and a mid-major power California at Santa Barbara.
Bradford has been dealing with a hip injury that has kept him out of four total games in the 2014 season and each of the last three contests. In MSU's 3-0 victory Wednesday night over South Alabama, Bradford was held out due to concerns over the cold temperatures and the hot bat of backup Derrick Armstrong. Bradford hasn't played since the first game of a doubleheader last Saturday. The three-year starter in the outfield for MSU is currently leading the team with a .342 batting average and has a .405 on-base percentage.
"We're a little tentative to throw him out on a cool night like tonight because that little hip thing is bothering him," Cohen said. "Hopefully by keeping him out on Sunday and keeping him out today we've put a little in the bank so that he can play this weekend."
Armstrong, who is currently hitting .318, has found his role on this 2014 club by personifying the high intelligence and gritty baseball player that Cohen has loved to recruit in his six years with the Bulldogs. Armstrong finished Sunday with a 2-for-5 outing at the plate after he stole four bases Saturday night in a 7-1 victory over Michigan State. In the seven-run, seventh inning for MSU Sunday, Armstrong had a two-run single in a frame that guaranteed a perfect weekend for the Bulldogs.
"What you get from Armstrong is a quality at-bat each and every time. It seems like he's having a 6-7 pitch at-bat each and every time," Cohen said. "The infielders can't position themselves in a normal way because by the time the ball gets to them, he could be safe at first."
With the extended forecasts on Arizona's campus including high temperatures in the 70s, MSU players are hoping warmer weather can get their muscles easily looser to play and move after trying to figure out how to win in 30-degree nights in Mississippi.
"I personally like playing in the heat better than any other condition but I'm looking forward to some hotter weather," said Mississippi State third baseman Alex Detz, a California native.
Detz hit his first career home run over the right field wall against South Alabama on a looping fly ball that likely would've carried much further in warmer weather than the 30-degree atmosphere with a healthy wind that persisted Wednesday night.
Holder, MSU's All-American candidate at closer, has been dealing with a swollen finger on his pitching hand that has limited his effectiveness in his last three outings. In a save situation Wednesday night, MSU chose to stay with left-hander Jacob Lindgren than give Holder the ninth inning in the hopes of giving Holder's injury more time to heal. In In four appearances this season, Holder has one just one save and a relatively high 3.60 ERA.
"We could have gone with Jonathan tonight. But we felt like Lindgren was on a little bit of a roll," Cohen said. "And with as chilly as it is right now, this late at night, I just feel like if a guy is already in the game and he's already used to the conditions you're probably not going to bring the other guy in."
Lindgren's has gotten 16 of his 24 outs via the strikeout and has proven he can be a viable replacement closer option if Holder's injury lingers into the start of Southeastern Conference play.
"We haven't given Lindgren that kind of opportunity yet this season but he's earned it. Lindgren doesn't have a bigger fan in the world than Jonathan Holder," Cohen said.
The tournament begins for MSU with a 3 p.m. game against Santa Barbara as the Gauchos (7-1) are off to their best eight-game start to a season since 1996. UCSB can boast one of the top all-around offenses in the country. The Gauchos lead the Big West and rank top-5 in the NCAA in all slash categories (.341 batting average ranks third in the country, .442 OBP ranks fifth, .487 slugging percentage ranks fourth). USCB senior third baseman Joey Epperson is off to about the best possible start one could hope for in 2014, as he leads the conference and ranks sixth nationwide with a .500 batting average while ranking third in the country in runs per game. UCSB's leadoff man was named the Big West player of the week Monday after collecting multiple hits in each game and hitting .588 to lead the team to a perfect 4-0 weekend, including an upset over defending national champion and No. 19 UCLA.
A year after winning the national championship, Arizona failed to qualify for the 2013 NCAA tournament and the Wildcats (6-7) are off to another disappointing start this season including a current 5-game losing streak to Seton Hall and Long Beach State.
Former MSU Director of Athletics Greg Byrne, who has the same position at Arizona, was hoping to schedule a home-and-home baseball series between the MSU and Wildcats programs and Friday night's 8 p.m. game will be the first scheduled matchup between the two since Byrne left Starkville.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.