March 28, 2014 1:01:29 AM
STARKVILLE -- Unfortunately for Mississippi State coach John Cohen there's only three starting outfield spots in a lineup.
In the musical chairs of the Bulldogs outfield, Cohen has to figure out which player involving Jake Vickerson, C.T. Bradford, Demarcus Henderson and Derrick Armstrong won't have a seat this weekend. When No. 16 MSU (18-9, 4-2) hosts Arkansas (16-8, 3-3) for a three-game set, Cohen will need two critical pieces of information - who's pitching for the Razorbacks and the health status of Bradford.
"They're all really mature kids and they realize what we're trying to accomplish here," Cohen said.
Bradford has been dealing with a hip injury that has kept him out of four straight games since the Southeastern Conference opening series at Georgia. He did not participate in the series victory against Vanderbilt this past weekend and Armstrong has gotten the start in center field the last five games. Bradford took batting practice Thursday in the final practice session before the two Western Division rivals take the field. However, Cohen said it won't be until this morning when the training staff will know if Bradford can start running at full speed.
"He gets a little bit better every day but it's something you just can't hurry," Cohen said. "When C.T. is healthy, we feel like he's the premier defender that we need but he's just had the misfortune of having nagging injuries."
Before the injury, the senior outfielder, who has had 178 career starts, was hitting .323 and leading the Bulldogs in slugging percentage with a .477 mark. If Bradford is healthy enough to play this weekend, it likely means the remaining three players are vying for the two corner spots.
"It's a competitive outfield that we have and we all understand that," Henderson said. "Look, it's a matter of pride to walk into the clubhouse and see your name in the lineup sure but you always have to be ready too."
Henderson, who has been essentially designated as in a platoon situation with Armstrong, is hitting a team-high .352 mostly against left-handed pitchers. The senior outfielder is hitting .333 in conference play and getting on base at a .500 clip against SEC competition.
"I didn't play summer ball this past offseason but I certainly didn't take the summer off either," Henderson said. "I really had one focus and that was staying on the ball against right-handed pitchers. Even if it was buddies from high school who weren't throwing hard, my objective was to stay on the ball and make solid contact."
Henderson got the game-winning hit Tuesday night against Southeast Missouri right-handed reliever Greg Mosel in a 3-2 victory. He also brings the speed element to MSU's lineup by leading the team, and sixth in the league, with nine stolen bases.
"He obviously got a big hit for us and having him swing the ball well is going to be critical to our club," Cohen said. "What he's doing now is something we expect seniors to do and that's put the barrel where he needs to come through in clutch situations."
Armstrong and Vickerson are the only outfielders with a perfect fielding percentage but both players are struggling at the plate. Both players are hitting and slugging under .200 in SEC play. Vickerson and Armstrong have still found themselves in the left field spot in 22 of the 27 games this season. Vickerson has been in the leadoff position for all of his 24 starts but he's only getting on base 34 percent of the time and 16 percent in conference games. Cohen said Thursday he's hesitant to move Vickerson out of the leadoff role because of skill set and the reports of balls hit hard during his recent slump.
"Line drives just look like fly balls in this yard and that's just the nature of playing at Dudy Noble Field," Cohen said. "I can't count how many times he's hit a rocket to the second baseman or to the right side and gotten out. Everybody goes through that but you just hope they don't change their swing."
The only other MSU players to get the leadoff spot duty in one game each was Armstrong, Cody Brown and shortstop Seth Heck.
Arkansas will throw a dominating right-handed arm in sophomore Trey Killian. After five different pitches gave up 17 runs the night before against Alabama, Killian threw his second straight complete game to help Arkansas. The Mountain Home, Ark., native registered a season-high seven strikeouts while scattering four hits but none after the fifth inning. He retired 14 of the final 15 Crimson Tide batters in the game as Arkansas scored once in the seventh inning and once in the eighth to earn the come-from-behind win. In his last three starts, Killian has pitched 24.0 innings and allowed just three earned runs. He is one of two SEC pitchers with multiple complete games this season.
"He showed a lot of heart," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. "What you saw today was what we got last week from him at Florida when we got beat 1-0. We haven't really backed him up all year. He's been incredible the last three weekends. He has a lot of toughness to him, and he battled. I know his pitch count was getting up there, but I guarantee you if we tried to take him out there in the ninth, he would've went crazy."
Judging by Cohen's tendency to side with Henderson's ability to see the ball better from left-handed arms, the senior is likely to see the field against Arkansas' Friday night starter Jalen Beeks. Even after giving up two earned runs over just 3 1/3 innings in the blowout loss to Alabama, Beeks maintains a 1.56 ERA, which is 13th among all pitchers in the league.
The question is whether Henderson will remove the platoon tag from his status and get primary status in right field against all pitchers in order to stay in the consistent groove during the final months of the season. Of his 48 hits last season, 23 came in the final two months of play but he hit only .235 in 68 SEC at-bats.
"I've never lacked for confidence that I couldn't hit a pitcher simply by the hand he threw the baseball with," Henderson said. "What I had to understand is my coaching staff is playing the percentages and normally when my number is called upon, I've gotten big hits in games late in the season. It just works out for me that way."
Under John Cohen, MSU has never won a conference series against the Razorbacks but Arkansas comes to Starkville with struggles at producing offense. Arkansas is 12th in the league in runs, 13th in hits, 13th in total bases and have the fourth most strikeouts in the SEC. Van Horn has had to rely on its starting pitching and bullpen to carry them to a .500 start to SEC play. The Razorbacks have protected leads all season and are 11-0 when leading after six innings, 12-0 when leading after seven innings and 13-0 when leading after eight innings.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.