April 24, 2014 8:17:43 AM
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State baseball coaches are encouraged by the news they're getting about Preston Brown and believe he could return for the stretch run to the team's season.
MSU coach John Cohen said Brown (3-1, 1.95 ERA), who hasn't pitched since March 29 due to shoulder soreness, could pitch Saturday against Texas A&M in Game 3 of the three-game Southeastern Conference series at Dudy Noble Field.
"He threw really, really well earlier in the week," Cohen said. "We feel like he might be available. We're going to wait and see.
"The ball came out of his hand really good on Monday. He's progressing nicely. The way (he) pitched early in our conference season, we're a better club having him."
Brown worked his way into the weekend rotation at the start of SEC play. He allowed two runs in eight innings in a victory against Vanderbilt to open the series. Without Brown, No. 20 MSU (27-15, 10-8 SEC) has used different pitchers Friday night and Sunday afternoons in an attempt to find someone who can eat innings. Ross Mitchell and Trevor Fitts haven't been consistent on Friday nights in place of Brown, while freshman Dakota Hudson (loss vs. LSU), senior Ben Bracewell (loss vs. Ole Miss), and junior Brandon Woodruff (no decision at Missouri) have pitched in the last games of series.
MSU has announced Fitts and Mitchell as the starting pitchers tonight and Friday night. Bracewell and Brown could be in the mix to start at 2:15 p.m. Sunday.
The questions about starting pitcher are only half of Cohen's problems. MSU showed signs Tuesday in an 8-3 victory against No. 16 Ole Miss that it might be ready to bust out of its offensive paralysis. MSU co-captain Wes Rea went 2-for-4 with two RBIs against Ole Miss to break out of a 4-for-39 slump in April. The junior first baseman had 12 strikeouts in that period. The MSU coaches sat him down in the final two games of MSU's three-game sweep at Missouri in an effort to help Rea break out of the slide. He responded Tuesday by taking a fastball from reliever Matt Denny and powering it down the left-field line for the game-winning hit. It was only the second extra-base hit for Rea in the past month. Both run-scoring doubles have come against the Rebels.
"You can say yeah, you're going through a slump, but you're also doing some things mechanically," Rea said. "I wasn't getting the barrel there. I tried to really make a emphasis to hit line drives to left field instead of fly balls to straightaway center."
MSU will need more swings like that to lift an offense that ended last week with a .270 batting average, which is 10th in the SEC. Texas A&M (25-17, 8-10) ended the week third in the league in batting average (.287). The teams will square off at 6:35 tonight (ESPNU) to see which one can get the upper hand.
"For Wes Rea to be able to take a couple of deep breaths and do some drill work on his own was critical for him being able to contribute because he will be a factor for sure in the stretch run of the SEC," Cohen said. "You see it in the big leagues all the time that a guy just needs a day or two off to get his feet back under him, and we think that happened for him."
Rea's average has tumbled from .309 in early March to .248. He didn't start the final two games at Missouri, but his first two-hit day against a SEC opponent since March 30 vs. Arkansas has provided a spark.
"After the Ole Miss series, we kind of put our foot down and said we're not playing our brand of baseball," Rea said. "What are your goals? What do you want to do? We stated them again, and we're going back to our brand of baseball."
Rea started at first base in 63 of 64 games as a freshman despite not being able to feel the bat in his right hand on certain days because of a cyst that developed in his shoulder. Rea hit .249 with a team-leading 41 RBIs in 2012, but he had 54 hits and shared the team lead with 16 doubles and five home runs. He was named to the 2012 NCAA Tallahassee Regional All-Tournament team after hitting .308 (4-for-13) with a double in each of the three games in the regional hosted by Florida State.
Rea hit .325 (13-for-40) in 11 starts in the 2013 NCAA tournament, driving in eight and scoring three times. He was a member of the 2013 College World Series All-Tournament team after going 6-for-19 (.316) with three doubles and RBIs. He went 4-for-7 (.571) at No. 6 Virginia in the NCAA Charlottesville Super Regional and was selected to the NCAA Starkville Regional All-Tournament team.
"There's going to have to be games where we score runs because our pitchers are doing so well," Rea said.
Texas A&M (25-17, 8-10) hung on for a 6-5 victory at No. 11 Rice on Tuesday. The Owls likely will be a regional host team for the NCAA tournament. The Aggies had a 5-0 lead after two innings but needed reliever Andrew Vinson to get a game-ending fly ball with the bases loaded.
Texas A&M is scheduled to start freshman Taylor Stubblefield tonight. The Lufkin, Texas, native earned wins in starts against Houston Baptist, Texas-Arlington, and Texas-Pan American before holding SEC East leader Florida to two runs on five hits and two walks while striking out three in six innings in his first SEC start.
Texas A&M has won four of its last five road games, including three wins against top 25 competition.
"I feel like in many ways Texas A&M is just like us in the sense that they know the identity of the club is how well they pitch it and defend it," Cohen said.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.
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