April 30, 2014 10:54:18 AM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State fans love to manage John Cohen's baseball team more than any other sport on campus.
With so many unpaid coaches in the stands and watching from home, Cohen normally sounds like he is justifying his moves to fans who aren't at practice, aren't watching film of previous games, and haven't seen what he has seen in more than 20 years as a coach.
So when Cohen is asked why his team hasn't been able to deliver extra-base hits, he knows the answer is going to sound like an excuse.
"Our kids know what's at stake at this point in the season," Cohen said Tuesday in a phone interview. "We're tracking their at-bats in practice and in games and, for the most part, they're not getting rewarded for hitting balls hard."
Leadoff hitter Seth Heck is Cohen's primary example. Heck, a junior college transfer from Tacoma, Wash., is hitting .278 with six doubles in 37 hits. Those aren't the eye-popping numbers you would expect from someone hitting at the top of a Southeastern Conference lineup. However, that's where the shortstop will be at 6:30 tonight when MSU (28-17) plays host to Jacksonville State (23-19) at Dudy Noble Field. Cohen feels Heck's average should be 30-40 points higher based on the contact he is making. Heck has reached base safely in a season-high 12-straight games. He has scored seven runs, seven RBIs, and five walks in that span. Heck has multiple hits in seven of his last 11 games.
"I wish somebody, or anybody for that matter, could sit in the film room with us and watch Seth Heck repeatedly line out to an outfielder on an absolute bullet right to the defender," Cohen said. "Maybe then would they know how I feel about our offense. I've never felt worse in a long time than I feel for that young man. His numbers should be better, and he's doing everything we ask."
Cohen is talking about Heck's batting average on balls in play (BABIP), a sabermetric statistic that tracks the frequency at which a batter reaches base after putting in play. A significant difference in the average means the hitter is striking out too much, which isn't the case for Heck , who has 16 strikeouts, or is unlucky for a long stretch of time.
"Based off what he's produced at the plate, he should be among the league leaders in doubles and should be scoring more runs because he's opening innings in scoring position," Cohen said. "He's just not getting rewarded, and that's got to be frustrating for a player."
Heck is one reason why MSU is failing to drive in runners on base and ranks 10th in slugging percentage and runs scored, 13th in doubles and home runs, and 12th in total bases.
"The extra-base hit is something we struggle with, especially at our ballpark where finding the power alleys are just difficult," Cohen said. "You look around our league and I don't know how many schools are pleased with their offensive numbers, but I know our ballpark can have a depressive feel to a hitter over time."
Frustration isn't an emotion Cohen sees from his team despite a stretch in which it has lost three of its past four SEC weekend series.
"I know I say this too often, but I'm being honest when I say (Tuesday's) practice was the best practice I've ever seen at Mississippi State," Cohen said. "You talk about focus throughout and getting stuff accomplished this late in the year, both happened and at high levels of competitiveness."
The Bulldogs have won eight-straight midweek games and are 19-1 in regular-season midweek games since the beginning of last season. MSU is 11-0 against Jacksonville State dating back to 1996.
After Tuesday's practice, most of Cohen's players turned their attention to serving their community. MSU fifth-year senior Ben Bracewell led a large contingent of players that set up portable tents around the Palmeiro Center for emergency personnel assisting tornado victims in the area.
"They all got together and decided to make a difference," Cohen said. "We get credit as coaches when our kids do things like this, but the credit goes to their parents for bringing them to us like this. I'm really proud. I've said this before, but it's not magic of ours our players are great people. They have wonderful parents."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.
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