May 2, 2014 10:24:36 AM
STARKVILLE -- The message is clear in the Mississippi State baseball locker room: The chemistry is good and not to be tampered with following a disappointing loss Wednesday night.
MSU needs its chemistry to be solid as it prepares to face Auburn at 6 tonight in Game 1 of a three-game Southeastern Conference series in Auburn, Ala. At this point in the season, the Bulldogs need to remain positive if they are going to shake off a 2-1 loss to Jacksonville State earlier this week and a stretch that has seen the team lose three of its past four SEC series.
"We have good leadership on this team with veterans that do everything they're supposed to do and come ready to work in practices just like we had (Thursday)," MSU coach John Cohen said.
Despite a three-game losing streak and the team's recent struggles, the players haven't pointed fingers at each other in an attempt to make excuses. Cohen hopes MSU (28-18, 11-10 SEC) continues to receive that leadership as his team fights to strengthen its chances to qualify for the SEC tournament and to improve its resume for the NCAA tournament.
"It would be so easy for us to get frustrated, point fingers, and play the blame game in our locker room, but that's part of the recruiting process and why we were the right combination of people to put together," said MSU pitcher Trevor Fitts (3-2, 2.90 ERA), who will start tonight.
Even though Fitts said the players aren't playing the blame game, Cohen called out freshman catcher Gavin Collins for his defensive lapses in the loss to Jacksonville State. Cohen and MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson removed Collins in the ninth inning after the California native allowed two passed balls and struggled to catch left-handed reliever Jacob Lindgren. Less than 24 hours after watching the collapse on video, Cohen didn't have any answers for the miscues.
"We have to catch it better than we did Wednesday night, but I still don't have an answer why all of a sudden that became a problem," Cohen said. "It was a stretch of four or five pitches where we completely lost the game."
Fitts, who leads the team in wild pitches this season with 10, nervously chuckled Thursday when asked about the team's issues at catcher. The junior right-hander said everybody is part of the problem.
"I have all the confidence in the world that they'll do the job, but what some might not realize is sometimes you can do everything you're supposed to as a pitcher or a catcher and the ball will still get away," Fitts said. "It's what the coaches mean when they say I'm not or somebody else isn't the easiest person to catch."
Cohen said Wednesday that seniors who experienced the run to the College World Series last year need to find their best efforts soon before a possible NCAA Regional at-large berth slips away.
"Our players understand what's at stake, but this game (is) so individualistic that it takes the maturity of older guys to lead by example and show younger players how it needs to be handled," Cohen said.
MSU will face an Auburn team that also will try to salvage its postseason hopes.
"I think we are going to have the same sense of urgency we've had pretty much every weekend," Auburn coach Sunny Golloway said. "I'm trying to make sure we as a program understand where we are, what we're doing, and what we need to do."
Auburn (25-20, 9-12) will try to win behind the 1-2 starting pitching duo of Dillon Ortman (8-2, 1.92) and Keegan Thompson (5-2, 1.74).
"Our team feels like they can win behind those guys," Golloway said. "We haven't finished the deal like we'd like to with Keegan. He's been a tough-luck, non-decision guy or his record would be outstanding. I read a national publication that talked about Logan at Florida or Keegan Thompson at Auburn being the top freshman pitcher in the country. I would definitely agree with that."
Auburn's weekend starting rotation has an ERA of 2.27, which is tied for 11th-best in the nation. If the season ended today, Auburn's team ERA of 2.86 would be the first season ERA under 3.00 since 1976, and the ninth-best in school history.
"You talk about Keegan Thompson and you have to realize that what he's doing in this league is remarkable as a freshman," Cohen said. "It's nothing short of remarkable and speaks to his ability and potential to come."
The main reason Auburn is 5-2 in opening games of SEC series, which is tied for the second-best record in the league, is the ability of ace pitcher Ortman. The right-handed senior has allowed two earned runs or less in 10 of 11 starts. He has walked 10 batters in 79 2/3 innings.
Auburn also will look to build on the momentum of a big road series win at Arkansas last weekend. The Tigers took two of three from the Razorbacks, while the Bulldogs dropped two of three to the Texas A&M Aggies in Starkville.
"We are all starting to figure each other out a little bit," said Golloway, who is in his first season at Auburn after leaving Oklahoma. "We tried a lot of things early as far as running, bunting, and trying different guys in the three slot in the pitching rotation. We tried a lot of different lineups. I think our players are understanding our philosophy and we're understanding our players a lot better."
Golloway led the Sooners to seven NCAA tournament regional berths, four NCAA Super Regionals, and the 2010 College World Series in eight seasons.
The key for MSU will be to generate a little more offense. Auburn is 17-1 when it holds its opponent to two runs or less. Eight of the Tigers' nine wins in SEC play have come when the opposition scores two runs or less.
"We have to figure out a way to score more runs," Cohen said. "I feel like our guys are just so close to breaking out and finding some good things at the plate."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.