January 29, 2010 9:29:00 AM
The optimism is palpable.
A nationally ranked recruiting class has second-year Mississippi State baseball coach John Cohen anxious to start practice this afternoon, weather permitting.
But Cohen knows that he, his coaches, and MSU fans might have to temper their optimism at times this season because even though the Bulldogs have added a talented group of newcomers, many of those players, particularly the pitchers, are freshmen.
In fact, eight of the 10 pitchers on MSU''s 2010 roster are first-year players. Cohen admits there is plenty of potential in that group, so it will be fun to see how quickly those players mature.
"I like our talent level, I really do," said Cohen, who is schedule to lead his team in a 3:30 p.m. scrimmage today at Dudy Noble Field. "One thing our talent level is missing at this point is experience. It''s something we want to come as quickly as possible."
Cohen praised his players for giving great effort in preseason workouts. He also has noticed a marked improvement from last season. He said he has primarily noticed a difference in drills that his team is now able to execute perfectly after struggling to complete them a year ago.
That maturation could help the Bulldogs reverse their fortunes after a 25-29 (9-20 Southeastern Conference) season that saw them fail to advance to the SEC Tournament.
Hitting wasn''t a problem. MSU had six players hit .301 or better and scored 356 runs. The problem was the Bulldogs allowed 387 runs and had a team ERA of 6.57.
Cohen said the return of sophomore left-hander Nick Routt (5-3, 4.15 ERA), who was a member of the All-Freshman team last season, and sophomore Devin Jones (0-4, 9.26), who was hurt after appearing in 10 games, gives the Bulldogs a solid starting point. He will look to a returning cast that features 17 lettermen and 18 newcomers from a recruiting class ranked No. 8 in the nation by Baseball America to help the Bulldogs reclaim a spot among the SEC''s elite.
The key might come on the mound. Cohen said patience will be crucial because he said as many as six freshmen could pitch a lot this season.
"When you''re pitching that many freshmen there are times when you''re going to get punched in the mouth a little bit," Cohen said. "I think we''re really a year away from having one of the great pitching staffs in the country. To do that, we have to stay away from injuries and we have to have some kids with experience."
Cohen also feels the 2010 Bulldogs will have a group of infielders with better range, which should give the defense a lift.
At the plate, senior catcher Ryan Duffy (.339, 10 home runs, 33 RBIs) and senior infielders Jet Butler (.335, four, 37), Russ Sneed (.333, nine, 43), and Connor Powers (.301, 19, 63) figure to lead the offense.
The Los Angeles Dodgers drafted Powers in the 11th round last year, but he elected to return to school.
"I think the ability of our kids to perform in a practice setting is so drastically different because they know what our expectations," Cohen said. "Tyler Whitney, Connor Powers, and Russ Sneed have been phenomenal. They can give us what we want in a practice setting on demand right now."
MSU will open its season at 3:30 p.m. Feb. 19 against Rhode Island at Dudy Noble Field. The field features new sod and a new irrigation and drainage system that was installed last fall.
In the event of inclement weather this weekend, MSU will practice indoors at the Palmeiro Center. Baseball practices are open to the public. The Bulldogs are
scheduled to scrimmage at 12:30 p.m. Saturday and at 3:30 p.m. Sunday.
n Alabama opens practice today: At Tuscaloosa, Ala., the University of Alabama baseball team is expected to begin practice at 2:30 p.m. today.
The Crimson Tide has spent the past three weeks working on strength and conditioning and individual drills. The team will get together for the first time today and will scrimmage Saturday and Sunday.
"We are real pleased with the players and the effort we have gotten up to this point," Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard said. "We feel our identity is starting to take shape leading into the season. We''ve had a lot of work with our strength coach Rocky Colburn, especially this first month leading into the season with our weights and conditioning and getting ourselves back in physical condition."
Alabama returns 14 lettermen and six starters off last year''s team that won 37 games and advanced to the NCAA Clemson Regional, the school''s 20th all-time NCAA Regional appearance.
Alabama will practice at 11 a.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday. There will be an eight-inning scrimmage each day.
The Crimson Tide''s annual "Fan Day" will begin at 9 a.m. Feb. 6 with a free kid''s clinic (all kids through the sixth grade) at Sewell-Thomas Stadium. The 27th annual Grand Slammers preseason barbecue will be at 11:30 a.m. in the CAVE at Coleman Coliseum. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for youth (12 and under). The day will conclude with an intrasquad game at Sewell-Thomas Stadium at approximately 1:30 p.m.
Alabama opens the season at 2:05 p.m. Feb. 20 against South Alabama at Sewell-Thomas Stadium. The teams will play Feb. 21 at Stanky Field in Mobile as part of a two-game, home-and-home series.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.