February 12, 2010 10:08:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Just one week away from opening day, Mississippi State baseball coach John Cohen is anxious to see how his team takes shape.
With a recruiting class ranked eighth-best in the nation by Baseball America, Cohen and his staff reeled in some of the best pitching prospects in hopes of shoring up the biggest weak spot of the Bulldogs'' 25-29 campaign in 2009.
Cohen spoke at length about the new look of his team during a preseason press conference Thursday. Words like "exciting" and "potential" were used to describe the squad he''ll send out next Friday in the season-opener against Rhode Island.
Most of the talk surrounded the pitching depth at Cohen''s disposable in his second year as coach at his alma mater. Including freshmen and junior college transfers, the Bulldogs have 10 new pitchers.
With youth comes growing pains, and Cohen said he''s ready for the risks and rewards that come with throwing young arms to the wolves.
"The collection of arms we have, I think, is pretty good," Cohen said. "The issue is, it''s very young so we''re going to have some guys take the mound with great stuff, great velocity and great second pitches. They''re going to make some mistakes and we''re going to have to live with those mistakes."
The likes of Chris Stratton, of Tupelo, Ben Bracewell and Kendall Graveman were mentioned as possible starters to a pitching rotation that has one starter locked down in last year''s freshman phenom Nick Routt, who went from possible left-handed reliever to being the ace of the staff.
Though Cohen isn''t sure how the rotation will shape up until after the first weekend of the season, he feels comfortable enough to peg sophomore righty Devin Jones in a late-inning relief or closer''s role.
"We really struggled last year a the end of the game to get the right personnel to get outs in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings," Cohen said. "We''re purposefully putting some of our better guys at the back end of the game to address that issue."
As up in the air as the pitching staff''s starting rotation is, the batting order ahead of next Friday''s match is just as unclear.
What is known is first baseman Connor Powers'' place at either the three or four hole in the order. Powers opted to return to school against signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who selected him in the 11th round of last year''s MLB amateur draft. He returns as the Bulldogs'' leader in homeruns (19) and RBI (63).
"We hadn''t set a lineup because we don''t know if we''re going to face right or left yet," Cohen said. "Some of the pieces to the puzzle, obviously, Connor Powers will hit in the middle of our lineup. Is it third, is it fourth yet? We really don''t know. It''s going to depend left or right on what the top end is going to look like."
While Powers'' return is a boost, Cohen lauded fifth-year senior infielder Russ Sneed''s rehab from hip surgery. The Senatobia native hit .333 last season and is set to return at third base, where he started 47 games last year and posted career numbers in RBI (43) and home runs (nine). He put up those numbers while playing through pain most of the season, so Cohen is keen to get even more from the elder-statesmen once he reaches full fitness.
"I know he feels a lot better than he has in the last two years," Cohen said. "His range is better and he''s a much more confident young man. One thing I have to be cognizant of is with Russ, how many days can he play nine innings or can he play 27 consecutive innings in three days? Can he play a doubleheader with what he''s been through with his hips. He didn''t play full speed until we got deep, deep, deep into the fall. We have to treat him a little bit like a pitcher with him wearing down a little bit."
MSU opens the season at 4 p.m. next Friday.
n NOTE: Mississippi State season ticket sales figure was 5,425 as of Thursday night, just 171 away from the record.