April 16, 2010 9:38:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Nearing the halfway point of the season, Mississippi State coach John Cohen isn''t surprised about where his team is so far.
At 17-16 overall and 3-9 in the Southeastern Conference, the Bulldogs are in last place in the SEC Western Division.
Mississippi State will meet the last-place team from the SEC East this weekend when it hosts Tennessee at Dudy Noble Field. Game times are 6:30 p.m. today, 1 p.m. Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Sunday.
As animated as Cohen has been after each loss about the different elements of his team that aren''t operating at a winning level, he''s been just as quick to point out his team is playing with an uncharacteristically large number of freshmen and first-time SEC players.
Then there''s been injuries to outfielder Brent Brownlee, infielder Frank Rawdow and most notably sophomore pitcher Nick Routt, who opened the season as the team''s Friday starter before being shelved with an elbow injury after the first SEC weekend. In all, Mississippi State has seven scholarship players that aren''t active heading into this weekend''s series.
With that to consider, Cohen has shed praise and been blunt about what needs to improve from certain players.
He doesn''t want to use the injury crisis as a crutch.
Through the frustration, though, the Bulldogs have the nation''s third-ranked schedule in terms of difficulty and are ranked 32nd in RPI, according to Boydsworld.com.
Cohen pointed to those numbers Thursday and through the team''s struggles this season he''s surprised the Bulldogs are still in decent shape to make the postseason.
Still, mid-season RPI numbers aren''t much to hang a hat on without winning SEC games down the stretch.
Cohen said the players recognize they must improve after beng swept last weekend by Arkansas to go 3-6 in the last nine games.
But Cohen admits the players and coaches draw confidence from knowing there''s an NCAA tournament light at the end of the tunnel, though they''re behind the eight ball for making the SEC tournament at this point (six games off the lead in the West).
"Baseball''s not, in my opinion, a football pep speech oriented thing," Cohen said. "It''s more logical, just a long haul and not a sprint. It''s 56 regular season games and our kids are on the internet just like all the other kids; they understand RPI and all those factors.
"There''s seven seniors, many of whom might be playing their last baseball at the end of this year. So they get it and I think they know what''s at stake.
We talk about it, but it doesn''t have to be mentioned."
Another thing that''s not brought up is the team''s current position in the lSEC West as Cohen doesn''t believe the current juncture of the season has much bearing on how things play out down the stretch. Not even halfway through league play, Cohen doesn''t look at Tennessee''s struggles as reason to think his Bulldogs have a better shot at a sweep than they did against Arkansas.
Playing in the SEC makes it all relative as the Bulldogs have run the same gamut of quality SEC opponents as the Volunteers have.
"I don''t think it''s fair yet to establish a bottom or a top when you consider the bottom of the league is ranked 31st against the top end of teams in the country," Cohen said. "There''s a lot to be determined out there still, so I think we all recognize that. It doesn''t matter who you''re playing at what time. Tennessee is going to have real good players, just like South Carolina, just like Arkansas.
"It''s rarely ever about how your opponent is playing, it''s about how you''re playing. It''s like a golfer. ''Am I really worried about that guy over there or am I worried about where I''m going to hit this and how this green sets up?'' It''s much more like that than it is a one-on-one type of thing."
A bright spot for MSU is first baseman Connor Powers'' solid year at the plate, where he has a league-leading 47 RBIs. Luke Adkins has been solid from the leadoff spot, but the Bulldogs rank at the bottom of the league in team batting average (.281).
Bottom-half production has been an issue, but Wednesday''s win against South Alabama saw MSU produce four RBIs and four hits.
Cohen said he noticed better swings against the Jaguars and hopes the improved at-bats get the ball rolling toward more timely hits and clutch swings.
A constant on the mound has been freshman Chris Stratton, who has been the team''s Saturday starter during league play. As consistent as he''s been, Stratton''s been the anomaly when considering the up-and-down season the pitching staff has experienced.
Cohen has had to list his Sunday starter as TBA for the last three SEC weekend rotations, and one-time Friday starter Kendall Graveman has since moved to the bullpen. Caleb Reed gets tonight''s start for the second week in a row.
Graveman got the win Wednesday after tossing four innings and giving up one earned run in relief.
"I think every time we get pitching performances like we did yesterday against South Alabama, I can see the comfort level in our freshman as they start to figure some things out," Cohen said. "That really is exciting to me. When you''re trying to survive with freshmen, the whole thing is when do they become sophomores?
"We''re going to have to rely on that."
The rotation''s biggest question mark remains the status of Routt, who Cohen said is close to being back despite not knowing a timetable for his return.
"He really hadn''t been tested, but he threw the other day and said he felt fine," Cohen said of Routt. "It really depends on Nick. He''s the only guy who really knows where he''s going to be, how much pain he''s in, how much discomfort, how quickly he can get into shape again -- it''ll rest on Nick''s shoulders. I know he wants to pitch."