April 23, 2010 9:09:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Two weeks ago, Mississippi State baseball coach John Cohen could see the effects of a sluggish conference start beginning to take a toll on his team.
Cohen made it a point for the coaching staff to analyze every aspect of the Bulldogs'' week -- from batting practice to bullpen routines to overall energy and enthusiasm.
During a critical home stretch and in danger of falling behind the eight ball in the race to make the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Cohen sat down with his players and doled out individual assignments and critiques on "effort level and things that we hadn''t been doing a good job of," Mississippi State senior first baseman Connor Powers said.
"Coach Cohen wanted to slow the game down for us," Powers said. "We didn''t do a good job of that against Arkansas, but we made sure we did everything he told us during the Tennessee series. Focusing on each at-bat, making sure our energy is where it needs to be before the game and with each practice."
Cohen admits being around the team for its practices and meetings would provide a better understanding of the re-energizing methods he and his staff have implemented for the second half of the season. Basically it boils down to being involved with every aspect of the team.
"Inevitably, it''s your responsibility as a coach for the actions of your team," Cohen said. "We got together as a staff and said, ''We''re going to specifically assign what we want them to do at every moment.'' There''s an assumption that all your kids are going to notice every tiny detail of the game and be into every moment. We were pushing and pushing at that time, just giving everything we had and that takes a lot out of you. There''s so many components to our program that we had to find a way to reach each other."
This past weekend, Mississippi State (20-17, 5-10 SEC) won two of three games from Tennessee to move into a three-way tie for eighth place in the SEC. The top eight teams make the SEC Tournament.
Mississippi State dropped first game against Tennessee by suffering a 15-13 loss in a game that featured 37 hits.
The offense continued the next two games of the series for Mississippi State, which scored 38 runs in the three games. That total is the most the Bulldogs have scored in a three-game series this season.
That production carried over into Mississippi State''s mid-week 27-4 win against Alcorn State, which saw outfielder Ryan Duffy register five hits with a home run.
During the Bulldogs'' nine-game homestand, Duffy hit .618 to raise his season average to .370.
Prior to Super Bulldog Weekend, Cohen bemoaned the team''s struggles with getting clutch hits and consistent at-bats.
The run support helped provide confidence for MSU''s pitchers, too, as freshman Luke Bole nailed down the Sunday starter''s role with six solid innings against Tennessee. He gave up five earned runs on eight hits, and Cohen, who had previously entered SEC weekends unsure of who would pitch Game 3, is relieved to have Bole in form for the second half of the season.
"We''ve been waiting for this to happen for a while," Cohen said. "He''s been spectacular for a while, but in the bullpen. We''ve seen glimpses of what we think he can be and it''s exciting because he''s going to be a really good pitcher in this league."
Bole, one of nine Alabama natives on the MSU roster, will earn Sunday''s start in MSU''s series against Alabama (22-15, 5-10).
Alabama is one of two teams deadlocked with MSU for the final spot for the SEC tournament.
Cohen downplayed the MSU-Alabama rivalry when asked about his experiences as a player at MSU, insisting every SEC game is like a rivalry match.
What''s certain is the team''s galvanized play with a spot in Hoover, Ala., for the SEC tournament in its sights. Already sporting a Top 40 RPI, the Bulldogs could bolster their chances of making a NCAA regional with wins against the Crimson Tide, who are ranked 19th in the latest RPI rankings.
NCAA chances aside, the team''s seniors are looking to get to the the SEC tournament for the first time since their freshman season.
"It''s a real thrill fighting for that spot," Powers said. "Every game is like a playoff atmosphere, which I personally like. ''Bama is a great team and it''ll be a good series because we''re in the same situation."
With what Cohen called "light at the end of the tunnel," he believes the seniors are starting to sense the form that''s escaped them in previous weeks. Even he admits there''s an excitement in the players that''s been missing in recent weeks.
He''s also seen that carry over into injured sophomore pitcher Nick Routt, who threw from 90 feet this week and could make his return next weekend, Cohen said.
"I''m not sure in what form he''ll be back, but we are hoping for next weekend," Cohen said. "He desperately wants to pitch and can sense good things are happening with the team. He''s got to have a comfort level with how it feels, though."
Mississippi State''s pitching rotation remains unchanged with sophomore Caleb Reed (0-3, 5.47 ERA) set to open today''s 6:35 p.m. start and freshmen Chris Stratton (4-3, 3.88 ERA) and Bole (2-0, 6.92 ERA) set to take on the mound Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
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