April 30, 2010 11:12:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- With three chances lost at Alabama, the Mississippi State baseball team hopes to avoid another disappointing weekend against a division opponent and claw back into the race for a Southeastern Conference tournament spot.
Last weekend''s rain-affected series against the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa, Ala., saw the Bulldogs squander leads with single-inning meltdowns. The Bulldogs had a seven-run lead evaporate in Game 2 before losing a 4-1 lead in Game 3.
Mississippi State coach John Cohen admits the team is frustrated with the nature of the losses, but as he explained Thursday, the Bulldogs (20-20, 5-13 SEC) have gone through the growing pains of playing the most freshmen in the conference.
"You take away three innings this weekend and we sweep Alabama," Cohen said. "This is where we are. We just had some freshman arms get exposed. That''s kind of what''s happened to us this year, and it''s what happens to freshmen in this league."
Indeed, Mississippi State''s league slate has the team chasing eighth place for a spot in the SEC Tournament at Hoover, Ala. The team entered the Alabama series in a three-way tie for the final spot and is in danger of falling deeper in the hole if it falters this weekend against Ole Miss at Dudy Noble Field.
No. 13 Ole Miss (30-13, 11-7) is coming off a pair of midweek wins against Murray State and Tennessee-Martin, but its weekend home sweep of No. 9 LSU vaulted them to second in the SEC West.
Ole Miss has won seven straight games after dropping seven of nine in the first two weeks of April.
Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco''s squad enters the final stretch of the SEC slate hitting postseason stride, while MSU is in search of a stable weekend.
For as many comeback wins as the Bulldogs have had this year, the blown leads have piled up as well.
At one point in the season, Cohen pleaded for better focus at the plate as the team needed clutch hits.
Now, the team''s crutch is closing games out on the mound.
In an effort get the weekend started on a winning note, Cohen is giving Tyler Whitney (0-1, 5.72 ERA) today''s 7 p.m. start (FSN) in place of freshman Caleb Reed, whose started the past two Fridays.
Ole Miss'' Drew Pomeranz (6-0, 1.90 ERA) will start tonight, looking to continue one of the SEC''s best individual seasons.
Pomeranz is first in the league with 93 strikeouts and second in ERA.
"I''m sure Pomeranz has a lot of confidence," Cohen said. "We were very fortunate to beat him last year and I''m sure that sticks in his mind a little bit. He''s going to want to do well in this environment here."
The Bulldogs, though, have crept up three spots in the offensive rankings in the SEC in recent weeks.
"Statistically, we''re putting up runs and we''re getting hits," Cohen said. "We''re playing well defensively and I can''t ask anymore out of this group. We''ve got to worry about putting ourselves in position to win some games. Unfortunately, last week, we didn''t slam the door on winning the game."
The Bulldogs hoped to have injured sophomore lefty Nick Routt closer to getting back on the mound this weekend, but his injured pitching elbow yielded 60 pitches at 50 percent velocity this week.
According to Cohen, Routt said he felt fine following the work. However, how Routt feels the day after throwing is the key in gauging when he could return.
With three SEC series left, Cohen said the team has to expect Routt not stepping on the field for the remainder of the season.
"I think you have to plan for Nick Routt not throwing another pitch at Mississippi State," Cohen said. "If he comes back, great, because obviously he can help us. But you have to plan the other way around."
Mississippi State''s most consistent starter, freshman Chris Stratton, will start Saturday''s 6:30 p.m. game (FOX SportSouth) against Ole Miss'' Aaron Barrett. Luke Bole will start Sunday''s 2 p.m. game, while Ole Miss will make a game-time decision.
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