October 7, 2010 8:53:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- A year ago, Chris Stratton was a freshman looking to make an impact in his first year at Mississippi State.
He had no idea he''d become the ace of a pitching staff filled with players no more experienced than himself.
Stratton''s response to shouldering the workhorse load bucked the trend of freshmen failing to adjust to top-flight college baseball. He started a team-high 14 games, led the team in 78 1/3 innings, and finished with a 5-3 record.
Those efforts helped Stratton follow Nick Routt as the second straight MSU pitcher to be named to the Southeastern Conference All-Freshman team.
Unfortunately, Routt''s season-ending elbow injury catapulted Stratton to the team''s Saturday starting role.
MSU baseball coach John Cohen bemoaned the team''s quagmire of relying on freshman pitchers -- four threw 38 innings or more last season -- en route to a 23-33 finish.
Cohen contended all season his young pitchers would benefit from the experience and ultimately become quality players in the SEC.
But Stratton continued to amaze while his freshman compatriots went through the ups and downs as first-year players.
Stratton ended the season with perhaps his best performance, three hits allowed in seven shutout innings in a 2-1 win at LSU.
"What he did isn''t typical of freshman pitchers in this league," Cohen said Tuesday. "It''s asking a lot of a freshman to be a weekend starter, but he proved he could handle it and pitch well in the best conference in America."
The fact Stratton''s body held up was a joy to the player and coaches, as high school pitchers rarely reach the pitch counts of college players.
There were times, especially in the latter third of the season, when Stratton wasn''t sure if he would make it to the end of the season.
"Your arm just gets to where it''s tired," Stratton said. "But I felt better at the end than I did three-fourths of the way. I thought I was gonna have to shut it down for a week and maybe skip a start."
During the summer, Stratton and teammate C.C. Watson used the Jaeger long-toss program to help strengthen their arms. The program sets long-toss distances up to 350 feet and utilizes strength-band work.
"We did it all July and coming back into school," Stratton said. "It really built our arm strength and we could take it day by day and make sure we weren''t speeding anything."
In addition to Stratton''s gains through the summer, he''s adding a cut fastball and possibly a different kind of changeup to his arsenal.
"About halfway through the year we realized if we didn''t have a curveball that day, what were we gonna do?" Stratton said. "We''re really trying to get a Plan B if something''s not on that day."
The bat debate
The NCAA''s switch to non-composite bats for the 2011 season has made for a slew of unhappy hitters.
After testing 25 composite bats at the 2009 Division I Championships, the NCAA ruled 20 didn''t meet the ball exit speed ratio it deemed safe for competition. Whether through repeated use or intentional alteration, composite bat BESR can change once a bat meets NCAA specifications and leaves the factory.
That said, college baseball teams across the country are using non-composite for the first time. The transition is frustrating MSU hitters.
"You can tell it doesn''t jump off," outfielder Brent Brownlee said. "We were using our old bats down here in the cage, having a player underhand tossing to us. You can feel it just jump off the bat, and you just don''t feel that with the new bats. I''d almost prefer to use wood.
"The new bats have no exit velocity whatsoever. Your routine alley hit is going to be caught or stopped short to where you don''t get a double out of it."
Cohen predicts the new bats will change the game by limiting power hitters, putting a premium on defense in the outfield, and increasing the importance of baserunning. Cohen thinks his team is suited for that style of play.
As it is, Dudy Noble Field has one of the more spacious outfields in the nation and could benefit from the new bats.
"It''s going to be lower scoring, less home runs, more running, and a premium of line-drive ground balls instead of fly balls," Cohen said. "I just think that the new bat restrictions are going to change our game.
"Our park and Vanderbilt, traditionally over the last 10 years, have less home runs than any other ball parks in the SEC. When you look at those statistics, you don''t want to fight your ballpark."
Last season, injuries forced MSU to play without close to 10 players who were expected to contribute.
Cohen hopes most of them, notably Routt, a sophomore, will return in the spring.
Routt had ulna nerve displacement surgery to help heal a nagging pitching elbow injury.
"We''ll see how that transpires," Cohen said. "We have every bit of faith that will provide some relief to him."
Pitcher Paxton Pace is coming off his third surgery, while pitcher Michael Dixon is doubtful to pitch in the fall after having Tommy John surgery. Dixon threw just one inning last fall.
Sophomore pitcher Ben Bracewell, who came to MSU with lingering shoulder problems, was limited to pitching once a week last season. He had offseason shoulder surgery and is expected to miss the spring.
Once positive piece of injury news is the return of Brownlee from shoulder surgery. The junior suffered a torn labrum diving for a fly ball early last season.
"I stayed up here in the summer, took a couple of classes, and rehabbed with Joe Gray, our physical therapist," Brownlee said. "We did a lot of band exercises, just trying to strengthen the little muscles and big muscles around the shoulder. Every once in a while it''ll ache, but other than that it''s doing great."