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Mississippi State head coach John Cohen has never been so happy to have good pitching.
The Bulldogs have one of the premier pitchers in college baseball with right-handed starting pitcher Chris Stratton. Meanwhile, the rest of the pitching staff has done a terrific job this season, and State enters this weekend’s series against Florida with a fabulous 2.78 earned run average.
If not for that, the Bulldogs aren’t expected to be in the NCAA postseason right now. Heck, they probably wouldn’t even be in the mix for an at-large spot … period.
As it stands, though, the Bulldogs have an excellent pitching staff, are 30-18 overall, have an RPI of 36, and are safely in the postseason, assuming they can at least finish the regular season with a 2-4 or 3-3 record against Florida and Kentucky.
“This season has been pretty difficult, but it has made our kids really grow and become stronger together,” Cohen said. “The pitching staff is the strength of this club. It’s an older and experienced unit with really nice balance. They’ve done a great job.”
While the pitching staff has been the cornerstone of this team the entire season, the offense has been anything but that. The Bulldogs are hitting a rough .254 on the season. But don’t worry, as Cohen pointed out, there are some legitimate reasons for the lack of production.
Injuries have played a huge factor for State this spring.
Mississippi State entered SEC play with just four players in the starting lineup that started the season in the lineup. Along the way, the Bulldogs have accumulated some injuries that would be tough for any tough to overcome.
Electric outfielder C.T. Bradford has been dealing with a separated shoulder and will have surgery, Brent Brownlee has been relegated to 62 at bats this season because of knee issues, and actually had knee surgery in the middle of the season. Then, there’s Taylor Stark, who will return to the lineup this weekend after blowing out his hamstring, an issue that Cohen said has been prevalent since his high school days.
“I know everyone talks about injuries, but we had some big ones, and they really, really hurt us. But we were able to stay in a lot of games. We competed our hearts out,” he said. “At one point, we were playing kids that we had told were going to redshirt because we simply didn’t have enough bodies out there. It was that dire of a situation.”
Despite the injuries and lack of offensive production, the State pitching staff has never waivered this spring, something that actually is quite surprising.
Much of that, of course, has to do with the starting rotation. Chris Stratton has evolved into one of the nation’s elite starting pitchers and prospects, with his draft stock absolutely soaring as the regular season comes to a close. Meanwhile, right-hander Kendall Graveman might not get the accolades of Stratton, but he, too, is doing a terrific job with a 2.97 ERA in 72 2/3 innings of work.
“Stratton has been a different guy since he went to the Cape Cod League last summer,” Cohen said. “He found himself and has pitched so well for us this season. He went up there, had success, and realized he can pitch with the elite pitchers. He’s in a great comfort level right now.”
“Kendall has tremendous sink on his fastball,” he said. “He has some power sink and that’s one thing we’re trying to teach our pitchers here. We’ve gotten some pretty good arms like Chris and Kendall.”
Stratton typically sits in the low-to-mid 90s with his fastball and has an excellent 78-80 changeup, while Graveman will sit 88-90, sometimes touching 91 with his sinker.”
Cohen also praised co-starters Luis Pollorena and Evan Mitchell. Pollorena has started just three games this season, but has a 1.32 ERA in 27 1/3 innings of work. Meanwhile, Mitchell has a big-time arm, but has had some command issues at times. He’s 2-1 with a 3.82 ERA in 33 innings of work.
“Evan Mitchell might just be the most talented guy on this pitching staff. He has a big-time arm,” he said. “Pollorena isn’t a big guy, but he is a tremendous athlete and can run his fastball up to 90-91 with a very good changeup.”
Freshman right-handed reliever Jonathon Holder has been a big surprise this season. He has appeared in 15 games this season and is one of few relievers on the national stage to still not to allow a run this season. There’s also veteran Caleb Reed, who has a 2.98 ERA, and Brandon Woodruff, who has a 3.27 ERA in 22 innings of work.
“We have 14 kids on our pitching staff who throw 91 or better. Arm strength isn’t the whole deal, but it sure is nice. It tells us our long toss and conditioning program is working,” he said. “It’s a combination of recruiting the right kids and putting them in the correct roles.”
Mississippi State will need some things to go its way to reach the same heights it did last season -- competing in an NCAA Super Regional. But if it can get past these final two series against Florida and Kentucky, and potentially get through the SEC tournament without any injuries, this definitely could be a team to watch in the postseason.
The Bulldogs may not have the offense of some other title contenders. But they have the pitching staff. And they have Chris Stratton.
North Carolina State (34-12) -- The Wolfpack is having an impressive campaign and is red-hot entering this weekend’s series at Virginia Tech. N.C. State has won 10-straight contests and is firmly set to host another NCAA Regional.
Virginia (32-14) -- The Cavaliers had plenty of doubters not too long ago, but now are in fantastic shape to host yet another NCAA Regional. The Cavaliers are 9-1 in their last 10 games and have won eight-straight contests entering this weekend’s home series against Georgia Tech.
San Diego (37-11) -- The Toreros have flown a little under the radar this season because of some other stalwarts on the West Coast, this could be a national title contender. USD is 8-2 in its last 10 games and has won four-straight contests entering this weekend’s home series against Loyola Marymount.
South Carolina (37-12) -- Somehow we’re not surprised the Gamecocks found the recipe for success the past few weeks. The Gamecocks have been sizzling hot lately, winners of six-straight SEC series. The Gamecocks should continue that series winning streak this weekend at Georgia.
Utah Valley (35-11) -- The Wolverines have earned some nice midweek wins this season and hope to somehow sneak into the NCAA postseason despite having just an average RPI with a fantastic overall record. UVU has won 28-straight games and should extend that winning streak this weekend against New York Tech.
Southern California (22-21) -- The Trojans’ postseason hopes are pretty much dashed at this point, barring an amazing finish to the regular season. USC got swept at home by Washington last weekend, and is now 3-7 in its last 10 and losers of four-straight contests. Not an impressive past few weeks for the Trojans.
Pacific (11-35) -- The Tigers absolutely are having a campaign to forget. They’ve lost 11-straight games and are dead last in the Big West. Fortunately for Pacific, it faces another team struggling at this juncture, UC Riverside.
High Point (23-25) -- The Panthers entered the season with high hopes, but just haven’t done much to impress this spring. HPU is 1-9 in its last 10 contests and has dropped seven-straight contests.
Nebraska (29-19) -- Remember when the Huskers were somewhat on the good side of the NCAA bubble? Well, those days definitely are over. NU is 4-6 in its last 10 games and has lost three-straight contests. Still, the Big Red showed some progress this season.
Charlotte (20-26) -- Yet another surprising disappointment, the 49ers simply aren’t having the type of campaign they’re used to. Charlotte is 4-6 in its last 10 games and is losers of three-straight contests. The 49ers hope to avenge the regular season with a strong showing in the Atlantic 10 tournament.
FIVE PITCHING MATCHUPS TO WATCH
St. John’s RHP Matt Carasiti vs. Louisville RHP Justin Amlung -- Carasiti started the season on a poor note, but has been very solid after moving from closer to the starting rotation. Carasiti has big-time stuff with a fastball that hovers in the mid 90s, while Amlung is a very solid pitcher that typically sits 89-91, touching 92 on the radar gun. Carasiti is 4-3 with a 3.75 ERA in 57 2/3 innings of work. He also has struck out 48 and walked 24, while teams are hitting him at a .259 clip. Meanwhile, Amlung is 7-3 with a 2.16 ERA in 83 1/3 innings of work. He has struck out 85 and walked 17, while teams are hitting him at a .185 clip.
South Carolina LHP Michael Roth vs. Georgia LHP Alex Wood -- Two of the nation’s elite pitchers go head-to-head in this important SEC matchup. Roth isn’t an elite prospect, but has impeccable command can run his fastball up to 89 on a good day. Meanwhile, Wood’s stock has greatly increased this spring, having the ability to get his fastball up to 95-96, while his plus changeup has been a solid pitch as well. Roth is 4-0 with a 2.82 ERA in 79 2/3 innings. He has struck out 60 and walked 22, while teams are hitting .200. Wood is 6-1 with a 2.64 ERA in 81 2/3 innings. He has struck out 81 and walked 19, while teams are hitting him at a .248 clip.
Mississippi State RHP Chris Stratton vs. Florida RHP Hudson Randall -- This is yet another outstanding pitching matchup in the SEC. Stratton is one of the hottest prospects for the upcoming MLB draft, as his stock seems to be continuously rising. Stratton sits in the low to mid 90s with his fastball and has an excellent changeup, while Randall is more of a strike-thrower, but can still sit 89-92 with his fastball at times. Stratton 9-0 with a 2.19 ERA in 82 1/3 innings of work. He has struck out 101 and walked 17, while teams are hitting him at a .207 clip. Meanwhile, Randall is 5-1 with a 3.53 ERA in 58 2/3 innings. He has struck out 46 and walked six, while teams are hitting .260.
Duke RHP Marcus Stroman vs. North Carolina LHP Kent Emanuel -- The Blue Devils certainly are having a season to forget, but they can at least salvage something by taking two of three from the Tar Heels this weekend. Stroman might not be a huge guy, but he has electric stuff and is a slam-dunk to be a first-round pick in June. Meanwhile, Emanuel is a strike-throwing lefty who has good, but not great velocity on his fastball. Stroman is 5-4 with a 2.36 ERA in 84 innings. He has struck out 119 and walked 22, while teams are hitting him at a .221 clip. Meanwhile, Emanuel is 6-3 with a 1.80 ERA in 80 innings. He has struck out 77 and walked 17, while teams are hitting him at a .237 clip.
Georgia Tech RHP Buck Farmer vs. Virginia RHP Branden Kline -- Here’s another phenomenal pitching matchup to watch this weekend. Farmer has been a bright spot for the Jackets this spring, sitting in the low to mid 90s with his fastball. Meanwhile, Kline can also touch the low to mid 90s and has a terrific slider. Farmer is 7-3 with a 3.20 ERA in 81 2/3 innings. He has struck out 90 and walked 23, while teams are hitting him at a .260 clip. Meanwhile, Kline is 6-3 with a 3.52 ERA in 71 2/3 innings. He has struck out 76 and walked 31, while teams are hitting him at a .232 clip.
SERIES TO WATCH
No. 1 Florida State at No. 30 Clemson -- The Seminoles haven’t lost a conference series this spring, and put that streak on the line this weekend against the motivated Tigers. Clemson, though, will have a difficult time winning this home series without right-handed ace pitcher Kevin Brady, who’s still on the shelf with a hamstring injury. PG PICK: Florida State
No. 2 Baylor at No. 42 Oklahoma -- With a terrible RPI headed down the stretch, the Sooners desperately need a home series win over the Bears after losing a tough rivalry series to rival Oklahoma State last weekend. Meanwhile, the Bears enter the final two weekends of conference having not yet lost a conference game. PG PICK: Baylor
No. 4 South Carolina at No. 31 Georgia -- The Gamecocks have won six-straight SEC series and hope to extend that streak to six-straight series wins this weekend against the Bulldogs. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs hope to further solidify their status as a team firmly on the good side of the ball. Big-time crowds are expected at Foley Field. PG PICK: South Carolina
Vanderbilt at No. 3 LSU -- It’s as crunch time as crunch time can get for the Commodores. They’ve played a better brand of baseball here lately, but head to Baton Rouge, La., with a .500 overall record and 11-13 league record. VU desperately needs a series win over the Tigers to get the ball rolling in the right direction. PG PICK: LSU
No. 26 Mississippi State at No. 5 Florida -- A rematch of last year’s Gainesville Super Regional, these two teams simply don’t like each other, all the way up to the coaching staffs. The Bulldogs have an outstanding pitching staff, but must rise to the occasion offensively to have a chance in this series. PG PICK: Florida
No. 46 St. John’s at No. 24 Louisville -- The Johnnies lead the Big East regular season title race by two games over the Cardinals, they could all but wrap this thing up this weekend with a road series win over the Cards. Meanwhile, UL has had some issues being consistent this season, and must step up this weekend. PG PICK: Louisville
No. 11 UCLA at No. 47 Washington -- The Huskies were on the bad side of the bubble a couple of weeks ago, but Aaron West and the Huskies took a big step forward last weekend by sweeping Southern California on the road. UW could really help its postseason case this weekend with a series win over the Bruins, but it’ll take a full team effort against a very good UCLA club. PG PICK: UCLA
No. 14 N.C. State at No. 50 Virginia Tech -- The Wolfpack has been quietly very consistent this season and has one of the nation’s elite pitchers in left-handed hurler Carlos Rodon. Rodon and the Wolfpack must be good this weekend, as the Hokies are confidence and on the good side of the bubble -- for now -- after winning two of their last three series over Maryland and Miami. PG PICK: N.C. State
No. 15 Arizona at California -- The Wildcats still have a very good chance to host an NCAA Regional, and still could get strongly in the mix for a national seed with a strong finish the last three weeks of the regular season. The Golden Bears, though, are on their last leg when it comes to postseason hopes. A series loss this weekend likely would take Cal out of the running for an at-large bid. PG PICK: Arizona
No. 38 Georgia Tech at No. 22 Virginia -- After stepping out of conference last weekend against Charlotte, the Yellow Jackets hope to string together an impressive road series win over the Cavaliers to better their situation as a team on the good side of the bubble. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers are playing well and can solidify their hosting chances with a big series win over the Jackets. PG PICK: Virginia