After what seems like a short rest from Omaha to opening weekend 2014, the newest edition of the Diamond Dawgs are set for opening weekend on Friday afternoon. The Head Coach, John Cohen, couldn't be more excited for another year in Starkville with a group that is probably as ready as he is.
"I have really enjoyed our preparation," Cohen said. "I think our kids have shown a great deal of maturity in the way that they came back from break. I thought they came back in great condition and in baseball condition. That's really good when you consider we have been shortened up a little on our preparation time. We started a little bit later in school than in years past, and we are starting a little earlier than we normally do as well with our season."
" I think our kids are really focused. It's a great group to work with. I think we have tremendous leadership. I think we have some really advanced younger guys that have stepped up. And I think our kids are really excited about competing against somebody in a non-intrasquad situation. Like everybody else in the entire country, we have battled the weather and it looks like we're not done with that with what's going to happen tonight, tomorrow and Wednesday. But certainly having gotten outside three days on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, this last weekend really helped us in the evaluation process and helped out kids get ready as well. Whether we're ready or not, it is upon us and I think our kids and our staff are ready for the opportunity."
The Bulldogs' four-game weekend is set to kick off Friday at 4 p.m. with Hofstra with a double-header on Saturday and a fourth game on Sunday. As of Thursday, Hofstra was finding other alternatives in their travel with storms hitting the east coast and the south. The Bulldogs are still prepared for a full slate this weekend and Cohen sees opportunity to give experience to most of the roster. He also sees an opportunity to bring back the double-header Saturday, something that Bulldog fans have cherished in the past.
"I think we are going to have the opportunity to play a lot of people in four ballgames, which is something I really like. I noticed the schedules around the country there are not as many people are playing four-game weekends. I really enjoy that because doubleheaders at Mississippi State are really special. When I arrived here, a lot of fans talked about 'Hey, how about the Saturday doubleheader?' I wanted to bring that back to Mississippi State for our fans."
" It also really forces us to pitch at least eight guys during the course of the weekend. If you look at it statistically, we're not going to roll somebody past 70-80 pitches. It is impossible to get a complete-game performance out of 70-80 pitches. That means you're going to have to pitch some other guys. We're really going to try and pair two pitchers which each ballgame to help us get a really good evaluation of who are going to be those three guys on the weekend when we start league play. We have a long time to get into that. I think we still have a lot of competition in our ballclub that's still in front of us."
MSU returns a big group of players with experience from last year's squad and has just one big replacement in the infield after losing junior draftee Adam Frazier. Cohen doesn't see it much as an issue than an opportunity with plenty of options available.
"I think Alex [Detz] has really gravitated toward the third base position. He came to us as a second baseman. I think he has really improved as a defender at third base. I'm really proud of him. He's an on base machine; a savvy hitter. He makes everybody in front of him and behind him a better player in our lineup. His arm has been really accurate and gotten stronger over time. His range is better. Certainly, Brett Pirtle has a chance to be everything he was last year and more. A dynamic athlete, who can get to balls, who can throw, who brings energy to our club. A guy, because he's a switch hitter, brings a lot of flexibility to our club and our [batting] order."
There also is no shortage of options behind the plate this season. After losing the two regular catchers from a year ago in Nick Ammirati and Mitch Slauter, the staff made sure that they had a strong group waiting in the wings. State was able to redshirt freshman standout Daniel Gardner and junior college backstop Zack Randolph as well as pick up two reliable catchers in Gavin Collins and Cody Walker. Cohen sees more than enough guys to throw the ball to that can hit as well.
"I think all of our guys have competed well; they all bring something a little bit different to the table. I've really been pleased with that competition. It's hard during an intrasquad game to get all four of those guys the same amount of playing time. I think [Zack] Randolph has really improved as a leader, as a pitch caller, as a blocker whose arm has come a long way. [Gavin] Collins is a freshman who keeps getting better every single day. He is a great receiver. I think he is starting to make some adjustments offensively. Cody Walker is a young man who probably has the best arm in the entire group. [Daniel] Gardner can really hit. Of the four guys, he is the best hitter. If you combine those four guys you have a first rounder. Each of them brings something different. I think there is going to be a lot of opportunities early for us to find out who is going to be that guy."
As for who will be throwing to the young, fresh-faced group, well, MSU has a plethora of options. The Bulldogs return nearly all of their pictures from a year ago when they had one of the more effective bullpens in the country. This year, Cohen is excited to see the return of Brandon Woodruff and hopefully the starters allow the pressure to come off the back of the relievers.
"We have a lot of candidates. The first weekend is going to be based upon spacing. In other words, the guys who threw for us this Friday will get the week off to pitch the following Friday. Brandon Woodruff is going to start for us next Friday, but that doesn't mean Brandon Woodruff is going to be a Friday guy when we get into league play. It just means that's what we've been timing it out to do. Certainly, Brandon is a candidate for that. Trevor Fitts will start one of the games for sure."