The Notebook: Extended thoughts on baseball’s series win, MSU basketball and a new national champ

Almost nothing has happened on Mississippi State’s campus the last six days, with the University out for spring break and nearly every team on the road over the weekend. While students and staff were out, though, much has occured elsewhere worth discussing now that classrooms and offices are welcoming their tenants back.

MSU’s second season under Rick Ray came to an end, baseball won its SEC-opening series at Georgia and Steve Dudley’s track program saw its third National Champion in a year.

1. Baseball wins Georgia series 2-1.

1513650_812321768782995_1686185677_nAfter State lost the Friday night game on the road 7-1, MSU twitter and message boards neared the edge of the cliff, but then Saturday happened, when the Bulldogs from Mississippi won both games of the doubleheader and we learned a lot about the team.

Like last weekend when Cohen put in All-American closer Jonathan Holder in the second inning, MSU made one of those change-it-up moves in game one Saturday, deciding to give reliever Ross Mitchell the start, the second of his illustrious All-American career in Starkville. For lack of a more apt description, this seemed like MSU’s staff sort of saying, “Forget it, we have to win and whatever we’re doing isn’t quite working.”

And it did work, as Mitchell threw a complete game, getting a 6-1 win, a performance which earned him his second SEC Player of the Week honor in three weeks as he extended his record to 19-1. Cohen said afterward that the junior lefty has likely earned himself a spot in the weekend starting rotation going forward. Which leads us to….

The trio of juniors Trevor Fitts, Jacob Lindgren and Jonathan Holder in the final game of the weekend was filthy. The three combined for 13 strikeouts in Saturday’s second game. The likelihood of them all being available in any one game going forward seems slim, but if possible, there’s a lot of heat coming from those guys.

I love the idea of Mitchell and his low-speed, high-movement stuff being the first guy a team sees to start the weekend, and while he isn’t likely to throw a complete game so often, he ought to go deep into games. Once a lineup has seen 100 pitches from him, balls in a game two lineup of Fitts, Lindgren and/or Holder will seem like they’re being shot out of a cannon.

Lindgren, I should note, has been superb this season. His move to the bullpen couldn’t have worked out better, so far. He’s basically averaging two strikeouts per inning this season, a total of 26 Ks in 13.2 innings, with an ERA of 1.32.

Cohen to reporters after the final game: “Those guys just said, ‘hey, I’m gonna put you guys on my back. Watch this, I’m gonna win it for you.’

“We experimented a lot during the course of the season, but what it really comes down to is we’ve gotta put the ball in the hands of the guys who got us to Omaha a year ago, and that’s what this whole day was about.

“I think we found out a lot about ourselves and where we need to go from here.”

The head coach also said Preston Brown, who has been stellar to date in non-conference and mid-week games, would have been a consideration to start had MSU played Sunday, but with Brown having thrown eight innings Tuesday, it was a bit too soon.

The next question, of course, is what will the lineup look like when Vanderbilt comes to town this weekend? And beyond asking who pitches, which games will they throw?

FPMOHYUWSRKHTDO.20140309013340Mitchell and his career 1.62 ERA in the SEC, oddly enough, may be the only guarantee to start, though Fitts seems like a very, very safe bet after his performance Saturday (and the rest of his resume` from this season and last). Could Brown supplant senior and co-captain Ben Bracewell? His start in Friday night’s game was rough, but otherwise Bracewell has been MSU’s most dependable starter, so it would be tough to take him out.

It’s certainly a good problem to have, and as Cohen said, both they and we learned a lot about the staff this weekend.

Elsewhere on the field, a few notes worth, well, noting:

  • Senior third baseman/designated hitter Alex Detz broke out of his slump, going 5-for-12 (.417) on the weekend, notching three RBI in the process.
  • Also at third, junior Matthew Britton had the best game of his season in game one Saturday, hitting 2-for-4 with three RBI and two runs scored. The battle between those two and freshman Reid Humphreys at third is a hot one, with no bad options.
  • Right next door, junior Seth Heck has seemingly wrapped up shortstop for some time now. He’s been tremendous defensively and has produced well at the plate, batting .353 on the year.
  • Senior outfielder Demarcus Henderson improved to a perfect 9-for-9 on stolen bases this season.

Wrapping up the baseball section, I found it interesting that there wasn’t a single sweep over the opening weekend of SEC play. Every team won either one or two games. That bodes well for the entertainment and competition in the conference this season.

2. Brandon McBride wins National Championship

OXGUXFMPZJIUKAG.20130206174453At the indoor national championships over the weekend, MSU’s Brandon McBride took home the title in the 800m run, with an astounding time of 1:48.17. It doesn’t work this way, but to put that number in perspective, it would equate to running a mile in 3 minutes and 36 seconds, in theory.

Also on Saturday, defending National Champ Erica Bougard had a personal-best high score in the pentathlon, placing second nationally in the competition.

Along with D’Angelo Cherry, who won the title in the 60m last spring, MSU now has three individual National Championships in the last 12 months from its track and field program. Head coach Steve Dudley, even with the high-level of praise he’s already getting, may still not be receiving enough.

3. Basketball comes to a close

Losing to Ole Miss in the second round of the SEC Tournament last Thursday night brought Rick Ray’s second season at MSU to a close with a final record of 14-19, as most of us know by now.

With the year now complete, we can look back on it and try to apply some perspective and look ahead to the future.

The most interesting part to me is a quote we got from Rick Ray last Monday, when he said MSU’s game against Vanderbilt in the first round would be an indication of how the 2014-15 season would be for the Bulldogs.

At the time, it seemed like a dangerous statement. Ray’s team was in the midst of a double-digit losing streak and had secured a spot as the bottom seed in the SEC Tournament. Staking expectations for the future on the result of that team’s next game seemed, honestly, a bit of a gamble.

But then, MSU went out and beat Vandy from start to finish, eventually winning 82-68.

TCHYMVDPAGOPDEU.20140113143044That game, along with the first 25 or so minutes of the loss to Ole Miss, were a reminder of the start of the season, when MSU surpassed it’s 2013 win total before SEC play even began. A point in the year where development and growth was obvious, second-year players were making big jumps and the Bulldogs were winning games.

Of course, by the end, the games became microcosms of the season. Start strong, show a lot of fight, eventually lack the steam to pull it out.

Going into Atlanta, MSU was beat up, exhausted and perpetually undermanned. Which is why the future is so promising.

From my point of view, and I can’t imagine I’m alone in this, Ray’s team was another post player and spot-up shooter away from pulling out so many of the games they led early in the second half before slowing down, and if it had had any real depth, it may have had the stamina to maintain the leads it so often lost down the stretch of long battles.

Next year, he gets those things in bunches. For the first time, he’ll have a true center in 6’11” Fallou Ndoye, who spent this season on the bench as mandated by the NCAA. He’ll add the talented Travis Daniels to what was previously a woefully small number of forwards. With three signees coming to campus, he gets his shooter he can trust on the perimeter, he gets another guard who can drive and he adds yet another member to the bunch in the post so Gavin Ware doesn’t work himself to exhaustion.

MSU will enter next season with Ware, Fred Thomas and Craig Sword in their junior years – a guard in Thomas, by the way, who was one of the best offensive players in the SEC his last seven games, by the numbers. And he was already MSU’s best perimeter defender.

Ray believes he has a game-changing point guard in IJ Ready, though his freshman season was riddled with minor injuries, preventing him from ever getting into a real groove. Ready said himself he’s excited to have a full offseason to lift weights and build up his stamina so he can be a more consistent player and shooter.

I’m not predicting MSU will win the SEC, return to the Final Four or anything like that. But optimism and promise exist within a program that for two years running has had one of the most difficult roster situations in the country, nearly all of it beyond Ray and MSU’s control.

Consider that, in addition to those who played this season, the Bulldogs at one time thought Wendell Lewis, Jalen Steele, Andre Applewhite, Ndoye and Daniels would all be playing on this year’s team. Some are gone for selfish reasons, others had to sit for other situations. But had they played, Ray’s post depth would have gone from decimated to celebrated, he’d have had a talented shooter to open the lane up for Sword and the needed depth would’ve been at least vaguely existent.

Of course, the head coach is ultimately responsible for the state of the roster, but it won’t be until this fall when we finally see what Ray can do with a full compliment of players. To do what he’s done so far with the situation he took over, coaches around the conference have frequently said, is somewhere between a last-second Hail Mary and the biblical Virgin Mary in terms of miracles. (Certainly more toward the Hail Mary side, though)

No one has questioned the effort of the players, nor has the coaching ability of Ray and his staff been a concern.

Ray actually quoted Bill Parcells not long ago, telling reporters that his team is what the record says it is. And that’s true in the vacuum of a single season, but despite the wins and losses of the last two seasons, MSU  appears poised for a big jump in year three, one in which the fruits of two years hard labor may finally be reaped.

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