No. 21 Mississippi State (36-13, 13-11 SEC) has a big series coming up this weekend at rival Ole Miss (33-16, 12-12), starting Friday at 6:30 p.m. We caught up with MSU coach John Cohen this morning on his weekly teleconference and spent a good 22 minutes with him. This is the penultimate weekend of SEC play, and a lot is on the line for both teams. For MSU, it’s trying to solidify its standing as a candidate for hosting an NCAA regional.
“We feel like every goal that we had coming into the season is still out there in front of us,” Cohen said. “Our kids are acutely aware of where we are and what we need to do in order to put ourselves in postseason position to achieve goals. We’ve had a really good week of preparation.”
He also noted that the Bulldogs are healthier than they’ve been in a while. Second baseman Brett Pirtle, who was experiencing dizziness last weekend but still played some, is better. And catcher Mitch Slauter (fractured hand), who saw limited action last weekend, is progressing. Can Slauter catch a whole game, though?
“The receiving part’s the most important thing, but you watch him take BP this week, I’m going to have to believe he can swing the bat full speed and get jammed with two strikes and not be in incredible pain, especially when you consider the way Ammo (Nick Ammirati) has played. It would really help our club if Slauter could catch one of the games. … It would be a luxury for us to be able to have him this weekend, and it’s going to be a game-time deal.”
Here are some more highlights from our lengthy chat with Cohen.
From his opening comment:
“They might have the best Friday night guy in the Southeastern Conference. (Bobby) Wahl is an incredible competitor, and it’ll be an unbelievable challenge for us. They’re really good behind the plate with (Stuart) Turner, and they have that nice mixture of speed and power in their lineup. They play very good defense, and really have lost so many close games, that a run here or a run there, Ole Miss could be sitting in first place in the SEC West.”
Do you feel your season is evaluated in large part on how you fare against Ole Miss?
“When you’re in a sport that’s tournament-oriented, it’s a little different. That’s something in football that you have to worry a little bit more than in other sports, just because it’s tournament-weighted. … I love the fact that our fans care, and I love the fact that they care more when you’re playing Ole Miss. I’m not going to discount that in any way, but postseason is the most important thing to you.”
Looks like Wahl has been more consistent this year, what’s been the difference?
“When you talk to our players who have been around him, played with him, know him, the thing they always say is he’s just an incredible competitor. Sitting across the other dugout from him, that’s my assessment also. When you have a kid who has as many weapons as he has on the mound, and then you throw in the competitive nature of the kid, that’s pretty special.”
How much does last weekend say about the maturity of this team, sweeping a series when not everything went right?
“That’s big. I’m glad you brought that up, because that’s huge. You say Hunter (Renfroe) didn’t have a great weekend, but he got a ton of advantage counts, and he forced pitchers to throw a ton of pitches, and that helps everybody else. That’s the team nature of this game, is understanding that everything matters.”
Closer Jonathan Holder is striking out more people this year, why so?
“He really understands how to pitch off of his fastball and his curveball, and the two are so dissimilar that if you guess on one, you’re going to get destroyed by the other. When you get as many strikeouts as he’s getting on called third strikes, then you have somebody who is commanding the baseball, and he has two separate dominant pitches.
“It’s funny, because I’ve seen Roy Oswalt throw bullpens here in Starkville, and Roy of course at his best is one of the best in the big leagues, and watching his curveball, which at times can be 20 mph off of his fastball, it’s kind of a similar thing. That’s why he can really freeze guys. Jonathan has the ability to add and subtract with his fastball. You might see him throw an 89-mph fastball to one part of the strike zone, then throw a 93-mph fastball to another part of the strike zone. And then the same with his breaking ball. That’s what makes him special.”
(Holder has 64 strikeouts in 35 2/3 innings, and 28 of those Ks are looking. He’s also tossed 25 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings heading into this weekend.)