STARKVILLE — On paper, the Mississippi State baseball team”s weekend series at the University of Tennessee looks like an opportunity to get a much-needed series sweep.
Tennessee (22-20, 5-16 Southeastern Conference) is coming off a 19-3 loss to rival and No. 1 Vanderbilt, a defeat that capped a weekend in which it was outscored 39-5.
“I think it”s a combination of we”re not playing with a lot of confidence; they”re playing with a lot of confidence. They”re home; we”re away,” Tennessee coach Todd Raleigh said Sunday. “Everything is going their way.”
Tennessee is on a five-game losing streak — the longest in the league. The Volunteers have the second-worst league record, though that”s due in part to having three teams in the Eastern Division ranked in the top five nationally.
While the Volunteers are short on confidence, the Bulldogs (26-18, 8-13) are brimming with confidence following an 8-5 win against the University of Alabama on Sunday and a 15-9 mid-week win at South Alabama. Both wins came on the heels of a pair of 5-4 losses to Alabama on Saturday.
“I know I”ve said this the last couple of weeks, but we still believe we have a chance to win the SEC West and finish really strongly,” MSU coach John Cohen said. “Our RPI (30) dictates we still have a great, great opportunity for postseason play if we take care of the game for the next three weeks.”
Despite their SEC record, the Bulldogs are two games out of first place in the West. Division champions receive a bye in the first round of the SEC tournament, which will be May 25-29 in Hoover, Ala.
The Bulldogs haven”t won a series since sweeping Auburn the last weekend of March. The sweep is the only SEC series the Bulldogs have won this season. MSU has lost four SEC games by one run and another by two runs.
Cohen feels the confidence is there and is probably the highest its been all season given the team”s brief tastes of success against some of the league”s heavyweights.
That said, the last thing any team wants down the stretch is issues with personnel. MSU hopes to avoid that by getting more consistent efforts from its pitchers, especially its weekend starters.
While Nick Routt”s return from elbow surgery has played a part in his control problems and logging efficient innings, the surprise has been sophomore Chris Stratton. The right-hander, who led the staff as a freshman, began SEC play with a 1.65 ERA but has seen that average rise each week to 4.98 entering the weekend.
At one point, Stratton was the workhorse of the rotation, going more than 100 pitches in six of his first seven starts. He has gone past the fifth inning just once in the past four games.
Cohen believes Stratton”s barrier is mostly mental and likened his bind to that of a golfer who needs to sink a pressure putt from 10 feet away.
“To do something the same way a hundred times in a row and to do it with movement and deception and have more than one pitch to throw in the strike zone, it”s very difficult,” Cohen said. “For folks that don”t believe me, try writing your name the same way a hundred times in a row.
“I think Chris is gonna figure it out. He”s too good of an athlete not to. Everything in between starts is flawless. His bullpens are good.”
In the wake of Stratton”s and Routt”s inconsistency, as well as former Friday starter Devin Jones being removed from the rotation, Cohen has opted to start sophomore left-hander Luis Pollorena (5-3, 1.65) in at 5 tonight in Knoxville, Tenn.
The start will be Pollorena”s first at MSU, though he has pitched three innings or more in four of his past six relief appearances.
With Pollorena starting tonight, Routt will start Saturday and Stratton will start Sunday.
Cohen left open the possibility of Stratton coming out of the bullpen Friday if a matchup favors the right-hander facing a batter or two.
“To tell you the kind of kid Chris is, he”d volunteer (and say), ”If you need me to come get a right-hander on Friday, I”ll still start on Sunday. I”d do whatever it takes,” ” Cohen said. “He”s that kid, and that”s why we have all the faith in the world he”s gonna turn the corner and become a really good pitcher.”