STARKVILLE — For the first time since arriving back at his alma mater, Mississippi State baseball coach John Cohen begins fall practice with confident veteran pitchers.
That pitching experience will bring higher expectations to a program that was six outs away from a College World Series berth last season. MSU begins its road to Omaha, Neb., the site of the CWS, at 4 p.m. today with an intra-squad scrimmage at Dudy Noble Field that is open to the public.
MSU will start the 2012 campaign with just four seniors on the active roster, but every pitcher except for Devin Jones, who was selected in the eighth round of the 2011 Major League Baseball First-Year Player draft, returns from last season.
Senior left-hander Nick Routt, junior right-hander Chris Stratton, and sophomore right-hander Evan Mitchell likely will compete for weekend rotation spots again this season.
“The strength of our club is the pitching staff, and I really like the leadership we have there,” Cohen said. “We have 20 guys on this team that can throw a baseball over 90 mph, so there’s ability there. Fourteen or 15 of those guys have a dependable second pitch to get outs.”
Ben Bracewell has returned from Tommy John Surgery and has been throwing bullpen sessions in MSU’s individual workouts, where he has showcased a return of his fastball’s velocity and reported no pain in his throwing elbow. After leading the Bulldogs in saves in 2010, Bracewell sat out 2011 after having the season-ending surgery by Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala.
“The biggest addition to our staff is Ben Bracewell because there’s a chance he can be one of our weekend guys for us,” Cohen said. “He’s a six- or seven-inning guy that has three out pitches, and he’s been through our league already. It’s like bringing in a new player but with experience.”
MSU will use the fall workouts to find out who will fill the four open starting infield positions left by graduating seniors. The scrimmages also will provide a break for the 35 players who will make the roster to ease up on the strength and conditioning seminars Cohen has implemented with the help of MSU football strength coach Matt Balis.
Catcher is one of the intriguing aspects on the 2010 squad. Sophomore Hunter Renfroe will be expected to provide consistent offensive power in the middle of lineup that was lacking at times last season. Perfect Game USA, a baseball scouting service, rated Renfroe the top pro prospect on his summer league team in the Cal Ripken Collegiate League earlier this year.
“He can be one of the great players not only in the (Southeastern Conference) but in the country, and he has so much ability,” Cohen said. “He’s going to also play some outfield and can throw a baseball 98 mph. He’s a superstar.”
Renfroe, who was a 31st-round draft pick of the Boston Red Sox in 2010, hit .305 and a league-leading eight home runs to help power the Bethesda (Md.) Big Train to a 36-9 record and their third consecutive league championship.
“I felt this way as a player at Mississippi State that when I got the opportunity to play summer baseball and get away to prove it in another environment several things happen,” Cohen said. “Your appreciation for Mississippi State goes up and you get a national feel for where you are as a player.”
Sophomore Demarcus Henderson likely will get the first chance to start at shortstop after sitting out most of the 2011 season following Lasik eye surgery to correct a vision problem that hampered him at the plate. Other options in the middle of the infield include freshman Phillip Casey, a three-year starter at shortstop and a leadoff hitter at Clements High School in Sugarland, Texas.
“(Casey) can play significant innings, but again the fall will indicate that,” Cohen said. “I think any time you put a freshman out in the best league in America there’s some of that (fear), but I think he’s a mature kid that can handle that.”
Fans at Dudy Noble Field might see sophomore Darryl Norris move back to third base after the graduation of Jarrod Parks, MSU’s leading hitter. Norris, who saw reserve time at first base last season, hit .277 and pitched 25 innings last season. He started at third base for three seasons at Fairhope High (Ala.).
Cohen also is excited about freshman third baseman Nick Flair, who hit .619, with 12 home runs, 62 RBIs, 18 doubles, and three triples while leading Belle Chasse (La.) High to a Class 4A, District 8 championship last season.
The 6-foot-3, 180-pound prospect who will turn 19 in October, was honored as a Louisville Slugger All American selection by Collegiate Baseball News. He also was named Third-Team All-American by Baseball America. Flair was drafted in the 26th round by
the Pittsburgh Pirates, but he chose not to sign a professional contract.
Cohen’s options at first base include Wes Rea, who took a medical redshirt season last year to recover from a shoulder injury. Rea turned down scholarship offers from 11 SEC football programs, including MSU, to play baseball in Starkville.
“Wes is the most graceful guy I’ve ever seen at first base for a guy that is 6-foot-6, 290 pounds, and it’s pretty remarkable to watch in person,” Cohen said. “Unless he gets hurt, he’ll be in the middle of our lineup as a force.”
In the outfield, Cohen has senior Brent Brownlee and sophomore C.T. Bradford. The only question with Bradford, the 2011 Atlanta Regional MVP, is the number of innings will he be able to pitch this season while playing every day at center field.
“I’m still not convinced he wouldn’t have been one of our best five or six arms last year,” Cohen said. “Every time (MSU pitching coach) Butch Thompson sees him throw a bullpen, he looks at me and says, ‘Wow, this kid is special.’ “