STARKVILLE — Unlike Mississippi State University football coach Dan Mullen, MSU baseball coach John Cohen doesn’t believe he is judged on his record against the University of Mississippi.
But Cohen knows it doesn’t hurt to win the games, either.
“When you’re in a sport that’s tournament-oriented, it’s a little different,” Cohen said Thursday in his weekly media teleconference. “I love the fact that our fans care, and I love the fact 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.”
Cohen and No. 21 MSU will try to improve their postseason chances this weekend when they take on Ole Miss in a three-game Southeastern Conference series in Oxford. Game one is scheduled for 6:30 tonight.
MSU (36-13, 13-11 SEC) has won four of its past five SEC series to clinch its 29th SEC tournament berth. It is a half-game behind fourth-place University of South Carolina and a game ahead of sixth-place Ole Miss (33-16, 12-12). The top four teams will earn opening-round byes in the SEC tournament.
“We feel like every goal we had coming into the season is still out there in front of us,” said Cohen, who is 7-9 against Ole Miss in his time as coach at MSU. “Our kids are acutely aware of where we are and what we need to do to put ourselves in postseason position to achieve goals. We’ve had a really good week of preparation.”
Tonight’s matchup will be a contrast in styles. Right-handed power ace Bobby Wahl will try to neutralize MSU lineup with his 95-96 mph fastball and swing-and-miss stuff. The junior right-hander (9-0, 1.21 ERA) leads the SEC in victories by a starting pitcher and ERA.
“I relish every opportunity to walk out on the mound on a Friday night and compete,” Wahl said to The Associated Press. “I enjoy every second of being out there, and I’m having a lot of fun.”
Wahl hasn’t beaten MSU in three appearances in his career. He lost a 4-0 pitching duel last year to 2012 Major League Baseball first-round draft pick Chris Stratton. Wahl gave up just one earned run in six innings, while Stratton tossed a complete game. This season, Wahl is projected to go early in this year’s draft.
“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,” Cohen said. “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.”
Senior left-hander Luis Pollorena (6-2, 3.92) is scheduled to start for MSU. The 5-foot-7 left-hander is more of pitch-to-contact pitcher who will work in a different fashion than Wahl.
“He’s pitched very well against Ole Miss in the past,” Cohen said. “I think he could go out there and really attack the strike zone and get some early contact. I feel like that could be very beneficial, and I think he could have a great outing.”
Since being inserted into the rotation March 29 at the University of Arkansas, Pollorena has earned 52 percent of his outs by fly ball.
“To have him hook up with a guy like Wahl on Friday night, it really is, in some way, that’s the identity,” Cohen said. “Our kids, I don’t view them as underdogs in any way, but here’s a kid with a heart of a lion. You gotta have some kids like Luis who are overachievers in every aspect of his life.”
Ole Miss has a lineup with six players with an on-base percentage of more than .330. Junior catcher Stuart Turner, who hits third, leads the Rebels in batting average (.397), home runs (five), and RBIs (46).
“They’re a lot more efficient with getting runs, bunting, things of that nature, including on-base percentage than I remember in the past,” Cohen said. “In the past I just thought of, boy they have really talented kids and they can hit it out of the ballpark.”
Game two is scheduled for 4 p.m. Saturday. The finale is set for 1 p.m. Sunday.