STARKVILLE –Mississippi State baseball coach John Cohen has normally had a one-word theme for his team. Coming into the stretch run of the 2014 season that word now is focus.
Cohen admitted after the 12-1 victory Sunday to complete the three-game sweep at Auburn that his team might not have been mentally focused during series losses against Ole Miss, LSU and Texas A&M this season.
“Honestly, that was not the case all year and that is my fault. But I really love where we are right now,” Cohen said Sunday.
When given the opportunity to assess his MSU club, which appeared back in every national Top 25 poll Monday, Cohen said the mental focus is back to where it normally is during the final month of the season.
Last year MSU won 12 of its last 14 games before playing in the CWS Championship Series against UCLA in Omaha, Neb. During the last 3 seasons, MSU’s record in its final 10 games before NCAA Regional play is 21-9.
“Our kids do very well in the classroom and we’re fortunate in that way but when you’re playing baseball and school is out, something special happens,” Cohen said. “We’ve been very good the last three years to play very well leading up to postseason play. I expect nothing less in this season.”
Focus was certainly an issue after a shocking 2-1 loss to Jacksonville State in the mid-week contest last week before the Bulldogs headed to Auburn. Cohen was quick to point out Gavin Collins’ lack of focus in the late innings of the loss to JSU.The California native allowed two passed balls and struggled to catch left-handed reliever Jacob Lindgren. However, just days later MSU held Auburn scoreless for 24 consecutive innings and a battery switch when Lindgren entered the Friday and Sunday games was key to defensive success. Lindgren was caught by Zach Randolph in beginning and ending portions of the weekend sweep.
“I think Lindgren is a guy where he gets so much swing and miss that he can be difficult to catch with that slider,” MSU closer Jonathan Holder said. “It gets to a point where when I come into a game it feels like I’m throwing nothing but off-speed stuff out there.”
The last time a pitching staff allowed just one run in a three-game Southeastern Conference weekend was when South Carolina accomplished the feat at Tennessee in 2011. The Gamecocks would go on that season to win the national championship.
“They all know what’s at stake and knew we needed to play really well,” Cohen said Monday.
The stakes for No. 21 MSU (31-18, 14-10 in SEC) is trying to improve its NCAA postseason situation while also having a chance to win the school’s first Western Division title under Cohen.
“Our destiny is right in front of us and in this league, which I believe has been the top RPI conference all season, is all you can ask for,” Cohen said.
MSU hosts Tennessee this weekend before concluding the regular season at Alabama. Both of those schools have a Rating Percentage Index ranking in the top 30 of the country. Mississippi State climbed two spots to No. 39 in the latest RPI released by the NCAA on Tuesday. Cohen attributed the lack of climbing in the RPI to their inability to play three of the top schools in the Eastern Division of the SEC (Florida, South Carolina and Kentucky)
“I really believe over the next few years, scheduling in this sport is going to start getting like football and who you draw and who you don’t in the league will drastically affect your RPI,” Cohen said. “Everybody knows this but I’m a big advocate of playing all 13 opponents in league and settling it on the field but that presents a lot of other issues for several schools.”
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.