As what seems like happens every year, MSU baseball finds itself off to yet another slow start in SEC play. The story of the two days for the Bulldogs was the disaster collapse of the 8th innings. The bullpen surrendered eight runs in the 8th in game one, and four runs in the 8th in game three, on the way to a pair of losses.
Runners left on base also continued to plague the Dogs, as 37 runners were stranded over the three games. Twenty-nine of those came in the two games played on Saturday. While the hitters struggled to produce with runners on base and in scoring position, they still did enough to win. Make no mistake about it, the bullpen killed the team this weekend and failed to hold leads late in games. What was considered a strength in the preseason is now a glaring weakness as we head into the meat of the SEC schedule.
It's difficult to do after a series loss, but here were the players we chose as standout performers in the losing effort to the Crimson Tide.
Hitter of the weekend: Reid Humphreys
One of the players MSU needed to get going offensively was power hitter Reid Humphreys. This series was a step in the right direction. Humphreys looked more comfortable at the plate and swung at pitches that he could get good barrel on the baseball. He recorded a hit in every game, going 4-for-7 with a pair of walks. Even a couple of the times he was retired, Humphreys hit the ball hard. He is a big key to the offense going forward. State needs another power bat besides Rea that can hit to the gaps consistently.
Pitcher of the weekend: Austin Sexton
Sexton, in 123 pitches, was able to throw all nine innings in game two Saturday and avoid another meltdown by the bullpen in doing so. In the complete game, Sexton scattered eight hits, gave up one earned run, struck out seven, and walked one. He reminds me of a former Bulldog pitcher in Kendall Graveman with the way he attacks the strike zone and works quickly on the mound. Sexton has been the most consistent pitcher on the team. The jump he's made from freshman to sophomore has been incredible.
Best individual play: Matt Spruill's double play
Spruill flashed the leather in a top 10 like play in the first game on Saturday when he dove for a grounder, touched third with his glove, then fired to Wes Rea at first for the double play. The bases were loaded and Bama was a hit away from taking an early three run lead, as they were already leading 2-1 at the time. Spruill hasn't seen a lot of playing time compared to some other guys, but he has made the most of his opportunities.
Number that made the difference: 16
Bama was clutch at the plate when it mattered most, scoring 16 of their 19 total runs for the series after two outs. All eight runs scored in the long 8th inning in game one came after two outs. It seemed like State was constantly one out or one strike away from getting out of a jam but just couldn't finish the job. Even Ross Mitchell, who is usually as reliable as they come, couldn't record outs when they were needed most.
MVP of the weekend: Austin Sexton
It goes without saying.. Sexton was the bright spot of a weekend MSU fans would rather just forget. It's unfortunate when your bullpen is in such a bad shape that you have to rely on a starter to throw all nine innings to feel good about your chances of securing a win.
Gavin Collins needs to be healthy in the worst kind of way. He's still not back at 100 percent and hasn't been able to return to the lineup full time. Josh Lovelady has done all you can ask a backup catcher to do, but Collins is a difference maker and leader that the team needs on the field. He is one of the best hitters on the team when healthy as he proved last year. They need him back to solidify the middle of that lineup.
If some players aren't shuffled around in the bullpen this season could get ugly fast. It may be time to throw somebody like Lucas Laster in the back end of the pen. Anything to mix things up at this point would be a good move. It's hard to win games in the SEC if you can't pitch in tight games with a lead. There are no Jacob Lindgren's, Chad Girodo's, or Jonathan Holder's any more. That's not to say some of these pitchers can't reach that level, but right now inexperience is blatantly showing.
This team needs a consistent lineup. Coach Cohen has become known for his ever-changing lineups, but that may not be a good thing. He likes to play the matchups depending on the pitcher, but at some point they need some consistency. It hurts guys mentally showing up to the ballpark not knowing where they will play, or where they will hit one through nine in the lineup. Guys like Gridley, Robson, and Brown have hit anywhere from top to bottom. At this point in the season, a lineup that is generally the same needs to be decided on. If nothing else, at least have the first five or six in the lineup set in stone.
The season is a long way from over. State's baseball teams in the past few years have played their best ball at the end of the season and into the postseason. The regular season has always been a roller coaster of ups and downs. Even the national championship run in 2013 started off with three straight series losses in the league. There's plenty of time to turn it around. But with that being said, it's difficult to watch teams with plenty of talent struggle as much in the regular season as John Cohen's teams have. It's a lot easier to make it to Omaha if you take care of business early and get to host regionals and super regionals.