Things did get better, thankfully, following MSU's disastrous opening day at the Hi Corbett Classic on Friday. The Bulldogs, who opened the tournament with losses to UC Santa Barbara 8-3 and Arizona 12-3, split the final two games of the weekend, losing a tight 7-6 battle against UC Santa Barbara, while taking a 6-4 win from Arizona in the final game of the weekend.
UC Santa Barbara (9-1) 7, Mississippi State (11-7) 6
After a rough first day, the Bulldogs trotted back out on Saturday hoping to get back on the winning track at the Hi Corbett Classic. That would not happen though, as the Gauchos roughed up MSU starter Trevor Fitts for five runs in 2.1 innings of work to jump out to a 5-2 lead. The Bulldogs were able to scratch across some runs of their own, as a three-run fourth inning helped MSU tie things back up at five a piece. UCSB would get to MSU ace reliever Ross Mitchell in the bottom of the frame, though, to the tune of two runs that would ultimately be enough to power them to a 7-6 victory.
The loss for Ross (sorry, rhymes is gonna get ya) was his first ever in a maroon jersey - a feat that is impressive considering he had 18 wins to his name before he first loss.
Mississippi State (12-7) 6, Arizona (8-9) 4
In the Sunday finale of the Tuscon-based round robin tournament, Mississippi State overcame a two run first-inning deficit with the help of that vaunted Bulldog bullpen, and C.T. Bradford. After the Wildcats got to freshman sensation Dakota Hudson early for two runs, Coach John Cohen went to his closer, Jonathan Holder, in just the second innings. Holder worked well in the unfamiliar circumstances, going 5.2 innings while spreading five hits and two runs out over his longest outing of the year. While Holder's strikeouts only numbered two, it was really great to see him work this long relief appearance so well after he battled a finger issue early in the season. It was also great to see Jacob Lindgren bounce back after a rough outing Friday to open the Classic with a very nice relief appearance last night. Lindgren worked the final 2.1 innings of relief in dominant form, striking out six while surrendering just two hits and no runs. I will keep saying this all year - Lindgren is so key to this team's success. He fills Chad Girodo's role perfectly, and if THIS Lindgren shows up the rest of the year instead of the one who came out Friday, then State's bullpen will be exponentially better. Awesome showing by both Holder and Lindgren to save a victory for the Dogs.
Offensively, MSU was paced by the white-hot C.T. Bradford who registered not one but TWO triples in this game. What's even more nuts is that C.T. had four triples on the weekend, making him one of the lone bright spots in an otherwise rough weekend.
While this weekend's results were certainly far from what MSU fans wanted to see out of the Bulldogs in their first road test of 2014, ending the weekend with a win was a huge, huge save. 1-3 isn't pretty, but 0-4 is much worse, so the work done by C.T., Holder and the rest of the team on Sunday was vital to this team going forward.
Coming into the year, I would have guessed that MSU would have no more than three or four losses scattered across the non-conference portion of the schedule. Then again, we were all expecting this team to be top-five and a national contender, and they seem far from that right now. Still, it's really a crapshoot predicting how good teams will be in the preseason, so we could fairly say that this team was held to unrealistic expectations going into the start of the year.
You never know how a team is going to mesh when it has to incorporate new parts into vital roles, and so far it seems like State is missing a few of its key parts from last year pretty badly. Still, the talent on this team is undeniable, and despite a 12-7 start, I feel like if they can get it together, this team still has a run at the top of the conference in them.
That run begins this upcoming weekend as the maroon and white Bulldogs travel to Athens to take on the red and black Bulldogs of Georgia. While Georgia is a fairly bad team again this year, MSU is not guaranteed a series sweep or even win this weekend. State will have to earn it, and earning that opening weekend series win is very important, especially considering that Vanderbilt comes to Starkville the weekend after that.
State fans that are coming out of this weekend very concerned about this team's capabilities should remember that last year's national runner-up was not without its faults as well. The Bulldogs did not struggle in non-conference play last year, but they did lose their first three conference series, and many of us were frustrated then as well. State opens @Georgia and with Vanderbilt and Arkansas at home, so there's a chance that MSU could reverse the results from last year, and start really strong in the SEC.
I sound like a broken record on this, but it bears repeating - the talent is there for this team. The key for the rest of the year will be whether or not they can use that talent to its full potential, and become the top-three SEC team that they are. The chances are still there and its early yet, but after a 1-3 weekend, there's more for this team to prove now than we expected just a month ago on Valentine's Day.