By MATTHEW STEVENS
As the Mississippi State baseball team begins to open Southeastern Conference play against the second-ranked team in the country, the mentality doesn’t change.
The Bulldogs (14-4) will not take the us versus the world or what head coach John Cohen calls “a football attitude” to this three-game weekend series that begins tonight with 6 p.m. contest.
“I think our kids already have a little bit of a chip on their shoulders and that’s a good thing but we’ll stress to them that what will win this series is the team that makes the least amount of mistakes,” Cohen said. “That’s the difference in our game because it won’t be the team that brings more energy.”
Mississippi State will be facing one of the best pitchers in the country in the 2011 Major League Baseball draft class in junior right-hander Sonny Gray.
Gray is one of the hardest throwers in the country with his fastball that can top out at 97 miles-per-hour and having a curve that drops off the table but his out-pitch is a dominating slider that can fool hitters from both sides of the plate.
“He’s really good and it’ll be a huge challenge for us,” Cohen said. “I saw him pitch in high school.”
In four starts in 2011, Gray has allowed just five earned runs in 26.1 innings of work with opponents hitting just .135 against him.
“Sonny continued to blossom this summer for Team USA,” Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said. “He has great physical tools and is highly competitive but his best tool will continue to develop with experience – and that is leadership.”
Cohen will counter with a local product in tonight's spotlight with junior Devin Jones, who the Bulldogs third-year head coach says “isn’t that big a gap” between him and the Commodores ace Gray.
“What I feel great about is for the first time since I’ve been at MSU, the gap has really closed in pitching between us and a Vanderbilt,” Cohen said. “You expect these games to be low scoring with the new bat so you understand pitching and defense will be what wins and loses these games.”
Mississippi State will go with sophomore right-hander Chris Stratton on Saturday with the first pitch in that game scheduled for 2 p.m. and the Sunday starter is still unknown for a 1 p.m. contest.
Mississippi State enters Nashville with two of the top hitters in the SEC with seniors Cody Freeman and Jarrod Parks both hitting over .400 this season and will hope to get contributions from freshman C.T. Bradford and Daryl Norris at the top of the Bulldogs lineup in their league debuts.
“My teammates have just told me about playing in front of thousands of people and put all that behind you to just do your job,” Norris said Tuesday. “I’m excited to compete in one of the nation’s best leagues.”
Vanderbilt (17-1) already has five wins against teams that were in last year’s NCAA Regional play (San Diego and Stanford) and looking to keep pace with top-ranked Florida.
Mississippi State hasn’t won its first road SEC series since a 2007 three-game tilt against Florida.