Texas A&M (25-17; 8-10) at Mississippi State (27-15; 10-8)
The Aggies will hit the road again this weekend, in need of yet another series win after regressing with last weekend's series loss to Kentucky at home. After exploding for 23 runs in the 3 games against Vanderbilt, the Aggies managed just 7 runs over the first 2 games against the Wildcats, both losses. A&M did manage another run explosion on Sunday, putting up 14 runs to salvage one win from the series and avoid the sweep.
A&M went down to Houston on Tuesday to take on a ranked Rice team, and held on for a much needed 6-5 victory. The Aggies had a 6-0 lead going to the home half of the 6th inning, and a 6-2 going into the bottom of the 9th, but the Owls had the tying run at 3rd before Andrew Vinson induced a fly out to preserve the win. Cole Lankford was the star for the Aggies in that game, going 4-5 with a run and an RBI, and Logan Taylor knocked in a pair of runs and scored 2 as well. A&M put up 5 runs in the first 2 innings to get starter Corey Ray out to an early lead, and Ray picked up his 4th win of the season after working 6 innings and allowing 2 runs - 1 earned - on 5 hits and 3 walks while striking out 3.
The Aggies and their similarly colored Adidas counterparts are separated by 2 games in the SEC West standings. The Bulldogs come into the series having won their last 5 games, including a sweep at Missouri and a midweek win over Ole Miss, which has helped them rebound from being swept at LSU and dropping their series at home to the Rebels. The Aggies are attempting to play their way back into a postseason position, and taking a road series at Mississippi State would be a good way to help their cause.
Thursday (6:30pm CT - ESPNU)
LHP Tyler Stubblefield (3-1, 3.45, 1.30, 49 K, 12 BB)
RHP Trevor Fitts (6-1, 2.29, 1.13, 42 K, 17 BB)
True freshman Tyler Stubblefield finds himself back in the weekend rotation after the "Jason Jester as Friday starter" experiment fell flat on its face last weekend. Stubblefield came into last Saturday's game against Kentucky in relief of Daniel Mengden and promptly allowed a 2-run home run to Wildcats' star AJ Reed. He would ultimately allow 5 runs on 5 hits in just 1.2 innings of work, which allowed Kentucky to break the game open and cruise to the series clinching win. Childress will elect to give Stubblefield the start in the nationally televised Thursday game; a similar strategy nearly worked last year with Grayson Long at South Carolina.
Fitts, a junior from Pelham, AL, will be making his team-high 11th start of the season against the Aggies on Thursday. Fitts gave up a run on 3 hits and struck out a batter in 2.2 innings of work in Columbia last weekend, and he has not worked more than 4 innings in any of his last 4 SEC starts. Mississippi State used Fitts in a similar way last season in their run in College World Series, going a few innings and then giving way to the Bulldogs' talented bullpen. Fitts actually pitched quite well in last weekend's start against Missouri, but he got pulled quickly after a pair of singles and a sac fly in the 3rd inning.
Saturday (6:30pm CT)
RHP Daniel Mengden (2-6, 4.09, 1.26, 73 K, 20 BB)
LHP Ross Mitchell (4-1, 3.76, 1.15, 36 K, 11 BB)
Mengden's struggles in 2014 continued yet again on Saturday against Kentucky, earning him his team-high 6th loss of the year. I'm honestly not entirely sure what has changed from last year to this year with Mengden, but he has definitely not been anywhere near the same pitcher. He lasted 6 innings against Kentucky and gave up 4 runs - 3 earned - on 9 hits and a walk with 5 strikeouts. The Aggies have yet to win an SEC game that Mengden has started this season, but they badly need to end that trend if they want to make an actual postseason run.
Mitchell, a junior from Smyrna, TN, has been mostly excellent for the Bulldogs this season and comes into this series against A&M on the heels of a complete game victory last weekend. Mitchell went the full 9 innings against Missouri, giving up 2 runs on 7 hits and 2 walks while striking out 3. That was his third complete game of the season, and he has pitched 2 shutouts as well. The southpaw nearly through another complete game in his previous start, but things did not go quite as well in that one on Friday against Ole Miss, as he allowed 6 runs on 13 hits and 2 walks in 8.2 innings of work.
Sunday (2:15pm CT - FSN)
RHP Grayson Long (5-1, 2.44, 1.28, 42 K, 16 BB)
Grayson Long had arguably his best start of the season to salvage a win against Kentucky last Sunday, which was important considering A&M cannot afford to be swept by anyone the rest of the year. Long worked 8 innings against the Wildcats and allowed just 2 runs on 8 hits and a walk and also struck out 8 batters. The Wildcats got on the board early with a run in the first inning, but Long would settle down extremely well and dominate a Kentucky lineup that had hit the ball very well in the first two games at Olsen Field.
The Bulldogs have left the final game of the series as TBA for now, likely depending on the status of sophomore RHP Preston Brown (3-1, 1.95). Some shoulder soreness has kept Brown off the mound since nearly a month ago against Arkansas, but he has the second-lowest ERA of all Bulldog pitchers and having him back this weekend would certainly be a plus for MSU. The other option is probably RHP Brandon Woodruff (1-2, 6.46) who started last Sunday against Missouri and allowed 5 runs on 7 hits in 4.1 innings of work.
What to Watch
The Bulldogs and Aggies are not too dissimilar as far as statistics are concerned, both in terms of hitting and pitching. Mississippi State has been a bit offensively challenged at times, and they've scored 35 fewer runs than the Aggies have. They are not a team that is going to hit for much power at all, and no one player on their roster really stands out as someone who can go up and smash the ball - with the exception of 1B Wes Rea who has had his share of struggles this season. Rea does lead the Bulldogs in RBI so far this season with 28, but he also has the most strikeouts on the team at 39. LF Derrick Armstrong is a major threat on the base paths (13 stolen bases), and he also leads the team in batting average (.337). 2B Brett Pirtle has the most hits (52) and total bases (62) of all Bulldogs' hitters and has scored the second most runs (23). Here's how the 2 teams' hitting numbers compare.
As mentioned, the pitching statistics aren't all that different between the 2 teams this season either. In fact, they are really extremely similar in terms of numbers, but Mississippi State has leaned on their bullpen pretty heavily. Keep an eye first and foremost on LHP Jacob Lindgren (3-0, 1.50) who has an impressive 57 strikeouts in just 30 innings of work and is allowing opponents to hit just .143. RHP Ben Bracewell (3-3, 2.61) is another likely option out of the 'pen for the Bulldogs, and closer RHP Jonathan Holder (4-1, 3.00) has picked up 4 saves on the season despite not being quite as dominant as he was last season.
Here is my best guess at the lineup that the Bulldogs will feature this weekend.
With the exception of the rather surprising series win over Vanderbilt in Nashville, the Aggies have not been a particularly good team on the road this season. They did pick up a big midweek win on the road against Rice (although Reckling Park had a good deal of maroon throughout the stands), but Mississippi State is a talented and dangerous team. The Bulldogs came into the season highly ranked and had some serious struggles early in the year, but they appear to have righted the ship and look to continue to do so this weekend.
The series probably hinges on the nationally televised series opener, with true freshman Tyler Stubblefield having a huge opportunity to cement a spot back in the rotation and get the Aggies started with a big victory. If A&M is able to do damage against Fitts early on, I fully expect Cohen to lean on the bullpen and try to grind out a victory.
This should be a pretty closely contested series between what appear to be two rather evenly matched teams on paper, but I think the Bulldogs have enough talented pitching options to take the series from A&M. I expect the Bulldogs to win the first 2 games, and A&M to grab the Sunday game yet again. For the sake of making it back to the postseason, though, the Aggies need to prove me wrong.