STARKVILLE, Miss. - Mississippi State head baseball coach John Cohen can't hide the excitement about his pitching staff this season.
The Bulldogs return 12 pitchers off last year's squad that lost to Florida in hotly-contested three-game NCAA Super Regional in Gainesville. Of the 12 returning arms, seven logged more than 50 innings for the Bulldogs in 2011.
But that is not what has Cohen raving about his 2012 pitching staff. The fourth-year Mississippi State head coach is most excited to have Ben Bracewell return to the mound this season. The junior missed the entire season last year following shoulder surgery. Bracewell recorded four saves in 17 relief appearances in 2010. He recorded 23 strikeouts in 18 innings.
"I think one of the biggest additions to our pitching staff is kid that did not pitch for us last year Ben Bracewell," Cohen said. "I really feel like we had a chance not only to get to Omaha but do some damage in Omaha if we had Ben Bracewell on our club.
"I think Ben's going to be one of those weekend guys and just an unbelievable competitor. He reminds me a little bit of Jeff Brantley in personality and similar type body. He has a power breaking ball, can get to both sides of the plate with his fastball, has a good change up and really fields his position well. I think he is a weekend guy."
Bracewell will anchor an already deep pitching staff that returns senior right-hander Caleb Reeb, junior right-hander Kendall Graveman, junior left-hander Nick Routt, junior left-hander Luis Pollerena, sophomore right-hander Evan Mitchell and junior right-hander Chris Stratton, who all logged more than 50 innings last season.
"I think it certainly is, and not even close, the deepest pitching staff we have had since I've been here," Cohen added. "In order to be competitive in this league you've got to be good on the mound and think we have that opportunity."
Sophomore right-hander Taylor Stark, sophomore left-hander C.T. Bradford, junior right-hander Andrew Busby and senior left-hander Tim Statz will be joined by a quartet of freshmen to give Cohen a good mix on the mound, including right-handers Will Cox, Trevor Fitts and Brandon Woodruff, and left-hander Jacob Lindgren.
"I have not mentioned our freshman yet and we are certainly pleased with those guys as well," Cohen said. "We feel like all of these guys can contribute and add depth to an already pretty good pitching staff."
While the pitching staff has depth and experience, the MSU offense is just the opposite. The Bulldogs return only two everyday players from last year's 38-win club that won the NCAA Atlanta Regional.
Sophomore center fielder C.T. Bradford and senior left fielder Brent Brownlee combined for 100 starts last year. Bradford, hit .303 with 12 doubles and 34 RBI, is expected to hit leadoff this season. He also added 11 stolen bases. Brownlee hit .279 with one home run and 24 RBI. Both will be key cogs in MSU's young lineup this season.
"C.T. Bradford is a guy that played every day as a freshman," Cohen said. "He is just an outstanding player. He is a great kid, a great player and a great leader. He will pitch some for us. He is a great defender, a great leadoff guy and runs very well.
"Brownlee is somebody if we can keep him healthy is one of the best defensive outfielders in the SEC," Cohen added. "He got some huge hits for us down the stretch last year. He has great arm strength and can run. I think he has turned the corner offensively as well."
Sophomore Hunter Renfroe, freshman Tyler Fullerton and Stark will also battle for time in the outfield. Renfore, who can also play first base and catch, is a power hitting right-hander. Fullerton and Stark both possess speed. All three have very good arms.
The Bulldogs will replace all four infielders from last year.
Redshirt freshman Wes Rea, junior college transfer Trey Porter and Renfroe will compete for the job at first base. Rea is 6-6, 290 and was considered one of the state of Mississippi's top offensive linemen in football. He has tremendous power and gives the Bulldogs a big target at first base. Porter is left-hander with power.
MSU will look to sophomore Adam Frazier, junior Sam Frost and freshman Matthew Britton to compete for the middle infield spots. According to Cohen, Frazier had an excellent summer in California and with his experience he can play both second base and shortstop. Frost is an excellent defender who can handle the load at second base, while Britton has good range and a strong arm that allows him to play shortstop.
Redshirt freshman Demarcus Henderson, sophomore Darryl Norris, redshirt freshman Brayden Jones and freshman Nick Flair will battle for third base job. Flair is a physical player, but has been hampered by a wrist injury.
"So that is our infield," Cohen said. "All those guys are new, but it's a super talented group. We really think there is some competitiveness in the middle of the infield."
Junior college transfers Mitch Slauter and Nick Ammirati will battle for the starting catching spot, along with Renfroe.
"We brought in junior college Mitch Slauter, who we are very excited about," Cohen said. "He is a very physical young man, who can hit. He has a great presence behind the plate, very mature and a great leader, but it's difficult when you have never played one inning in this league to step in and get it done. He will have a learning curve, but we are hopeful in the first 15 games to turn over some duties to him so far as calling pitches.
"Nick Ammirite is a guy we brought in as a junior college player, who we fell like can catch. He is switch hitter, a great leader and might be the best thrower out of all three of those guys."
With the depth on the mound and some talented newcomers, Cohen says he is as excited about this season as any other at Miss. State.
"I am excited because I think we have the right players, now we don't have the right experience level yet, especially position player-wise, but we have the right players in our program," he added. "I love the talent, the maturity and the work ethic of this group."