Based on records alone, Bama fans have a right to feel good. Alabama finished up 44-12, 20-10 in the SEC to take the Western Division crown. While State stands at 33-22-1, 14-15 in conference, and finished fourth in the West.
But led by veteran Coach Ron Polk, Mississippi State is on a roll. Having swept in-state rival Ole Miss this past weekend to earn their way into the tournament, the baseball Bulldogs are riding high. "We had a championship environment in here this past weekend," Pope said. "It was like playing in a regional tournament and going to Omaha if you win, because our backs were against the wall."
Faced with sitting home at tournament time, Polk's team buried a good Ole Miss team 12-2, 14-5 and 10-5 to sweep the series. "They were great wins for our kids," Polk said. "We played well. We swung the bats very well and played defense. We came out and won all three. We hadn't swept anybody all year. It was good to sweep at the end."
Alabama was involved in a sweep of its own last weekend. But unfortunately for Tide fans, it was of the negative variety as LSU took all three games in Baton Rouge. "The road is tough in the SEC," Polk said. "For instance Alabama is 32-2 at home and 10-10 on the road. The road is tough. Thankfully we played at home.
"For that reason we're going to the SEC tournament, and our kids are excited about it."
For Alabama fans at least, it should be good news that the tournament is being played at the Hoover Met in Birmingham. But Polk doesn't think location will play a role in the outcome. He explained, "We're not playing at Alabama but we're playing real close in Hoover. I don't think it's a tremendous home-field advantage for Alabama, but they'll probably have a few more people than us. But we have to play a little bit harder, a little bit better than Alabama, because we're fighting for our lives."
Polk isn't just referring to the tournament, but the Bulldog coach is also looking beyond to a possible invitation to the NCAAs. "Alabama is in a regional already," he said. "In fact they'll probably end up hosting a regional. I feel like we need to at least win one (to get an NCAA invitation).
"But I've stopped trying to figure out what's going to happen when the NCAA gets involved in something."
Statistically, Alabama appears to have the edge. The Tide is fifth in the SEC in batting average at .312, while State is seventh at .304. Alabama leads the conference in Earned Run Average with an impressive 3.48 mark. MSU is tied for fourth with 4.19. The Bulldogs do have an edge in fielding percentage, ranked fourth in conference while the Tide is eighth.
In this week's tournament, eight teams made the field. South Carolina is seeded first, Bama 2nd, Florida third and LSU fourth. "There is a kind of wide variance between the top four and the bottom four," Polk said. "Nothing is given for the bottom four."
Polk believes the top four squads are all a lock for the NCAA tournament, but all bets are off the remaining teams. "I feel like eight teams should go each year," he related. "But unfortunately with NCAA being a politically correct organization they may not feel like that. But I think that all eight teams that get to the SEC tournament deserve to go to the next level."
Along with Alabama and MSU, Florida and Georgia make up the top bracket in the tournament. And of course Polk spent last season coaching the Georgia Bulldogs before returning to the more familiar surroundings of Starkville. "You just play whoever you have to play," Polk said. "It seems like I'm always being matched up against my brothers. But when the game starts you forget friendships. You do what you have to do.
"I'm just trying to hang tough and see if we can win a ball game or two."
When the two squads last met (May 10-12), the Tide ended up taking all three games, 9-5, 9-7 and 11-4. And the previous weekend a very good Florida club also swept Mississippi State. "We weren't cold, we just played two great ball clubs in Florida and Alabama," Polk said. "Those two squads will make a team cold in a hurry. They'll take you from the oven to the icebox. We weren't struggling so much. The other teams were a little bit better those weekends.
"But that's all behind us right now. We've got to do what we've got to do. Everybody starts off 0-0. We've got to go and tee it off."
Today's game is scheduled to start at 1 pm. The winner advances to a 5 pm game Thursday against the winner of Georgia/Florida. The loser will play the loser of Georgia/Florida at 10 am Thursday.
The tournament is double-elimination, except that Sunday's championship game will be decisive, regardless of the two teams' respective record entering the contest.
Tide Head Coach Jim Wells is expected to protect his main starting pitchers, in anticipation of NCAA tournament action. Sophomore Jared Woodward (6-1, 3.90 ERA) is considered the likely starter versus the Bulldogs.