Big Series Upon Us

It's early, but the biggest baseball series of the year in Tuscaloosa is finally here, as 16th-ranked Alabama (20-8 overall, 5-1 SEC) number one Mississippi State Bulldogs (21-1 overall, 4-1 SEC) in a battle for the upper hand in the Southeastern Conference Western Division.

Alabama owns a half game lead over Mississippi State in the division race, and is tied with number five South Carolina (23-3, 5-1 SEC) and No. 17 Vanderbilt (17-8, 5-1 SEC) for the overall lead in the SEC standings after two weekends of play.

Alabama moved into the rankings as high as number 16 this week. Mississippi State has been ranked at or among the top teams in the country all season.

"Everybody likes being ranked in the top 25 so we had to prove it to them we deserve to be up there in the end of the year," Alabama catcher and leading power hitter Kody Valverde said.

Alabama swept Mississippi in a tough three-game set last week at The Joe. The Tide won easily Friday night, but needed a ninth-inning run to tie the game (after an Ole Miss grand slam) and a run in the 10th to get the win. On Sunday, Evan Bush got a big hit to blow the game open in late innings.

"We're playing with a little more confidence, which took place probably a little bit last week and each of the games this weekend," Alabama Coach Jim Wells said. "It's kind of a new thing to us. Each game this series I thought added a part to our game that hopefully we can carry on. We have a little confidence and a little belief that you can come back."

First pitch for the Mississippi State series is set for 6:30 p.m. Central. Expected showers in the area could be a factor, but the teams would look toward a delayed start if weather becomes a factor. The two teams are scheduled to meet Saturday, April 1 at 3:07 p.m. and Sunday, April 2 at 2:07 p.m.

Wade LeBlanc will start for the Crimson Tide against Vestavia Hills natve Brooks Dunn. LeBlanc (5-0, 1.71 ERA) has started seven games, stacking up 55 strike outs and just nine walks. He has thrown two complete games this year.

"I'm having a good season so far," LeBlanc said. "I'm feeling good right now. I know my job is to come out and set the tone every Friday night. This of course is a big game but every team in the SEC has the potential to be the number one team in the nation."

"We're lucky because we have a lot of old guys and we're all aware of how long the season is. I think right now there's a lot more confidence in the clubhouse. The team as a whole knows what we can do and right now we're showing it."

Dunn is 5-0 with a 2.12 ERA. Both starters are southpaws. He has worked a team-high 34 innings this season and allowed 25 hits, 12 runs and eight earned runs, with nine walks and 23 strikeouts.

Mississippi State has won the last three series with Alabama, including a series sweep in Tuscaloosa in 2004 that eliminated the Crimson Tide from the SEC Tournament. The Bulldogs opened the season by winning their first 18 games and did lose until an 8-6 setback at 13th-ranked LSU on March 25. MSU has eight starters back from last year's NCAA Regional squad.

State owns the SEC's highest batting average (.315) and lowest ERA (2.41) this season. MSU averages 7.6 runs and 11 hits per game this season.

Senior co-captain Thomas Berkery headlines the MSU offense. He is batting .417 (35-for-84) with one home run and 14 RBI., and has a 19-game hitting streak.

Mississippi State Coach Ron Polk is the dean of SEC baseball coaches, and a legendary national-championship winner.

"He'll know every guy on our team. He'll have memorized the entire media guide and know their likes and dislikes and what hometown they're from," Wells said of Polk. " In fact he'll spend the entire pre-game in our dugout… and he usually poormouths his team and he won't be able to do that this year, so that will be a little different, but he's a great guy."

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