Bulldogs Back On Track?

FAYETTEVILLE -- Nothing could stop Mississippi State the first month of the season.

The Bulldogs were 18-0, their best start ever, and No. 1 in the nation. In that 18th game, they hammered out 18 hits to blow out LSU 11-1 in Baton Rougue, La.

Everything was going their way. Grounders were finding their way through the infield and pitchers were performing at higher levels than expected.

But since that LSU game on March 24, Mississippi State (28-9, 7-7 Southeastern Conference) has lost 9 of its last 19 games and slipped to No. 17 heading into this weekend's series against Arkansas (28-11, 8-7), which begins at 6:30 p.m. today at Dudy Noble Field.

MSU coach Ron Polk, who is coaching in his 27th year, isn't surprised by the recent slide. The Bulldogs continue to fight through injuries and 12 of the past 15 games have been on the road or at neutral sites.

"I knew there would be a bump in the road," Polk said. "I've never had a team go undefeated. Then we started playing better people and we've been on the road for the last two weeks. Now, we're home and I think we're 18-2 at home. The road is tough, especially in the SEC and we've got to get healthy."

They actually are closer to 100 percent healthy than they have been in recent weeks. First baseman Brad Jones is coming off a solid outing this week after suffering from tendentious in his wrist. Outfielder Brian LaNinfa, who Polk said is the team's hottest hitter, is nagged by a sore hamstring, but will play. Third baseman Michael Rutledge has a severely bruised hand and relief pitcher Matt Lea left Tuesday's game at Memphis in the second inning with discomfort in his shoulder. Lea and outfielder Andy Rice, who recently had surgery for a torn labrum, are the only players questionable for this weekend's series.

Polk said the 18-0 start was somewhat deceiving considering the opposition. During the streak, they beat teams like Marist College, Arkansas State, Jacksonville State and Alabama-Birmingham. The most impressive wins would appear to be a three-game sweep against Arizona, but Polk said that isn't the case.

"I'm not down on the opponents, but most of those opponents were .500 clubs or below .500 clubs," Polk said. "Like even (Arizona), a normal perennial power, is struggling right now because of young players, so I don't know if we were that good when we were 18-0."

Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn isn't buying it. He believes the Bulldogs are one of the best teams in the SEC and maybe on their way back up after winning two games at Memphis this week.

The Hogs will start sophomore left-hander Nick Schmidt (6-2, 2.27) against MSU senior left-hander Brooks Dunn (6-2, 3.96) tonight. Schmidt should have his hands full against an offense that's third in the league with a .306 batting average and second with a .402 on-base percentage.

"If you can hit .300 in this league, you're hitting the ball pretty well," Van Horn said. "I think they're back on track. They beat Memphis twice in the middle of the week, so I don't think anything other than a great effort is what we're going to see."

While the offense has been solid, MSU's starting pitching has been shaky at times. Dunn was beaten at Auburn a week ago while Saturday and Sunday starters Josh Johnson and John Lalor each have lost their last two decisions.

"All three of our pitchers that are starting this year never pitched as a starter in the SEC," Polk said. "We talk about this being a veteran club and it is position player-wise. All three of these (pitchers) we're on the team last year. They're experienced, but they've never pitched in that role in the SEC, so they've had good days and just average days like everybody does."

Arkansas has solidified its rotation for the first time this season. After Schmidt, it will go with senior Trey Holloway on Saturday and sophomore Shaun Seibert on Sunday.

It will be Van Horn's second trip to Mississippi State as a head coach. Two years ago, the Razorbacks lost the first two games of the series before rallying to win the finale 4-2.

"We left there 1-2 and felt like we won the series with the way we come back and won it because we were trying to win a championship at the time," Van Horn said. "It was tough down there, but we were in every game. And we've been in every game this year. You look at some of the scores and there's some teams getting whipped every now and then on Sundays. It seems like we hang around somehow, someway and I think that's a credit to our team.

"We might not win them all, but we usually have a chance."

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