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Monday Morning Coffee Break

<img src="http://www.genespage.com/images/01columnists/gswindoll.jpg" align="left" width="120" height="161"> [Premium Article] Baseball and Basketball.

Holy Cow! as the late major league baseball announcer Harry Carey used to say. Those two words come to mind when I ask myself are these Diamond Dogs for real? With almost half of the regular season over with and 22 victories in 26 games, I would have to answer yes.

With a start (22-3-1) that ranks as the third best in school history - only the 1970 (27-3) and 1979 (29-3) seasons started off better - these baseball Bulldogs are showing that they could wind up being ranked with the best teams in school history and that is, as we all know, saying a lot.

And this team is not just doing it with good hitting or good pitching.

Mississippi State, under the guidance of Ron Polk, has had great teams. However, almost all of his greatest teams have done it with great hitting and, on occasion, solid, but not deep, pitching.

This year's team is different; it is not only playing exceptionally well in all three phases of the game - hitting, pitching and defense - but it has depth at all three.

The team's batting average is .316. That average, if it remains at that level throughout the season, would be the 7th best since 1976. And it's not a Thunder and Lightning two-man show as it was for the 1985 team with Palmeiro and Clark. There are hitters, galore.

Individually, 11 players have started 12 or more games. Of those 11, seven are hitting .320 or better. To go into even more detail, five of the seven are hitting at a .350 or better clip. If you add Jeff Butts in the mix - Butts has batted 24 times, almost one at bat per games played - you would have 8 of 12 hitting .320 or better.

About the only weakness I see in this team's hitting armor is home runs, or lack thereof. So far this season, only 26 home runs have been hit. Over a course of a season, that would project to about 65. Not great, but then the 1985 team, with Palmeiro and Clark, only hit 74 and the 1990 team hit 53. Both of those teams won 50 games. So homers aren't a requirement of greatness.

And lest I forget, this team is doing something that no MSU team has done that well the past 12 years: Steal bases. So far this season, 37 bases have been stolen. Over the course of the season, that projects to about 90, which would be the best since 1990 (98).

Ok, we now know this team has the hitting. What about pitching, you ask?

The three SEC starting pitchers are a combined 11-1 with an earned run average of 1.80. Junior Paul Maholm is 4-1 with an ERA of 1.50, while sophomore Alan Johnson is 4-0, 1.82 and redshirt sophomore Todd Nicholas is 3-0, 2.20.

And unlike Bulldogs teams of the past, this staff is so deep the SEC starters don't have to pitch during the week. Junior Jeff Lacher (3-0, 3.43, 3 starts) and freshman Brad Corley (0-0, 3.79, 4 starts) take care of the mid-week duty.

Wonder about the bullpen? Solid there, even to the point of possibly being the best in school history. You have relief ace junior RHP Jonathan Papelbon with a 4-0 W-L record and 2 saves and an ERA of 0.42. In 21.2 innings, he has given up 16 hits, 7 walks and struck out 29. And he's not alone in the pen. State has a righty-righty-lefty combination of redshirt sophomore Saunders Ramsey (0-1, 2.19, 12.1 IP, 6 H, 6 BB, 17 SO), redshirt freshman Jamie Gant (1-0, 0.00, 9.2 IP, 9 H, 4 BB, 8 SO) and senior Brian Owens (1-0, 0.00, 6.2 IP, 2 H, 5 BB, 5 SO) that allows Papelbon to keep from being overused. Then, there's junior Robby Goodson, true freshman Brooks Dunn, and senior Jacob Blakeney to help out in SEC play and mid-week games when necessary.

Hitting, pitching? MSU's got 'em. What about defense? Spectacular is the word that comes to mind. Why, you ask?

.975 fielding percentage says it best. And this is not one of those percentages that is disguised due to having fielders that have limited range and can't get to balls that only the great defensive players can reach.

Senior shortstop Matthew Maniscalco, currently the closest thing to the Ozzie Smith show in college baseball, makes outstanding plays look common place due to his outstanding range and arm. Junior Steve Gendron, moved from right field back to third base before the season started, is setting a new standard for past and future MSU third basemen with his quickness in getting to the ball and his strong, accurate arm. At first base, junior Matthew Brinson, while at first glance doe not appear to be the fastest first baseman around because of his size, has made great improvement in that area during his career at State and is now one of the fastest players on the team. With that improvement in speed, his defensive ability, which has always been very good, has continued to improve and he now makes all the plays around first look routine, whether they are routine or difficult, and uses his height to grab balls most other first basemen can't snag. The only weak link in the infield is at second base where catcher-turned-second baseman Thomas Berkery and shortstop-turned-second baseman Tyler Scarbrough share duty. Having never played second base before, both are adequate defensively.

Speaking of catcher, add the ingredients of solid feet, excellent confidence and an arm that could be the best in MSU baseball history and you get a young redshirt freshman by the name of Craig Tatum. And he is backed up by J. B. Tucker, a redshirt sophomore that continues to improve daily. Through the first 26 games, neither one has made an error behind the plate. And to show you the respect that their arms have earned, especially Tatum's, teams have attempted to steal 15 times. While 11 of those steal attempts have been successful, 15 attempts in 26 games shows the respect teams have for the arm prowess of the MSU catchers. Oh yeah, combined, the dynamite duo of T-and-T are hitting at a .363 clip. You couldn't, on your best day, daydream a better catcher combination. Just ask Ole Miss. Tatum, with his hits during this past weekend's MSU-Ole Miss three-game series, knocked in as many runs as their whole team.

Now, about that outfield. Redshirt sophomore Jon Mungle in left, true freshman Joseph Hunter in center and true freshman Brad Corley in right. Mungle and Hunter have speed to burn while Hunter and Corley have two of the strongest outfield arms in school history. Hunter probably has the best combination of speed, natural instinct and arm strength of the three. Because of that, he could wind up going down in school history as the best defensive centerfielder to ever play at MSU.

What's left? Coaching, of course. Ron Polk. Need I say more?

Add all of the above together and you have the potential of true greatness.

Of course, as Coach Polk says during his postgame shows, the season is young and there are many challenges ahead. But at least those challenges will be faced with both guns loaded with some of the best ammunition in school history.

See you at the ball park.


A look back at highlights of the MSU women's basketball season.

Regular Season:

  • MSU finished this season 24-8, tying the best record in history with the 1999-2000 season.
  • MSU had the best SEC finish in history this season with a tie for third place standing and 10-4 SEC mark.
  • MSU began the season in the preseason WNIT Tournament. The Lady Bulldogs advanced to the semifinals, falling to Penn State on its homecourt, 82-66, in only the third game of the season.
  • They finished up non-conference play 13-3, including top win over Illinois, 72-67, that was without senior All-American LaToya Thomas. Thomas missed her first game of her career to attend the funeral for her sister and nephew.
  • Coach Fanning earned her 450th career win with the (No. 14) Vanderbilt win, 78-75. Thomas surpassed 2,500 career points during that game.
  • Other big conference wins for MSU came towards the end of the season with the first ever win at No. 14 Arkansas, 72-59, and then defeat in Starkville over No. 14 Georgia, 76-71, extending the Lady Bulldogs homecourt record to 12-1. MSU finished the regular season with the best regular season record in women's basketball history of 22-6. MSU had finished 20-6 in the 1999-2000 regular season.
  • MSU was 5-6 this season versus Top 25 teams.
  • LaToya Thomas was named the SEC Player of the Year, AP SEC Player of the Year, and was named to the All-SEC First Team by both the coaches and media. Thomas has also been awarded the 2003 Mississippi Amateur Athlete of the Year by the Jackson Touchdown Club. She has been named a United States Basketball Writers Association All-American and Kodak/WBCA Region 3 All-America. Tan White was named to the All-SEC First Team and AP All-SEC First Team. Head coach Sharon Fanning is a Naismith Coach of the Year Finalist.
  • Fifth consecutive winning season under Coach Fanning.

    SEC Tournament Results:

  • The Lady Bulldogs earned a first round by in the SEC Tournament for the first time in school history.
  • MSU was the only school in the SEC to receive first round byes for both its men's and women's basketball teams in the conference tournament.
  • MSU defeated South Carolina in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament, 79-75. LaToya Thomas moved into first place on the SEC Individual Career Free Throws Made chart (701). MSU advanced to the semifinals for the second time in school history. The Lady Bulldogs were riding a seven-game winning streak before falling to No. 3 Tennessee on a last second shot by Kara Lawson, 76-75. Thomas moved into second place on the SEC Individual Career Scorer's chart with her 34 points versus UT (2,930).
  • Freshman Blessing Chekwa went down in the first half of the UT game with a knee injury that later was diagnosed as a torn ACL. She started in 27 of 29 games played and was averaging 6.0 ppg and 4.4 rpg at the time of the injury.

    NCAA Tournament Results:

  • MSU experienced its fourth NCAA Tournament appearance in MSU women's basketball history, all under the tutelage of head coach Sharon Fanning. This year the 3-seeded Lady Bulldogs defeated 14 seed Manhattan, 73-47, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Albuquerque, NM. MSU then fell to six seed New Mexico 73-61 on its homecourt in front of 16,214.
  • MSU is now 3-4 in overall tournament play.
  • This marks Coach Fanning's fifth overall trip to the NCAA Tournament. While head coach at Kentucky, she took the Wildcats to the first round in 1991.
  • With her 22 points versus Manhattan, Thomas moved into seventh place on the NCAA Career Scoring list now with 2,981 career points.
  • MSU was just one of two schools in the league (LSU) to play in both the men's and women's NCAA basketball tournaments.

    That does it for this Monday.

    Have a great Bulldog week!

    Gene Swindoll

    Gene Swindoll is the owner of Gene's Page, the unofficial source for Mississippi State sports on the internet. The URL for Gene's Page is http://mississippistate.theinsiders.com. You can contact him by emailing swindoll@genespage.com.

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