One of the early pace-setters in the power-laden Southeastern Conference, Mississippi State was idle during the midweek. However, the Dogs resume league play Friday in a Top 10 bout against division rival Auburn in a key three-game SEC series at Dudy Noble Field, Polk-DeMent Stadium."> One of the early pace-setters in the power-laden Southeastern Conference, Mississippi State was idle during the midweek. However, the Dogs resume league play Friday in a Top 10 bout against division rival Auburn in a key three-game SEC series at Dudy Noble Field, Polk-DeMent Stadium.">

No. 6 MSU Atop SEC as 'SBW' Approaches

Clinging to a narrow lead in the SEC pennant chase, Mississippi State's Diamond Dogs take a brief break before returning to action during a crowded but attractive "Super Bulldog Weekend" menu.<P> One of the early pace-setters in the power-laden Southeastern Conference, Mississippi State was idle during the midweek. However, the Dogs resume league play Friday in a Top 10 bout against division rival Auburn in a key three-game SEC series at Dudy Noble Field, Polk-DeMent Stadium.

No. 6 Mississippi State (24-5-1, 9-2) holds first place in the overall SEC standings a few percentage points ahead of LSU (21-10-1, 9-2-1) while No. 5 Auburn (27-7, 9-3) is one game off the pace in third place. The Bulldogs have an .818 winning percentage in league games to a .792 mark for the Bayou Bengals.

Mississippi State's Ron Polk, "Dean of the SEC Coaches," said while acknowledging a fast start in Starkville, that it's much too early to tell what's going to happen in the long run.

"There's still a lot of challenges ahead in the SEC," said Polk, of his Bulldogs who saw the deciding game of the Kentucky-Mississippi State series rained out with no makeup date provided.

Auburn coach Steve Renfroe's "red-hot" Tigers, one of the teams MSU is battling in the tight SEC race, is ranked ahead of the Bulldogs in Baseball America, while Polk's Dogs have the higher ranking in the Collegiate Baseball Poll. The series opener is set for 6:30 p.m. followed by Game 2 Saturday which is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. following the "Maroon and White" Spring Football Game at Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field. The Sunday finale is ticketed for 1:30 p.m.

The Bulldogs defeated Kentucky 8-1 in the series opener behind the pitching of junior lefthander Paul Maholm (5-1) and Saunders Ramsey, who closed out the game with two scoreless innings. The duo limited the Cats to three hits, all singles.

Mississippi State banged out 15 hits highlighted by sophomore left fielder Jon Mungle's 4-for-5 performance at the plate. Six Bulldogs had multiple hits - Matthew Maniscalco, Steve Gendron, Craig Tatum, Thomas Berkery, and Joseph Hunter had two hits each while first baseman Matthew Brinson drilled a two-run home run, his fifth of the season.

Kentucky (12-18, 1-10) evened the series with an 8-2 win in Game 2 with lefthander Heath Castle getting the decision with a complete-game seven-hitter.

Brinson and Tatum had two hits each while the Dogs' freshman redshirt DH/catcher from Hattiesburg, Miss., extended his career-best hitting streak to 12 games.

It was just a matter of time before Kentucky would get its first SEC win of the season. Unfortunately, for Mississippi State it came during the Cats' visit to Starkville.

"Kentucky made the plays," barked Polk, a veteran of many diamond encounters during what has become a decorated career for the SEC's winningest coach.

"It seemed like every time we hit the ball we hit it right at 'em. It also seemed like every time they got guys on base with two outs, they knocked 'em in. Keith Madison said they hadn't been doing that this year, and if they had been doing that, they would probably have a better record. There's no team in this league that you can say is not a good ball club," he added.

As a recent example, Polk noted the rapid turnaround two years ago by the Dogs' upcoming opponent, Auburn, which had gotten off to a slow start only to reverse the temporary skid and quickly get back into the race.

"They (Auburn) were something like 0-9 to start the season only to begin winning and keep winning, every SEC series," Polk said. "They went to the SEC Tournament and to the Regionals."

Ranked ahead of No. 6 Mississippi State in Baseball American at No. 5, and a couple of notches below the No. 7-ranked Diamond Dogs in the Collegiate Baseball Poll at No. 10, Auburn has won eight of its last 10 games as has MSU.

"It makes no difference in this league what records are," noted Polk. "Anybody can beat anybody on any given day."

Despite the setback to Kentucky, snapping an eight-game win streak within the conference, Mississippi State managed to maintain its first place standing in the hotly-contested SEC coupled with Saturday losses by LSU to South Carolina and a 3-2 loss by Auburn to Alabama as a ninth-inning rally by the Tigers fell one run short.

Auburn bounced back to win the rubber game against 'Bama with a come-from-behind, 7-6, triumph at Plainsmen Park highlighted by Bobby Huddleston three RBIs, including a two-run double that tied the game 6-6 in the seventh inning. Clete Thomas then beat out a potential inning-ending double play to bring across the decisive run. Levale Speigner (7-0) picked up the win.

Despite losing two games in a week for the first time this campaign - Mayor's Trophy Game to Ole Miss 5-1, and falling to Kentucky - Mississippi State is off to its best 30-game start since 1979. The '79 MSU edition under Polk opened the season 27-3.

Mississippi State has a lofty .316 team batting average and a 2.45 earned-run-average headed by Maholm (1.31), Todd Nicholas (3-0, 2.20) and Alan Johnson (4-1, 3.18). The Dogs' fielding percentage is .976.

Maniscalco paces the Bulldogs at the plate with a .378 batting average followed closely by Tatum with a .370 average. Mungle has a team-leading 26 RBI followed by Maniscalco and Brinson with 21 each. Mungle and Brinson are tied for the home run lead with five each while Maniscalco and Hunter have four each.

NOTES: The Western Division of the Southeastern Conference has dominated league play to date, wracking up a 47-23-1 record within the league. MSU (9-2), LSU (9-2-1), Auburn (9-3), Arkansas (7-5), Ole Miss (7-5) and Alabama (6-6). SEC East stands at 23-47-1 in conference games. Florida (5-6-1), Tennessee (5-7), S. Carolina (5-7), Vanderbilt (5-7), Georgia (2-10) and Kentucky (1-10). This week's SEC schedule: Auburn at Miss. State, Kentucky at Alabama, Ole Miss at LSU, Georgia at Tennessee, S. Carolina at Florida, and Vanderbilt at Arkansas.


Don Foster, a veteran newspaper writer who is the Sports Editor for the Starkville Daily News, writes a weekly article for Gene's Page. He can be reached by email at sdnsport@netdoor.com


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