Post-Season Plans At Stake In Showdown Series

If SEC schedule makers meant to inject as much intensity as possible into a mid-May series, John Cohen says they succeeded by booking Mississippi State at Ole Miss this particular week. "No question our kids are very aware of everything that is at stake," he said today. "Of the fact that there is a nice rivalry between these schools. And very aware of the NCAA and SEC Tournament implications."

All sorts of implications, in fact, when this 2011 edition of the annual in-state feud play out in Oxford-University Stadium. Mississippi State (30-18) and Ole Miss (27-21) arrive with matching 11-13 SEC records. Though this means both, along with Auburn, are right on the heels of 12-12 Alabama and Arkansas and thus in short striking distance of the Western Division lead…it also leaves each too close to missing the SEC Tournament cut for any late-season comfort.

And, while based on latest projections either could still earn a NCAA Tournament bid even without Hoover credentials this year, that isn't a chance Cohen or Coach Mike Bianco want to take. The Bulldogs and Rebels thus both look to upgrade their post-season status and seeding based on this showdown series…and of course earn the annual bragging rights.

So, "I think our kid are really excited about he opportunity to go to Oxford and compete against a very, very good Ole Miss club," Cohen said. "You have to love the matchup. You have to love the opportunity to be on national TV." Game times are 6:36 Thursday for ESPNU telecast; then 7:06 both Friday and Saturday with SportSouth. This series was specifically moved up a day as part of ESPN's larger SEC broadcast contract. The next one, when State hosts LSU, is also Thursday-through-Saturday but as part of the regular last weekend scheduling by the conference begun five years ago.

Either way, Cohen said, "You get two weeks in a row of this schedule which is neat for us."

Scheduling is one thing; succeeding is another. So as the Diamond Dogs practice today the emphasis is on taking as much advantage of this week's opportunity as possible. State should have some good timing on their side thanks to the season-long six game winning streak, four of them SEC victories, they take into Thursday's opener. The Bulldogs kept winning Tuesday night with a 13-3 rout of Mississippi Valley State, a game that Cohen said filled the midweek bill to keep the offense sharp without using any more pitching than necessary.

It was also a good chance to rest, wholly or partially, a few gimpy Dogs. OF Brent Brownlee took the evening off for a knee still sore from a Sunday twisting at Tennessee. Brownlee successfully chased down a gap-ball for a single but has limped a little since. At least this latest injury doesn't seem as serious as Brownlee's previous, and long, list of ailments in three college seasons. "He's just had unbelievably bad luck!" Cohen said. Still the coach expect this Oxford native to play in his home town.

"Because of their left-handed pitching he's going to be a big factor. He keeps battling through it and we know how badly he wants to play." So does SS Jonathan Ogden, who put in a partial-game Tuesday as he copes with an ongoing abdominal muscle pull. State sat the starter in game-two at Knoxville in fact and won with frosh Adam Frazier in the field and at the plate.

Cohen won't commit, yet, to a two-on/one-off schedule for his senior shortstop. "A little of that will be the offensive matchup. Day to day we don't know how much pain he's in, at times he'll come up and say he's doing great, and times he says he's struggling. But we've got to manage that because if he's not at his best Frazier is a viable option, especially against right-handed pitching."

The Rebels have had their own injury issues down the SEC stretch. But they got well in a big way over the weekend by taking two-of-three from top-ranked and league-leading South Carolina, particularly by winning Sunday's nailbiter with a run in the ninth inning.

"I think they're feeling good about their club, and rightfully so," Cohen said.

Beyond the rivalry aspect, this year's series pits a pair of clubs with completely contrasting styles. Or at least, that is the popular impression; this week's SEC-only stats reflect surprisingly matched offenses. Through 24 league games each the Rebels bat at a .281 clip, State at .277. The Bulldogs are a bit better getting on-base, .356 to .348. Hits? 231 for Ole Miss, 228 for MSU. And in equal games so far the teams are only one at-bat apart. For the record they have absolutely equal fielding percentages, too.

The great difference is power where Ole Miss slugs the ball at a .425 rate, compared to just .375 by the Bulldogs; and in home runs it is nearly doubled, 26 to 14 in league play. Cohen tried at first this morning to downplay how much the separate ‘styles' vary—"I think it really depends on who is on the mound"—but followed by admitting these are offenses designed around opposing approaches.

"They're a more physical team than we are, we're built a little differently for our ballpark. No question they play very well at home, they're feeling like they're on a roll." A roll that began in game-two against the Gamecocks with a couple of early longballs as Ole Miss took the Saturday and Sunday contests. "It seems the Ole Miss club, at least this weekend, they rally around the home run," said Cohen. "And to beat them you have to eliminate the home run. It seems to ignite their offense."

The Bulldogs got a good look at how the Rebels swing their sticks back on April 19, when State took a 6-1 victory in the Governor's Cup. Even in batting practice Ole Miss was swinging for AA-sized fences, but they had to settle for just one extra-base hit (a triple) among their six safeties that night. State had a double and triple of their own but didn't swing upwards nearly so much in the professional park.

This series of course will be played in much, much cozier confines for the home team. State can't change its own offensive attitude for one weekend so Cohen says the pressure will be on pitchers…especially if the breeze happens to be blowing out at game time. "We'll have to be more aware, stay on the delivery and create a little more movement. Certainly, locating pitches down in the zone." The MSU coach can only wish the winds would blow inwards as happened in two of the Tennessee games, allowing Bulldogs to pitch more aggressively.

Mississippi State doesn't feature that sort of plate power—Ogden leads the lineup with seven home runs, though in the last two series 2B Nick Vickerson and OF Jaron Shepherd have knocked some balls out as well. By the same token the Rebels don't have a hitter as hot as 3B Jarrod Parks. The senior extended his hitting streak to 21 games last night, and he continues to lead the SEC in both average (.418 now after a 1-of-3 evening against Valley) and on-base average (.570). In fact Parks' knack for reaching base the last few weeks has been nigh-ridiculous. Not only does he hit his way on, he gets hit (16 times) or works a walk (34 and counting).

State's running game has found a higher gear as well, led by Vickerson. He is 24-of-27 in steal attempts this year and has the ninth-most thefts for a season in MSU records already.

MSU has set the same rotation as last weekend for this series. Lefthanders Luis Pollorena (6-3, 2.61) and Nick Routt (1-2, 3.66) will throw Thursday and Friday, with righty Chris Stratton (5-5, 4.84) for Saturday.

The Governor's Cup win does not count towards any SEC standings, but it was a boost to Bulldog confidence as well as the team's power-rating and schedule strength in NCAA terms. Those RPI and SOS figures loom larger for everyone heading into the last two SEC series, especially so in this frantic Western Division race. While today most numbers are positive for State's post-season case, Cohen said the players know how narrow the margins remain.

"Our kids are very, very aware of what is at stake," he said. "And every one of those kids desperately wants to get to Hover and get to NCAA play." That desire burns brightest in a class of seniors who have yet to put a college cleat on Regions Park. But then no current Bulldog has ever played a SEC Tournament game (State last appeared in Hoover in 2007 and was 0-and-2), so the ambition runs across this whole roster.

"This group of older kids and seniors said we've got to do this," said Cohen. "This is something we have to do. And they've done a tremendous job. Sometimes they put a little too much pressure on themselves, but they understand when they step on the field—including last night—what is at stake."

State was to wrap up Wednesday practice around 1:00 with a weights session to follow.

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