Dogs Control SEC, NCAA Fate In Final Week

John Cohen was hearing his ‘experts', they being publicist Joe Dier and broadcaster Jim Ellis, run down various last-series scenarios for the SEC's Western Division title. "Just listening to them explain it gives me a headache!" he admitted. Fortunately the coach has a simple formula for this week. "Thank goodness everything is in our hands. If we take care of business nothing else matters."

Not only that, but Mississippi State (32-19, 13-14 SEC) enters the 2011's final scheduled week with everything still to play for. After a successful series at Ole Miss, and thanks to a May winning streak, the Diamond Dogs really do control their destiny. Not just for the regular season, but the post-season as well.

And both are on MSU minds today.

"There's still the opportunity to get to Hoover," said Cohen this morning. "And an opportunity to win a portion of the SEC in the West, just some kind of title in our league for the first time since 1989." Indeed it has been 22 seasons since Mississippi State scored a regular-season SEC championship, though Bulldog teams did take conference tournament titles in 1990 (shared with LSU), 2001 and '05. For that matter MSU has not won a SEC Divisional title under the modern format begun with 1992's league expansion.

It's a fact Cohen takes rather personally, too, since he was an outfielder on that '89 State squad. And by sheer coincidence, the arch-rival of that era is also who will be coming to Dudy Noble Field this weekend as the Bulldogs host Louisiana State. But Cohen won't wear his team out talking history; he wants these Bulldogs to make some of their own and take Mississippi State back to the post-season for the first time since 2007.

Or rather, for the first time for any of these players. "So much at stake for our team, they're so aware of it," Cohen said. "I hope they didn't sit in their room going over very possibility!" Though the coach knows better.

Because by now Bulldog players, coaches, and fans have shredded through all sorts of scenarios for how the four-team tie atop the West will break down. Taking two-of-three wins at Oxford, and outcomes of other series, mean State enters week-ten deadlocked with Alabama, Auburn, and Arkansas at 13 SEC wins apiece. The combined records of these four foes favors Alabama and MSU for the moment, with the Crimson Tide taking the final tie-break.

But this merely sets the stage for the climactic concluding weekend; and by unlikely luck none of the four play each other. So it is possible some, even all these ties could stand come Saturday evening and there be four West champions in 2011. Not co-champions, as there is no such thing in SEC calculations, and the league would have to pay for four Division trophies.

Such an outcome would be historically interesting, but the true impact would be keeping that quartet in the SEC's tournament field. Four East teams are already locks for Hoover, and two ruled out entirely. This also means four West teams will join the field…but which four? Because in a further intense twist, not one of the tied quartet is assured a spot either! Stumbles in this last series can knock any two of the four out of the SEC Tournament.

So, as Cohen has told his club today, there is business to finish. "I know we have to win baseball games and that's what matters to us."

In fact, the Bulldogs can't afford to think ahead to the LSU series just yet. There is another Tiger team to take care of first as MSU visits Memphis (27-23) for a 6:30 Tuesday contest in AutoZone Park. Cohen has some concerns about this matchup, as Coach Daron Schoenrock's squad has played and won quality out-of-conference games so far this season and tripped-up the CUSA leaders as well. Kendall Graveman (5-0, 3.51) will get the usual Tuesday start, and as much as Cohen would like to save arms for SEC action he also knows how much this game matters in NCAA tournament bidding and seeding.

Plus, there is no shortage of examples this SEC season of league teams taking their lumps in non-conference competition. Cohen will remind the Bulldogs of this, then rely on upperclassmen to keep the club on track Tuesday. Yes, the coach said, the LSU series looms large in everyone's thoughts right now.

"But we have some older kids and they have the ability to focus at a different level. It's great when a coaching staff gives the great speeches and motivates the kids. What is critical is having older kids that lead by example on the field. As a player that's what helped me the most and now as a coach I know that to be the truth."

What ought also to help keep State focused is how the Ole Miss trip ended. The Bulldogs earned the right to bark a bit taking that series with gutty 7-6 and 7-4 victories. Combined with the 6-1 Governor's Cub win, it meant a season ‘sweep' of the Rebels; and in the larger sense a sports year domination of the annual rivalry overall after football and basketball successes. Certainly the Diamond Dogs were openly proud of doing their part.

"I think any coach in our league would say they usually feel good about winning two of three on the road," Cohen agreed. "But it seems the last game you play is the one that stick with you." That was a 12-3 loss after the Rebels scored six first-inning runs to salvage something from the series, and keep themselves in SEC Tournament contention. A trip to Arkansas though means 12-15 Ole Miss needs help, such as State keeping them in front of 11-16 LSU.

Regardless, Cohen said today his team needs "a good case of amnesia" to move forward. "Overall it was a god weekend for us. We need to get ready to go to Memphis and have some good success. And, eat some good barbecue after that game thanks to our alumni."

Bulldogs were dining high on the hog during their eight-game win streak, including six SEC victories, which put them in far stronger post-season position. As noted previously, no current player has played in either a SEC or NCAA tournament. In fact it's been noted too often of late, so this week—all four games—matters greatly to a group of upperclassmen intent on tournament experiences. "It means the world to them," Cohen said.

"The things I've heard our older kids say, the Freemans, the Collins, things like they're sick of talk. It's been a lot of talk since they've been here, players saying things. Our older kids aren't just saying things, they're doing things and leading by example."

Seniors, whether of the two- or three- or four-year variety, have been setting State's pace down the stretch on offense and defense. Though he went 1-of-11 at Ole Miss and had his 21-game hitting streak snapped, 3B Jarrod Parks continues to pace the SEC in hitting at .396. And, in on-base average, which he maintained in the Ole Miss series by walking or just getting plunked. Again.

"When you can say a guy didn't have a good day, and he's on base .500 of the time, that's a good hitter!" Cohen noted. "I just am such a huge fan of Jarrod. There are still a lot of big hits he's going to get this season." State's big stick in Oxford, somewhat surprisingly, was SS Jonathan Ogden with a 5-of-10 weekend, five runs, and a Saturday home run. It was his team-leading eighth shot of the senior season, and came in spite of Ogden's ongoing battles with an abdomen muscle pull. Ogden also made all the plays in the infield…and Dog defense was decisive in both victories.

State also won those games with trademark small ball and aggressive baserunning. The latter was led again by 2B Nick Vickerson, who added a couple more straight steals to his season total. His 25 thefts, in 28 tries, are tied for fifth-most in any Bulldog season ever. Run-and-hitting, done best with Vickerson and OF Jaron Shepherd, pressured the Rebel defense into game-changing mistakes, too.

On the mound, reliever Caleb Reed added two saves to his total and with 11 has the fourth-most ever for a State season. There were ‘quality starts' as well from lefties Luis Pollorena and Nick Routt. The lone letdown was a short and struggling start from righty Chris Stratton, who was obviously off his game from the first of the ten batters he faced Saturday evening. Coming after an impressive, and efficient, winning effort the previous Sunday at Tennessee, this sort of outing was an unexpected surprise.

"I think there's several things," Cohen said. "I don't think he pitched well, I don't think he felt well. And he was facing six left-handed hitters in their lineup, so I don't think it was a great matchup for him." Though as Cohen added, when on his game Stratton has had success against lefties and righties alike.

At the same time Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson are going to be watching Stratton very closely during his scripted workouts this week. This can decide whether another change in the SEC rotation is needed. "We will definitely go the same way Thursday-Friday," Cohen said of Pollorena/Routt. "Then we'll see how it goes, that's our plan as of right now.

"And we need to see how Chris bounces back, he was a little sore going into that game I found out." Not sore from over-work at Tennessee, of course. Stratton threw just 5.2 innings there, and for that matter went just 4.0 innings the previous weekend against Alabama. He hasn't tossed more than seven inning since March. "I think it was just one of those days he wasn't ‘feeling it'," Cohen said of the last outing.

At the same time State feels confident the sophomore can return to prominence soon. Whether as a game-three starter or throwing right-handed situation relief in the first two games is the question this week, and Stratton has told his coaches he is willing to work out of the bullpen…something new for him as all of his 27 college appearances so far have been starts. Including, it must be remembered, his final opening of 2010 when Stratton went 7.0 scoreless innings with three hits to beat LSU in Baton Rouge.

"We have Chris' back," Cohen said today. "In that, we know how good he can be, how hard he works at it, how conscientious he is. The coaches are going to do whatever we can to get him going because he's a special kid. Whatever role we ask him to play to win a game, I know he'll do it. He might match up better with LSU than he did with Ole Miss, because they're so much more right-handed."

Speaking of Bulldog hands, that again is where Mississippi State's fate rests right now. So Cohen will listen to as much scenario-speak as anyone this week…but he knows what the formula is already. Keep winning, and keep playing.

"I think that's all we can ask for."

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