A little intrasquad levity, particularly coming before a weight workout, is amusingly encouraging evidence of how much the Mississippi State mood has changed for the better. That's what a streak of May success will do for a team, especially as the Diamond Dogs race down the SEC season stretch. Call it serious fun.
"It's just crunch time," says Ogden, adding "It has been all year."
That's a fact, in general for a program trying to end a three-year postseason drought; and in particular for a bunch of Bulldog seniors yet to experience SEC or NCAA tournament play. Ogden, a second-year senior himself, speaks for classmates regarding this gap in their Mississippi State resumes.
"We've been talking about it a lot. Because it's exciting to go from where we were last year to all the success we've had this year, playing together."
That's not a joke at all. At 32-19 and 13-14 SEC, the Diamond Dogs have already scored a serious 2011 turnaround. Now this is their week to seal the postseason deals with a home-field series against Western Division foe LSU, an old foe with an even tougher tournament task in store. Not that State can take anything for granted yet in SEC Tournament terms either, of course.
For that matter Ogden and team have Tuesday night business as State takes on Memphis (27-23) at AutoZone Park. Coming smack in between the two biggest West weekends of the schedule, this road trip has its own risks to the team's possible NCAA seeding and site-ing status. The Bulldogs do know how well these non-conference Tigers played Rice over the past weekend so they've been alerted to the upset potential.
"It's going to be big for us, we need to continue our confidence," Ogden said. "And, continue this streak we've got going. Then, put that game behind us." And get ready for the Bayou Bengals.
State is already putting their most recent game behind them, a Saturday loss at Oxford which finally snapped their eight-game win streak. Disappointing, yes, but it didn't change the more important fact of another series win and six-straight SEC victories. For a ball club that suffered a painful double-header setback on the last day of April, the winning string that began May 1 is a case of good timing.
Or as Ogden says, everything seemed to change in that Sunday series-salvager.
"No doubt. We knew going into the series with Alabama we should have taken all three, but we swung the bat well and got it back in the final game, and played really well against South Alabama and Tennessee. We knew we needed to finish the season strong, and this is definitely what we needed to do."
Taking the Ole Miss series was a definite need, the key to most practical postseason options already and combined with other league scores opening the Dogs' door for something else. Though a game under .500 SEC-wise, that still has State in a four-way Division deadlock and two of the three tie-breaks even favor State. Equally, while just one more SEC win can—with some outside help--earn a berth at Hoover, the Bulldogs will assure this by taking two from LSU.
All of which adds up to, well, just another intense SEC weekend for a squad that has ridden lots of highs and lows over the season already. Nothing new, in other words.
What is a bit fresh lately is Ogden's resurgent offense. He set the batting pace for State in Oxford with a 5-of-10 series and scored five runs while driving in another. That RBI just happened to come on his club's only home run of the whole weekend, too. But then Ogden has been the unlikely longball leader all along, and now has eight shots for the season. His 35 RBI also top the team.
What matters more to Ogden though is raising his average to a more respectable .274 here in the final regular season month. Yes, he said, that is part of what he meant by 'crunch time'. No, he isn't sure why he's gotten hot here the last couple of series.
"I don't know. I saw the ball well this weekend, and I feel I'm getting back to where I need to be."
Observers can ask if sitting the starting shortstop twice in this stretch did him any good. But then that only reminds how Ogden is playing with a pulled abdominal muscle. Has been most of the season in fact, though he only let on to everyone this month. Then again, Ogden played his whole junior transfer year on a painful foot, a fact not revealed until summer surgery to fix a bone spur. No wonder Coach John Cohen ranks Ogden among the toughest guys he's ever coached in college.
Particularly because instead of resting on any injuries, Ogden says nothing and bears down that much more. "In some respect you have to back him down, he works too hard," Cohen said. "That is why we have so much belief in him."
Including at the plate. His senior average must be put in the perspective of Ogden batting .207 as a junior, .150 in SEC play…though he did knock six balls out of the parks. "I don't know if I've ever seen a young man improve as much offensively in one year as Oggie," Cohen said. Though the shortstop still fans a few times too many, "He's getting huge hits. And every bit of that is due to him putting hard work into his swing."
His fielding, too. It's just part of short-stopping that their errors are more numerous and more noticeable, and Ogden has had his share this season. What club and coaches count more on are the plays Ogden makes and the hits he's prevented this year. Then there is the added work he's devoted to defense…and not just Ogden, either. The entire infield has focused on fixing their fielding issues and the results these last three series are rewarding.
"Yeah, it's where we needed to be," Ogden said. "We know we've struggled a little bit, I've struggled quite a bit this season. But I was up here early the day before we left for Oxford, spending a lot of time in Palmeiro and on the field taking extra ground balls, just trying to get back to where I need to be.
"No doubt, we're here for a reason: to make plays. All the plays. Just sometimes you get to the point you lose our confidence, or one thing doesn't go your way and it feels like everything just capitalizes on you in a bad way. You have to fight back to where you need to be." With just one error all the Oxford weekend, the Dog defense indeed delivered.
Certainly it helps that a shot and treatment allow Ogden to move with less pain—as if he would admit otherwise—and get in field position more smoothly. "It's good, it has its days but it is up and down," he said of the pull. Even if it weren't better Ogden would stick to the job, of course. This is the stretch drive of his senior season, the last chance for he and fellow upperclassmen to have postseason experiences.
"I'm really trying to bear down and be a sparkplug for the team in every situation that we have. It's come down to a critical part of the season where you can make the SEC Tournament, much less fighting for the West." It would be a most satisfying conclusion to the regular season for Ogden & Co. to score Mississippi State's first-ever championship of a modern (post 1992) Divisional title, too, with all the other NCAA opportunities it would offer.
"And it's exciting to know we can win the West with this team," said Ogden. "Of course we still have to fight to even make it to the (SEC) tournament! But just the confidence, it's good."
Upon return from Memphis, the Bulldogs will spend tomorrow preparing for Thursday's 6:06 starting time against LSU. The seniors are to receive their home-field recognition prior to Friday's 6:30 game.