State Sets Stage For Showdown With Tigers

They concluded the non-conference campaign with both a victory and some fan-provided Memphis barbecue. Now, Mississippi State can finally turn its entire attention to the week's real business. "The minute that game is over, we start to discuss the issues of everything that is in our hands," said Coach John Cohen.

Clean hands, too, with the last sauce wiped off following an 8-3 win in AutoZone Park. But then Cohen was more concerned about the Mississippi State of mind going into last night's Memphis game, for obvious reason. Because since the Bulldogs swept Tennessee they have grabbed control of both their SEC and NCAA destiny. Taking their showdown series at Ole Miss strengthened this position further.

Which means all standing between State (33-19, 13-14 SEC) and postseason play is familiar foe Louisiana State (34-19, 11-16). First pitch is 6:06 Thursday evening at Dudy Noble Field. And yes, having taken care of another Tiger team, Cohen and club are finally free to focus on the bayou bunch.

"I think our kids are just in a good state of mind," said Cohen. "They love competing, they're in a positive environment, and I think they'll be ready for a very good LSU club when we hook it up tomorrow."

Realistically the Diamond Dogs have been emotionally ready for this series since Friday evening in Oxford when they clinched that rivalry series. So the coach had some concerns about the club's mindset Tuesday, which increased as Memphis rallied from 4-0 down to get within a run after State stranded bonus runners in the first three frames. A two-run homer by 2B Nick Vickerson righted things as the Dogs coasted away behind outstanding relief pitching from freshman Evan Mitchell.

As his team savored a post-game feast, Cohen was just relieved…all the more when hearing how league peers Auburn, Tennessee, and even Florida had been badly beaten. In this Mississippi State was a SEC exception, losing just one mid-week game all season. "Obviously it was great to get a big win in Memphis," Cohen said today. "I was overwhelmed with the amount of Mississippi State people we had, it's always a great trip because we have so many alumni in the Memphis area. It was one of those wins we grinded-out, we missed some opportunities early but we had much better at-bats later on."

That one in the books, the Bulldogs are free to focus on these Tigers. In fact Cohen said today that for all the build-up to this decisive series there hasn't been a true team talk about MSU-LSU. That changes this afternoon prior to the 3:00 practice as scouting reports are issued and film breakdown begins. Getting team attention will be easy, too.

"They fully know what's at stake, this weekend is everything," Cohen said.

Not just for State, either, though the Bulldogs are in much more promising SEC Tournament position. Winning this series outright will secure a berth in the eight-team Hoover field; winning just once can but will require aid elsewhere, particularly in the Ole Miss @ Arkansas series. State is a game-up on the Rebels and has the two-way tiebreak there to boot.

Yet the Bulldogs want to play for higher stakes, based on the four-way tie for the Western Division lead with Alabama, Auburn, and Arkansas. Even a sweep won't win the West for State as Alabama and Arkansas each have the head-to-head edge; and in a three-way deadlock the Crimson Tide would come out ahead. But Alabama has to host East co-leader South Carolina this week; and even the most bitter Bulldog can support their rival Rebels to take at least one win in Fayetteville. And while Auburn should expect to roll over Tennessee, the tie-break there favors MSU.

Also, though a Division ‘championship' may not seem much compared to the overall league title that will be taken by either South Carolina, Florida, or Vanderbilt—all 20 SEC win teams already—winning the West has a valuable bonus. It would bring a #2 SEC Tournament seed this year, and mean not having to play one of the East's best on day-one at Hoover.

So the Bulldogs have several encouraging opportunities in store this week. Louisiana State is in a more urgent position, standing tenth in the SEC today and a game back of Ole Miss. The Tigers do have the tie-break there, but that is meaningless unless they can sweep State because they lost series with the other three co-West leaders. A sweep, by the way, could also mean taking two wins and having the third rained-out.

It is a tall task, particularly for a LSU team that is 2-10 in all SEC road games. Cohen knows better than to make any assumptions on those numbers, though. "I don't think LSU has issues," he said today. "The SEC has issues, and the issue is it's good, real good!"

"I don't think there's anything wrong with LSU. Mikie Mahtook might be the best player in our league, they've got really solid arms, they've got older guys defensively. So they can get on a roll, in fact they are on a roll right now." As in winning nine of their last eleven games with seven SEC victories in the stretch. Of course the two losses were at Alabama, and the sweeps were of Tennessee and Kentucky clubs that are eliminated from tournament contention.

At the same time the Tigers score very well on overall wins, power rating and schedule strength. So it is entirely realistic to expect they can miss Hoover but still spend that week preparing for the national tournament. Mississippi State may well have the same status, just don't expect Cohen to place his faith in such unofficial projections.

"You hear people talk about ‘are you already in the NCAA tournament'. That's a thing we have to rely on a bunch if we don't do our job this weekend, and I know we don't want to put ourselves in that situation." In fact, the Coach will demand his Dogs win their own way into Hoover as well and not count on outside help. "I don't want our focus on scoreboard watching, we need to focus on what we need to do to break down a pitcher Thursday."

Bulldog batters have done a fair job of that down the stretch, in winning nine of their last ten games. Offense still ranks mid-pack within the conference stats, though, eighth in batting average and seventh in both on-base rate and scoring. LSU comes in a notch or two ahead in most offensive categories, though not so much as Tiger teams are used to. State actually has hit more SEC-game home runs (15) than LSU's 11, while the Tigers run a good bit more and better than many realize.

The pitching numbers are fairly comparable as well, whether in earned-run rate or average allowed. And fielding? The respected defenses are separated by .001 point through 27 league games each. So it shapes up as the sort of well-matched series befitting a do-or-die conclusion to a SEC season.

One aspect State has improved experience against is matching a right-handed offense, which LSU is bringing to town. With soph Luis Pollorena's promotion to starter, and the return of Nick Routt to SEC strength, the Bulldogs can throw two reliable lefthanders in the first two games. The work of Tim Statz at Ole Miss and experience of Chad Girodo offers more southpaw relief options. And righthander Caleb Reed can close it down against any and all sides.

The game-three starter? That isn't merely TBA, but to be determined by how Thursday and Friday play out. Specifically, whether regular rotation righthander Chris Stratton is used as a reliever for the first time in his college career. Some Monday comments have confused the issue, so Cohen tried to clarify this morning.

"I believe he's going to pitch this weekend, but with them being a right-handed dominant lineup if he can help us win one of the first two games and it knocks him out of the third game that's what we're going to do." Clearly then sophomore Stratton has a role in weekend plans, just perhaps—probably?—not what he's been used to. He has been seen going to bullpens the last two weeks but stuck as a starter; with a dominating day at Tennessee before getting knocked out in the first inning at Ole Miss. In that game, though, the Rebels stacked their order with lefthanders.

The larger point remains that with so, so much at stake for State, for LSU, and for the entire Western Division as well, Cohen is not holding nothing—almost--in reserve in any game. "That has as much to do with Chris as the situation we're in. Winning one of the first two games is critical and we're not going to leave any stone unturned. And I mean that about any pitcher on our staff, with the exception of Routt for game-two everybody is in play to help us win that first game."

If it seems State is staking everything on Thursday's game, well, they are. "They're all important, but the first one is very important. I'm sure LSU feels the same way." The Tigers, by the way, revised their own pitching plans this past weekend and will bring an all-freshman rotation to Starkville. That shows just how much is on the LSU line as well in the three days that will determine who goes to Hoover, and who stays home and hopes.

And if any added incentive was needed, not a single current Bulldog has played a single SEC Tournament game. Instead of anxiety, though, the old dogs and young pups alike are excited about an opportunity to turn that program-page.

"Everything is in our hands," Cohen said. "We don't need any help from anybody, we need to do a job that's in front of us. That's a huge advantage. Several schools are in a similar situation, but we just need to worry about our performance against a very good LSU club. I'll leave all the possibilities to folk like y'all!"

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