Shepherd Playing For Senior (Post) Season Run

Not that he's expected to know the full Diamond Dog history, understand. Still Jaron Shepherd can appreciate how long it has been since Mississippi State won a regular season SEC baseball championship of any sort. After all, the senior outfielder was just seven months old back in May 1989.

But if 22 seasons is a long time between titles, it merely means no time like the present to end a trophy drought as MSU plays for the Western Division crown this weekend at Dudy Noble Field. "It's going to mean a lot just speaking about how many years ago that was," said Shepherd. "I think it will do this community, Mississippi State, a lot of good winning the West."

Good? Why, it would be a great way for Shepherd and his fellow upperclassmen to conclude their last regular season with State. And, correspondingly, to fill a void in their individual Bulldog resumes, by locking up a berth in next week's SEC Tournament as well as effectively earning a NCAA tournament bid. Even a second-year senior like Shepherd is weary of that wait.

"It feels like it's been longer," he said, prior to Wednesday's afternoon practice. "But this being my senior year, going out being able to make the postseason and hopefully making it to Omaha is going to be real big. It's like a personal goal as well as a team goal to make it to the postseason and I think we've got a real good shot. I think we've got the team to do it with."

A team which has won its way into position to play for the West title, or a share of it pending plenty of other developments around the league, and earn a #2 seeding at this year's league tournament. Division champs are automatically spotted first and second in the eight-team bracket, and with three East teams tied at 20 wins each going into their weekends the top seed belongs to that winner.

But being number two in 2011 is no small matter, as it theoretically provides a more promising first-round matchup in Hoover. Along with the 9:30 a.m. gametime next Wednesday, which may or may not be something worth winning in a ballplayer's mind. The real point of course is just winning through this weekend, then more success at the SEC tourney, and awaiting NCAA assignment.

Shepherd is something of an exception this week, or at least claims to be, in that he hasn't spent days going through the SEC standings, who plays who where, and figuring all the potential angles. "But most of my teammates have and I listen to what they're saying. I think we'll be able to get these wins this weekend, make it into the SEC Tournament and the regionals also."

It's a welcome senior situation for Shepherd, after the frustrations of his first State season when the 2010 team struggled start-to-finish and were never in serious tournament contention. For lots of right reasons—experienced and additional pitching, much improved defense, and an offensive approach suited to both the new college bats as well as a large home field—these Bulldogs have turned everything around. Even then State, not so long ago, was sitting at 7-13 in league play.

But since rallying from three runs down to salvage a Sunday game with Alabama, the Dogs have thrived, winning six of seven SEC outings and nine non-league games. In fact they ended the schedule with just one mid-week loss the entire season, and ‘quality' wins over ranked Southern Mississippi and Ole Miss in the Governor's Cup offer legitimate reason to think State can score a NCAA bid without even making the conference meet.

Thing is, Shepherd won't look at it that way with LSU coming to town. "I think we'll go out and do our job, get the wins that we need to make it in," he said.

"This latter part of the season we've really come together as a team and I think it's going to carry over into this LSU series. You know, we've been on kind of a win streak here and I think everybody's been getting the job done. We've been swinging the bats well, Pollo (Luis Pollorena) has really stepped up in that Friday position well. And I think tomorrow night he'll continue that, too."

Newest starter Pollorena and junior Nick Routt have done their left-handed part in winning the last two series. And while Chris Stratton has been up-and-down the past month—Coach John Cohen won't hesitate using him in right-handed relief the first two games if needed—Shepherd has faith the sophomore can always deliver one of his strong starts in the right matchup and on the home field. After all, Shepherd had a great view from centerfield last May when then-frosh Stratton shut out LSU for 7.0 innings in Baton Rouge as MSU ended the season with a 2-1 win.

Even better, this time around the Bulldogs are playing host…in a park where home runs are harder to come by. After consecutive, if winning, weekends in cozier confines of Knoxville and Oxford, a home game is both welcome and a likely MSU edge. Right?

"That is true," Shepherd said. "With the new bats and the way our outfield plays, I figure we have one of the bigger outfields in the SEC and it's to our advantage having me, C.T., Brent, and Trey. I think with them coming here this year it's going to be our advantage and we'll be able to take two, or sweep them at home if that is!"

If… But already the head coach is cautioning the club against thinking ‘series' or much less scoreboard watching tomorrow. And while pitching keys everything defensively, the Dogs recognize the need to put up runs at the recent rate. This team has lost just once, and that was back on March 5, when scoring six or more runs. For that matter five runs has worked in six of eight chances. So Bulldog pitchers don't need a ton of support, just five or six solid scores no matter how manufactured.

Speaking of which, baserunners have been full-speed lately with 13 thefts at Ole Miss and several more plays where guys were moving on contact. Don't look for Cohen to relax the pace this weekend even if LSU has had time to scout and prepare accordingly.

"We've been doing a good job with that," Shepherd said. "Coach Cohen really emphasizes that in practice. the hit-and-runs, run-and-hits. The first Ole Miss game me and Nick (Vickerson) had it on and that helped us pull out the win. We'll continue to work on that and have success with it."

It's been a successful season for Shepherd overall. After batting .250 as a junior transfer he's adapted nicely to the new bats, honed his swing, and raised the average to .300 even after 43 games. That's third-best on the squad, and while he's matched the seven doubles of last season his home run count has tripled. OK, he only had one longball last year, but three homers in the current context is impressive progress.

Shepherd has also improved his baserunning, from 7-of-11 steals in '10 to 10-of-12 so far. And while he had to yield centerfield to rookie C.T. Bradford this season, Shepherd has settled into rightfield and made plays. Some of them spectacular, as in a very tough corner-catch against the fence in Oxford last Thursday. The next night he raced forward, reached a row into the seats, and got a needed out that ultimately prevented a big Rebel inning in the clinching win.

Such plays, and such potential, should earn Shepherd his third draft call. He was a 17th round pick (Pittsburgh) out of high school and 44th round (Cincinnati) after the junior college career. Four years later it's worth asking if there are any regrets about passing on the first pro shot. But Jaron had some inside help from father Ronald, a high draftee himself back in the day and three-year big leaguer with Toronto.

"The situation wasn't really right," Shepherd said. "A lot of things really come into play; the year in school, the money they offer, the round. At that time they all didn't add up to anything that looked good to us. At the same time I could come here and get my education at Mississippi State. And it's all working out for the better, I'm glad I made this decision."

Now, the decision of the hour regards where Shepherd and State spend next week. Two victories effectively lock them up for Hoover; one might do the trick but that would be risky given how unpredictable SEC weekends have been this season. Or, one can take the more optimistic approach and talk West title; i.e., a sweep.

"Of course you're playing for the postseason, but you have to win the games you're playing to make it," Shepherd said. "Now it's come down to the end and we know what's at stake, we have to get these three wins against LSU to get to the postseason."

And, he hopes, get to the AA-park in Hoover. After all, his team has won twice this year in pro yards already, beating Ole Miss in Pearl and last night knocking off Memphis in AutoZone Park. Roaming another such spacious pasture would suit Shepherd just fine. And who knows? With a real run here at schedule's end, maybe this won't be his last weekend at Dudy Noble Field.

Certainly nothing would suit the senior better than hosting NCAA play here, based on what he's heard from former Dogs and for that matter former regional visitors whose paths he's crossed along the summer ball way. "They always talk about being able to play in this facility." But then Shepherd has two whole seasons calling DNF home, so come Friday's senior salute expect the emotions to show.

"This is one thing I'll cherish and enjoy the rest of my life."

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