Post-Season A New Season For Diamond Dogs

Think the Bulldogs might be content to have finally achieved their ambition of postseason play? Think again. "We're going to keep competing like we have all season," said Caleb Reed. "And hopefully good things will roll for us and we'll get to where we want to be."

Wait…wasn't extending their season beyond the schedule sufficient achievement for this Mississippi State team? After all, Bulldog baseball has not appeared in a postseason event since 2007…albeit at the greatest of them all, the College World Series. None of these Diamond Dogs have played in anything after the regular season save summer ball. So is there any suggestion of satisfaction at having won a place in the SEC Tournament, as well as the nigh-certain NCAA at-large bid to follow?

Not according to the coach.

"The tournament, we'll do whatever we have to do to win games," Coach John Cohen said. "Because the deal is not done yet."

That is Cohen's outlook on tournament time 2011. The Bulldog deal is far from finished if he and squad have anything else to say on the subject. Mississippi State (34-21) heads to Hoover and this year's conference tourney with revised, and raised, ambitions.

"That's a big deal going into the postseason," said infielder Nick Vickerson. "It's just going to be a new season, a fresh start." All the more so for a senior like Vickerson who, with classmates, showed the obvious relief over extending this last college campaign for at least couple more weeks. But even underclassmen share the relief over ending this program's postseason drought.

And, the excitement.

"It's a totally different season now," said junior relief pitcher Reed. "It doesn't matter really what seed you are, you've still got to be the best team to get where you want to go. That's the way we're going to look at it."

What sixth-seed State is looking at, is a Wednesday matchup with third-seed Florida. Gametime will be a half-hour following the 9:30 morning game between second-seed Arkansas and #7 Alabama. Those four teams make up the top half of the Omaha-style bracket, with the winners playing Thursday at 4:30 and losers at 9:30 am.

As one of the eight SEC teams qualifying to play on this week, the Bulldogs are not getting Sunday off. "We'll meet, we'll prepare, get a schedule together, do all the things we've been doing," Cohen said. "And we'll try go line up our pitching and see how we stack up, watch who we'll play and all that good stuff."

Mississippi State has already watched Florida in-person, after the regular season series at Dudy Noble Field five weeks ago. The Gators, who came in ranked top-five nationally, won twice with a stunning 18-0 rout of the game-two. But this was a day after the Bulldogs had scored an upset victory, and Sunday's decider came down to the last bat with tying runners in scoring positions and the game minutes from being halted due to Florida's ‘getaway' schedule.

So there is already plenty of direct data and video for scouting in stock on Florida, as well as the other possible opponents in State's bracket. For that matter the Bulldogs faced all seven squads that made this year's tournament.

Cracking the conference-tourney club has been a big deal for these Dogs, who six weekends into their SEC schedule were 7-13 and in danger of missing the meet one more year. A six-game league win streak righted things just in time, even putting MSU in position to win the program's first Division title—and this still startles many—since 1984. True, this was quite probably the wildest West race ever, and Arkansas had to score twice at the end for a doubleheader Saturday sweep of Ole Miss just to finish 15-15 in league play and win the Division.

Naturally that win streak, which reached eight-straight in all and nine of ten in a stretch, helped some Dogs get greedy. So when a resurgent LSU took the concluding series there was as much letdown over missing a title as delight at locking up the postseason situation(s). But it did not take too long for State players to regain overall perspective.

As in, looking ahead to playing Regions Park. "It's big for us. I've never been there, I think it might have been 2007 since we've been," Reed said. "So it's still a great accomplishment for us. But we'd have loved to get that win and get the SEC West."

"At the end of the day we're just happy to be going to Hoover and having a shot to play in the postseason," said Vickerson.

Again, though, happiness needn't be confused with contentment. In that regard any lingering disappointment of how the regular schedule ended might offer that much more incentive this week. Their coach has his own angle to address, too. Media and fans may be feeling confident, at last, over Mississippi State's NCAA invitation.

Not Cohen. Why, he had to be shown the conference office-blessed bracket before agreeing yes, the Bulldogs were headed to Hoover. So national tournament talk is shrugged off immediately.

"For us, we're going to feel like we need to get in there and get some wins," Cohen said.

Though, he agreed also, not everyone playing this week shares any such sense of urgency. Typically at Hoover this makes for some unpredictable matchups on the mound as higher seeds are already thinking a week away while mid- and low-seeds are working harder for wins. Typically, but not always.

"It really depends on what the guys out in front want to do with their pitching," Cohen said. "That usually alters what is going to happen in the SEC Tournament. Most people who know for sure they're going to be in the NCAA might take their (number) one and two and rest them a little bit more, since it's a shortened work week. Starting on Wednesday is really going to ‘shorten' your guys and you have to make some tough decisions."

Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson will have their own interesting calls to make in setting up the pitching, though neither Luis Pollorena nor Nick Routt worked really long stints in the first two LSU games. The tougher decisions will be aligning relief roles for those games, which Cohen clearly will play to win, without leaving anything for third or fourth days as things develop. The MSU coach will have more to say on the subject Monday after scouting is in.

He also has another obligation tomorrow as senior infielder Jarrod Parks, who completed the regular season as the SEC's leading batter with a .385 average, is up for the Boo Ferris Trophy. The award, given to the state's top college player and honoring the former Bulldog great, is being presented Monday at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in Jackson. The afternoon trip means adjusting MSU's practice schedule accordingly, as the Bulldogs will also have to be in Hoover for a Tuesday session.

State players, especially seniors, have their own obvious emotions over finally winning postseason opportunity. What of the coach? After all, when Cohen was playing outfield for the Diamond Dogs in 1988-90, tournament time was taken for granted. Even allowing for how the SEC game has changed since then, Cohen wasn't happy how his alma mater missed the conference tournament—an event State did more than any other program to popularize—first in 2004, again in '06, and then 2008-10. A big reason he left a successful and secure job at Kentucky was to help bring Bulldog baseball back to the forefront, in fact.

Returning to the league tourney is one step in the ongoing process. Not that the coach takes credit, though. "I couldn't be more proud of our players for the kind of effort they put into it," he said. Or, Cohen added, for their sticking to a gameplan that struggled the first two seasons. After all, he never had to hear summer ball teammates ribbing him about not playing in league tournaments, regionals, or the Series.

These Dogs who did have survived and now have their chance to thrive a little. They earned it a very hard way, too, over the past season when just one more loss; not sticking to the task and saving a game at Vanderbilt, against Alabama, or just bouncing back from Thursday's rout by LSU to rally in the ninth inning and get the must-win Friday would have them sitting at home this week. Even, preparing for summer ball or the draft or the job search.

This may well have been the biggest success of 2011.

"They've all grown, they're all better," said Cohen. "Every single player in our program we feel is better in one way or another. That makes you feel good as a coach because you feel you have the right people in your program. And we just believe in this group so much. That's not diminishing any of the kids we had a year ago because of everything they did for us, too."

The difference is the current kids are about to play in postseason by virtue of their own initiative and effort. Maybe they came up a game short of breaking even in league play, and of the West title. "But I couldn't be more happy about what we've accomplished so far," said Reed.

Note the ‘so far' bit. That will be key to how Mississippi State performs in postseason, whether they are satisfied to have gotten this far or do they wish to take this trip even farther. Players have their own individual answers to that, but their coach is clear on the subject when evaluating the state of State baseball here in May 2011. Well, as clear as mixed metaphors allow.

"I feel we haven't fully turned the corner," Cohen said. "But we're really close to knocking that door down."


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