Bulldogs Back To Work In SEC Tourney Practice

Now that they've earned their berth, it's time for the Diamond Dogs to re-set and re-start with proper preparations for the Southeastern Conference Tournament. That task begins Monday afternoon at Dudy Noble Field. In fact, all Mississippi State tournament prep will take place on the home field today and tomorrow.

"It's just a timing issue for us," Coach John Cohen said this morning of the decision to pass on the ‘official' SEC Tournament practice slot reserved for Mississippi State at Regions Park for Tuesday. Instead the Bulldogs will not only have the regular practice Monday afternoon (3:30); they will stay in town long enough Tuesday to have their specific game-prep session before departing for Hoover.

No insult intended to the tournament ballpark, of course. This is pure pragmatism on Mississippi State's part as they plan and prepare specifically for Wednesday's first-round meeting with Florida. That is the second game of the first tournament session, and will begin about a half-hour after the Alabama-Arkansas opener ends.

Tournament practice times are dictated by seeding and bracketing, and in this case the schedule won't quite fit MSU's particular needs. "We have one of the early times to practice, and it's an hour long and we're going to need a lot longer than that," Cohen said. "We have to go over all our bunt coverages, all our first-and-thirds, like everybody else. But we like to do that the day before, so we need a couple of hours, if we did we'd have to practice one hour there and then go to another site."

Besides, he added, this won't be the first time this team has walked on a field in May without prior exposure.

"We did that before we played Ole Miss," Cohen noted. "We didn't practice at Tennessee and had a great weekend. It's just something we do." And did well enough to win five of the six games involved at that.

Make no mistake, though. Setting aside practice necessities, this bunch of Bulldogs is openly eager to make their debut in Hoover and postseason play. Mississippi State, the program acknowledged by veteran fans as having done the most to make a practical proposition of the SEC baseball tournament, was missing from the event far too often over the last decade. From 2004-10, Bulldog teams missed out on Hoover five times…though they did win it in 2005. In fact three of the six SEC playoff titles State has won since the league went to a tournament type of format were earned in Hoover; in 1990, 2001, and '05.

But a three-year absence took a toll on the program's psyche. More immediately, none of the current Diamond Dogs have enjoyed any sort of postseason play…until Wednesday. It is a necessary next-step in Cohen's ongoing rebuild of Bulldog baseball. "Certainly it's one of the basic building blocks," he said today.

"Fortunately for me, I've had the gratifying experience of going through this before. Kentucky was a similar situation. Because when you get your kids to Hoover it's almost synonymous—almost—to getting back on the national scene. It probably means our RPI is solid, and you're probably going to get the opportunity to play in the NCAA. That's what separates Hoover from every other conference tournament, by a quantum leap."

At the same time this week does not have quite the same meaning to all involved teams. Though a #3 seed, Florida is among the first-rank of NCAA contenders come June and in line to host at least a first round regional. So are the two Eastern Division teams that came in ahead of the Gators in the final SEC standings, including defending national champions South Carolina. They and Vanderbilt expect to host as well; so all this trio has to play for in Hoover is a higher NCAA seeding and the improved chances of also hosting second round regionals.

Arkansas is the West club most optimistic about hosting at least a first round NCAA weekend. As for the Bulldogs, since regional sites are picked before Sunday's tournament title game that is so long a shot as to be background to the week's goals. Simply solidifying their NCAA status and perhaps earning a good #2 seeding is ambitious enough.

By contrast, and because they come in just a tick or two over break-even, both Auburn and Georgia are in desperation mode. They must finish a game over .500 to qualify for NCAA consideration, and in a double-elimination tournament that is a tough task. Those two situations are why LSU and Ole Miss, both missing the Hoover party this year, still have reasonable hopes of an at-large invitation come Monday based on schedules and power ratings.

Cohen is cautious on his team's NCAA standing of the moment, preferring to keep his club hungry. But he is not at all offended by indications Florida does not see Wednesday in as serious a context as the Bulldogs do. He's been there before himself as both a MSU player, back in the days when Dudy Noble Field was almost automatically booked for a regional; and as a coach in his assistant days at Florida and as Kentucky's skipper.

"I completely understand," he said today. What Cohen wants everyone else to understand is that his team is planning and playing to win. Besides, even if Florida reserves or at least limits their best arms for the Wednesday and Thursday games to keep their rotation on a weekend sort of schedule, this won't impact how the Bulldogs will pitch things.

"Our deal is how we match up with their lineup, and it will primarily be the same." An order that State saw three times at DNF in the fourth SEC weekend in fact. The Bulldogs took game-one, were routed on Saturday, then played the then-#4 ranked Gators down to the last Sunday swing. So State's coaches already have a book on Florida batting and are going through additional scouting material compiled from the rest of the SEC season.

"But who they pitch won't affect a whole lot who we pitch." What will affect the choice is whether further review of Florida's offense dictates starting from the left or the right side of the mound rubber. This afternoon, Cohen figures to pick between southpaw Luis Pollorena or righthander Evan Mitchell. The latter is well-rested after a long and impressive relief stint last Tuesday at Memphis, showing how freshman Mitchell—thrust into some SEC Sunday starts too soon early this season—has developed down the stretch.

Also, regular weekend righty Chris Stratton has simply struggled with command to either side in his last two game-three starts. Cohen is tempted but for now resists the notion of giving Devin Jones his old right-side starting job back just yet. Jones was superb out of the bullpen in State's victory over LSU.

Pollorena is coming off a Thursday SEC start that didn't go nearly as well as his preceding victories at Tennessee and Ole Miss. Cohen would still be confident sending him out for Wednesday's first pitch, and holding junior lefty Nick Routt for the second game as he worked a longer stint last Friday.

But, another shuffle could be in the plans again. "Especially Pollorena can factor in more because he's been so effective out of the bullpen more. Not that his starts haven't been good, but obviously statistically he's better out of the bullpen." The implication is State would ideally want Pollorena to get a set amount of Wednesday work in but still have him strong enough to provide left-handed middle relief if the team keeps winning and playing.

"Again, it depends on how many innings we get out of the starting guys," Cohen said. "But we're still working on that now."

The work goes on-field this afternoon, with Cohen and senior infielder Jarrod Parks due back from their quick trip to Jackson. Parks, the SEC's leading batter through the regular season, is one of three nominees for the Ferris Trophy and was attending the awards ceremony at the state Sports Hall of Fame.

Cohen agrees about the excitement his team has over finally getting State back to Hoover, but reminds that the 2011 job is far from finished. So as much as these Bulldogs should see a SEC Tourney trip as a reward for the long labors, they could be more in store this week. And next, too.

"I think when you play the schedule any of us play, the kids aren't intimidated by anything," Cohen said. "You just know everybody is really good. Obviously the ‘big three' on the East are incredibly good (State was one of the rare SEC teams to take at least one win from all of them) but your kids have confidence they can beat anybody. But, at the same time, they know if they don't play well you not only can get beat, you can get embarrassed."

So, "We're going to have a good practice in Starkville today and tomorrow. And we're looking forward to hopefully playing well in a great tournament."

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