Thursday SEC Tournament Notebook

Now that they have more free weekend time than wanted, the Diamond Dogs will need ways to use it. One obvious, if a bit painful for now, option is to watch conference tournaments around the country and play their own guessing games about who could end up where come Monday and the NCAA tournament announcement.

Mississippi State has encouraging reasons to believe they will be in that number, based on finishing sixth in the nation's top-rated conference as well as their exemplary RPI and strong strength of schedule. Everyone connected with the SEC Tournament forecasts a Bulldog bid, though a 0-and-2 showing almost certainly means a #3 seeding.

Whatever the number they carry, these Dogs just want to be sent somewhere. And are convinced they deserve the assignment.

"When we look at yesterday's game we're one play away from winning by a few runs," senior 3B Jarrod Parks said. "We played Arkansas good twice at their place, I still think we're just as good as them. And we're playing in the best conference in the country. Hopefully they'll look at that and we'll be in."

Meanwhile, State players will be looking at other games…and foremost on their list was the SEC tourney contest immediately following theirs as Georgia and Auburn played for sheer survival. While a Georgia win would all but officially assure MSU an at-large bid, barring the other Dogs winning the event, it would also open the door for a Ole Miss team biding their time and biting their nails at home with tenuous tournament hopes. LSU, who also missed Hoover, is in far stronger shape and confident of an earned berth.

Beyond that, 2B Nick Vickerson said, he knows folk on most still-surviving SEC squads as well as on teams around the region to keep up with. As for Hoover, though, "We'll follow it. We don't really care who wins it or now, we'll worry about us. We'll go practice and learn from mistakes that we made here. But we'll follow it, we have friends that play on the other teams."

WARMING UP: Besides the usual emotions over early elimination, Vickerson had his own good reasons for wanting to keep playing this weekend. The senior infielder had a good couple of games at the plate, hitting a combined 3-of-7 with four RBI and two runs. He raised his season average a few points in the process, to .314; and is 6-of-17 in his last four games.

His biggest hits were Wednesday, with a fly-ball getting over the Florida centerfielder for a two-run triple; then the solo home run to lead off the sixth inning. Vickerson credited some recent work with the coaches on late-season adjustments for part of the prowess.

"And I think I just got a little more aggressive," he said. "It's a big park with these new bats so it wasn't like anybody was getting pitched-around this weekend. I went up there looking for a pitch to hit early in the count."

STOP, THIEF: Some of Vickerson's satisfaction at hitting well was stolen, so to speak, when he was picked off first base in the first Thursday inning. Having walked, his only free pass of the week, and with teammate Parks on third base with two outs, Vickerson naturally was looking to get a base farther along as quickly as possible.

Of course Arkansas knew this too, since Vickerson is by far State's top thief. He had stolen safely 25 of 28 tries in the regular schedule, tying with three predecessors for #5 on the season list. So with RF Jaron Shepherd at the plate in the RBI situation, he was looking…and leaning.

And, caught completely by surprise when Arkansas pitcher DJ Baxendale made a quick, short move towards third base before turning and firing to first. Though not a classic ‘five-three-look' it worked to end the inning. No caught-stealing was charged.

Partner Parks wasn't complaining though. "He's one of the best base-stealers in the country, I don't know if he's leading the conference but he's up there. He was trying to get a good jump so we get two runners in scoring position, sometimes that just backfires. The dude just happened to try one of the oldest tricks in the book, and got us that first inning."

A Thursday irony was that Parks, not noted for his prowess on the paths, got State's only steal as he went from second to third safely. It was just his third theft all season. CF C.T. Bradford got the lone steal of Wednesday's game.

Coach John Cohen made clear from day-one he wanted this team to run, and the Dogs have delivered. They have 84 steals through 57 games, the most thefts by a State squad since…since Cohen's own senior team had 98 steals in 71 games. The 2009 team did score 72 steals but last year's club only had 57 thefts.

BALLER PARKS: With a 2-of-4 afternoon, Parks improved one place in the SEC's batting race. He came in leading the league with a .385 average, only to go 0-of-2 in four at-bats against Florida and fall to third place behind UF's Mike Zunino and LSU's Mikie Mahtook.

Now he returns to campus with a .383 average, or .38297 for clarity. Because Mahtook, who is not at the SEC tourney, hit .3827 for the regular season. Zunino goes into the afternoon game with Alabama at .3835.

Where Parks is reasonably certain of leading the league is in on-base percentage. While not getting a hit Wednesday he reached first base three times, two plunking and a walk. Adding in his pair of Thursday hits, and Parks got on-base five out of the nine times he stepped up to bat.

DOUBLE DUTY: He's only seen starting service since arriving at Mississippi State. But after some rough recent outings to end the sophomore SEC season Chris Stratton has been mentioned as a righthanded relief option. He finally got the opportunity Thursday.

Having loosened up in the eighth, Stratton entered for the Arkansas ninth in his first college relief appearance. An effective one, too, as he retired the 6/7/8 Razorback batters on consecutive ground balls to the left side and a called strikeout. Though not in position to impact the outcome, it was still an encouraging if short showing by a pitcher who was expected to be the central figure in State's 2011 rotation.

"I think he was really good," Cohen said. "We're proud of what Chris did today." All the more so because despite being battered by Ole Miss and LSU in his last two starts Stratton has shown winning stuff in the first season-and-a-half.

"He's a really talented kid, he can throw from 90 to 93 and he's got a good breaking ball," Cohen said. "Just his last three, four starts were not what he wanted them to be or we wanted, for whatever reason. But you see things change in the postseason where you get a different ballclub out there." A club that hasn't got a ‘book' on pitchers as do SEC opponents by this career point.

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