Bulldogs Take Break While Waiting On NCAA Bid

Though they'd rather be playing games this weekend, the Diamond Dogs are taking advantage of their unscheduled and unwanted break to, well, take a break. Just don't get the idea Mississippi State baseball is going on any holiday.

Instead, the Bulldogs have already scheduled a Sunday evening practice on the home field to begin preparations for their anticipated invitation to the NCAA Tournament. The 64-team field is to be announced Monday beginning at 11:30am CT, with every objective indication Mississippi State will receive one of the at-large bids awarded to Southeastern Conference teams. The SEC Tournament champion will win the automatic NCAA berth, while at least five and as many as seven conference clubs could be given at-large assignments.

Bulldog Coach John Cohen expects one of those bids, following a short stay in the SEC tourney. He certainly wants the opportunity for these 2011 Bulldogs to put in a better tournament showing given a second chance.

"If we get in a tournament I think we can win games," Cohen said following Thursday's 7-2 loss to Arkansas that sent Mississippi State (34-23) home early. For that matter, "I think we have a chance to win a regional."

Of course a significant factor in NCAA play is which regional a team is sited at and how they are seeded. Informal consensus among college baseball observers was that State left Hoover headed for the postseason as a #3 seed, somewhere. That destination will be revealed Memorial Day morning with the Bulldogs watching the selection show in their locker room.

Following, they will pick back up the practicing. In fact the workouts resume at 7:00 Sunday when everyone reassembles at Dudy Noble Field. Cohen has turned everyone loose for now to enjoy Friday and Saturday of the holiday weekend as they wish, with several Dogs heading home. Others are sticking around Starkville, just wanting their shot at national tournament action and to forget how the league tourney played out.

Though, even in 0-and-2 defeat, there was still some sense of satisfaction by this squad at taking the MS logo back to Regions Park. It had been a three-year absence for the program and ending this frustrating drought was a point of pride, particularly for the upperclassmen who had never played in any postseason event in a Bulldog uniform.

Now they await confirmation of Mississippi State's 31st appearance in the national championship tournament, since 1949. This too has been subject to a three-season slump since the last Bulldogs played post-season; the longest such stretch without NCAA participation 1975-76-77. Ironically, the last time State earned an at-large bid they parlayed it into an unexpected run that took the 2007 Bulldogs through championships of the Tallahassee Regional and Starkville super Regional and all the way to Omaha.

A further potential irony is that the '07 team also went two-and-through at Hoover, resulting in assignment as practically a designated victim for the regional host. Those Bulldogs belied such forecasts by playing their best ball of the whole season in the postseason.

Cohen naturally would like to believe this '11 club is equally capable, even if they went from a eight-game win streak in mid-May to a 7-3 finish of the regular schedule. Revise the ten-game calculations to include the SEC Tournament, and "Now we're 5-5," Cohen said. "But I really believe we can catch fire, especially when pitching and defense are at a premium in the postseason."

Then again pitching and defense have to be put in perspective of where the game is to be played as well as the opposition. The Bulldogs had hoped their season stronger points would help them at Hoover, only to have such fine figuring turned on its head in a 7-5 loss to Florida and 7-2 loss to Arkansas. The pitching was hit for 23 safeties, and worse issued a number of walks that proved decisive in big innings for the winning teams.

Defense wasn't flawless either, though just two of the officially-charged errors were serious factors in defeats. And "The errors were made by an outfielder and a catcher!" noted Cohen in just how odd the misplays were. Other Bulldogs made some pretty sharp fielding plays as well making for a mixed evaluation. The larger point was how the pitching-and-defense in a professional-sized park was not up to expectation, just as it had not been in the concluding SEC series with LSU.

Yet by contrast, when forced to perform in smaller parks at Tennessee and Ole Miss, the pitching and fielding was somehow sharper all around with five impressive wins. Victories that were the key to bringing the Bulldogs back to Hoover in the end, for that matter. So maybe their NCAA assignment is not as critical in those terms as State coaches have thought.

An unintended but perhaps eventually helpful aspect of early SEC elimination is the chance to rest the entire pitching staff, including well-worked arms such as reliever Caleb Reed and starter/reliever Luis Pollorena. But after the past two weekends the larger concern remains the rotation, the lack of consistent successful starting pitching. Because the SEC tourney began Wednesday, there were already adjustments in starting assignments anyway and Evan Mitchell put in a solid outing against Florida.

This might have earned the rookie righthander first call on opening a regional, in fact. But Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson will have several days to set their plans not only on who is rested and ready, but who the game-one matchup will be. Cohen clearly would rather keep fastball-throwing lefty Pollorena in a middle-relief role, but this would be an easier decision if veteran southpaw Nick Routt can regain his rhythm from that side. His 3.1 innings against Arkansas summarized several State pitching challenges of late, as Routt consistently got ahead of Razorback batters only to have his pitch count pile up on foul balls, base hits, and worst of all full-count walks.

One possibly encouraging sign was the Thursday ninth-inning work of Chris Stratton, the first relief appearance by the sophomore righthander of his college career. Stratton was battered in game-three starts against Ole Miss and LSU, and would only have started at Hoover had the tourney continued into Friday and Saturday. Now at least the veteran will be well-rested for NCAA play and could regain some confidence after that short closing stint with Arkansas.

Where, of course, the Bulldogs would rather be right now. Instead they are elsewhere, though many will continue tracking the SEC Tournament scores. One Dog might be paying particular attention. Senior 3B Jarrod Parks left Hoover second in league batting average, and by the evening was back in first place after Florida's Mike Zunino went hitless in a Gator win over Alabama. Parks, the regular-season SEC batting champ, remains in a close three-way race with the Florida catcher and LSU outfielder Mikie Mahtook, separated by a few thousandths of a percentage point.

Tournament statistics count in the final season averages and totals.

All postseason speculations hinge of course on Mississippi State actually receiving an at-large bid. It is hard to find a doubter at this point, since the Bulldogs did finish tied for second in the Western Division and were sixth-seed overall in the league tournament. Also, with Auburn eliminated and Georgia likely to be by not having .500-plus-one win records, few can imagine how the NCAA won't automatically accept the six qualified clubs who played in Hoover. Analysts also expect at least one other and perhaps a pair of bids to go to West teams who did not make the SEC Tourney field based on strong power-ratings and schedule strengths, areas Mississippi State ranks very highly in.

No wonder that after losing to Florida, the Bulldog RPI improved. "Which I guess is one of the benefits of competing in the Southeastern Conference," Cohen said Thursday. "I don't know what our RPI will be after today but I think our full body of work in the entire field (merits a bid). The committee has tough decisions to make but I'd like to think we're in the tournament.

"We'll just have to wait and see, we may have made it a little more difficult on ourselves but I like to think that."

The NCAA will announce the national seeds for the tournament on Sunday, prior to conclusion of the SEC Tournament. The 16 regional fields and pairings for super regionals will be part of Monday's selection show.

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