So the Diamond Dogs are at their primary goal of the 2011 season, postseason play. Yet after 57 games more than a few still wonder just who this team is and most particularly the pitching staff itself. Even their coach acknowledges it remains very much a project in progress going into the all-or-nothing intensity of June. And forget normal notions of a scripted ‘rotation' for tournament weekends.
No, Mississippi State's best pitch at this point is give somebody the ball Friday and work through the weekend however—and whoever.
"There's no way, shape, form or fashion to blow something up and start over at this point," Thompson said. "We've started throwing the hot guys and started piecing things together. Every one of these guys have had success, we just have to try to put them in the right spots now with what we've got."
The most meaningful spot is the Friday fellow, since odds of surviving the double-elimination regional hinge much more on a successful start than any SEC or super-regional series. Thompson and Coach John Cohen have had days to evaluate their staff and another 24 hours to judge the best matchup with Southern Mississippi. Then again, picking Luis Pollorena could probably have been made in minutes.
"I think we're going with Pollorena," said Thompson. "Maybe from the ‘regret' standpoint." Meaning, whatever other considerations and tendencies go into the assignment the most glaring factor is the box score from April 5 when State rallied for a 5-4 victory in Pearl's Trustmark Park. Trailing 4-2 after a couple of midweek, righthanded regulars had been knocked around by Golden Eagle batters, middle-reliever and lefthander Pollorena was summoned to save the evening. He put in 5.2 scoreless innings with a single hit and six strikeouts before Caleb Reed took care of the last four outs.
"He navigated through their lineup so good in the game we played in Pearl," Thompson said. So, it will be Pollorena's responsibility to start this regional rightly based on prior performance against this same order. "Anything else you did and might not work out, you might would suffer some regret!" But the coach said there are other considerations that favor the sophomore southpaw.
"I think he's a good matchup arm. It's a right/left, right/let, right throughout. So you can't just throw the one-side pitcher that matches up right or left. Hopefully that's the right route."
The ‘hopeful' aspects include which Pollorena is pitching; the reliever who dominated USM seven weeks ago, the new starter who won at both Tennessee and Ole Miss…or the guy who struggled in a start against LSU as well as his rocky relief outing against Florida? To Thompson the question isn't that simple though. In fact Pollorena's four May outings epitomized Mississippi State's month. The long reliever was as much as anyone the key figure in how the Bulldogs earned their SEC Tournament, and thus NCAA tournament, opportunity.
"We were 7-13 (SEC) or whatever, with our season staring us in the face," Thompson explained. "Pollo gave us two unbelievable outings when we put him out there, and hadn't started a game yet." The trade-off going 5.1 and 6.2 innings in the two winnings showed the next pair of openings, but State had gotten into the postseason so on balance it was a positive change. Now Pollorena has had a whole week-plus to refresh and refocus.
"There's been some adjusting and I think he's better than he's been. Hopefully he'll cycle back around. And just getting energy back, I think everybody respects the energy he brings to that spot that he had the first time." In fact Pollorena's fearless approach is exactly how the whole teams wants to attack tourney time now when it once again is must-win or go home.
Also in that light, there will be no holding back any Bulldog who can help win game-one save the most likely starter, or starter candidates, for Saturday. The simplest route is Routt, as in junior lefty Nick, which is how State has played things for two months. But Thompson presents another approach and for now puts righthanded freshman and Marietta native Evan Mitchell. He didn't beat Florida in the SEC tourney but certainly gave the team their chance with 5.0 innings and two runs.
And as Thompson said, "I would think Florida is one of the best teams in the country." Correct, as the NCAA has seeded Florida #2 nationally. "So he's in that category of being right at the top. We'll still watch the teams and see who we wind up playing and have that conversation. But I think he's going to be very high in that mix for the second game."
But Routt remains a viable choice if his left-side stuff is working as it was in wins over the Volunteers and Rebels. Those were also smallish SEC parks and in that sense comparable to Georgia Tech's field. And, the Eagles do like to swing for fences. Ironically though Routt was hit hard in his last two outings, much like Pollorena, and in big parks. Thompson knows why: the fastball-throwing lefty has left those fastballs in the hitting zone too often, and even if not hit they've been fouled-away to extend at-bats and build the pitch count.
Such as in the elimination game against Arkansas last Thursday. "Nick had five 0-2 counts in the first inning where they score four. That's how fine it is." Routt's real issue of late has been discomfort with his changeup, key to finishing folk off. As Thompson also said, Routt's original change—rated by SEC coaches among the league's best in 2009—is more of a ‘screwball' action that contributes to elbow issues. So even here at the end of his third college year Routt continues developing.
"The fastball looks the same, we've actually invented some kind of breaking ball just to try to change speed. The changeup, we've tried some different alternatives."
Another sign of State's attempt at alternatives was when soph righty Chris Stratton threw the ninth inning against Arkansas; his first college relief appearance. After two rocky starts to end the regular schedule it offered a little much-needed encouragement. So have Stratton's practices since Hoover. "He started the two-seam fastball a little bit, threw the fastball-contact, just to get him to shove something in the zone with movement to maybe give him more confidence.
"And if I ask him to throw the eighth or ninth inning it's not like he hasn't done that before. Now he's thrown a game in relief." Thompson would love to book him for a second- or third-day start in Atlanta, but at this point all options are open. A positive point is having Reed rested and ready for a lot of innings as needed, too. "With Caleb just throwing the one outing in the SEC Tournament, I think that bodes well for him being ready to go after a great season."
Thompson isn't the only pitching coach with interesting decisions in store. USM lost two-thirds of their rotation to grades last week, but at least Todd McInnis is still on hand and ready to roll. The senior righthander may have been the top college player, much less pitcher, in the state this spring. If allowed to get into his up-tempo pitching pace, McInnis can make short work of any order and go the route on day-one. The challenge for State's offense is making him throw a few more pitches each inning than intended, with of course a few runs along the way.
But Thompson can leave that to his coaching cohorts. His challenge is limiting the Eagle offense as much as possible, and in a smallish yard at that. State won't have the sort of margin as at Pearl, in other words.
"From seeing their lineup two years in a row, what I respect is the age of their guys," Thompson said. "I see physical kids through the lineup. Tyler Koelling is a tough guy to strike out in the two-hole, B.A. Vollmuth can lose the ball, and I don't think it stops there. The true strength of their lineup is you look at their nine hitters that have the most at-bats, it's not one or two guys that can hit you. I see the RBI very spread from top to the bottom of their lineup. That's what I respect the most."
Besides, he has taken a team to Russ Chandler Stadium and won before; albeit in the second chance. Thompson coached Georgia pitchers in the 2002 and '04 regionals played in Atlanta, winning the latter trip…ironically a weekend after Mississippi State ended their season in the first-round regional there. So he can give his mound Dogs a few clues about the venue.
"What I remember is center and left could play big at times, we'll have to wait and see what the wind presents for us. But right-centerfield the ball really travelled, almost a little stream or whatever. That'll be one of the first things I'm looking for." As well as how Georgia Tech and Austin Peay ‘set' their bats in game-two.
It's been a long run since opening day and conventional thinking is a tournament team would have its rotation set for tournament time. That isn't the Mississippi State case in 2011 for all sorts of reasons. But Thompson and team have adapted to circumstances all along, so why worry about one more shuffling of the Dog deck?
Besides, Thompson noted, "I don't think we're the only team in the country trying to come up with three consistent starters. The ones that have done that have won the most games! It's been a challenge trying to figure out the three guys." Or in this week's case, the best one guy to go with Friday with everything else to be determined.
"What I do feel good about, we made some adjustments with our staff and got through a season and into the postseason now and held it together."