MSU in 17th straight SEC tourney; Raffy gets 500

For the 17th straight season, Mississippi State has sewed up a berth in the Southeastern Conference Baseball Tournament.<P> Ironically, the Diamond Dogs are ranked No. 17 in Sports Weekly/ESPN Coaches Poll, coinciding with the number of consecutive years MSU has qualified.

The SEC Tournament will be held, May 21-25, at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, near downtown Birmingham, Ala. The eight teams that will make up the 2003 double-elimination tourney are determined by the best winning percentage in conference engagements.

Five of the berths have already been secured with one weekend remaining in the regular season. Four teams from the Western Division and one from the Eastern Division have qualified.

From the West, LSU (35-17-1, 18-8-1 SEC), Auburn (35-16, 16-11), Ole Miss (32-21, 16-11), and Mississippi State (34-15-1, 15-11) have clinched, while from the East, only South Carolina (35-17, 16-11) has made the field.

Both Alabama (32-19, 13-14) and Arkansas (33-16, 13-14) of the West and Tennessee (30-21, 13-14) from the East have identical conference marks and hold a slight edge over Florida (32-18-1, 11-15-1) and Vanderbilt (24-25, 11-16). Georgia (28-23, 10-17) and Kentucky (22-29, 8-18) have been eliminated from the conference tournament with one week remaining.

Teams from the West have out-performed their neighbors from the East by a wide margin this campaign.

Mississippi State coach Ron Polk said while the West teams have fared better overall this year than the East that it's "tough in the SEC" regardless.

"I've said this before in the preseason, this is a pitcher's league this year. It's not too many double-digit games this year and it's tough to sweep," he said after taking 2-of-3 from SEC-leading LSU to begin the month of May.

The Diamond Dogs just missed winning the deciding game of the series at Georgia this past weekend, dropping a heart-breaking, 9-8, decision in a marathon 15-inning contest. MSU won the Saturday game 7-5 with freshman righthander Jamie Gant (2-1) getting the win in relief of Alan Johnson.

South Carolina, which played in the College World Series championship game last year before falling to Texas, nailed down at least a tie for first place in the SEC East with a surprising sweep at Alabama this past weekend at Tuscaloosa, Ala. The Gamecocks host Georgia in the regular season finale.

This week's games could go a long way, toward not only determining seedings in the SEC Tournament, but to enhancing NCAA postseason hopes, including possibly landing regional host sites.

In the final weekend of the regular season, Mississippi State hosts defending SEC Tournament champ Alabama in a three-game series at Dudy Noble Field. The Bulldogs trail Auburn and Ole Miss by a half game going into the final weekend.

In other match-ups, LSU travels to Arkansas, Ole Miss is at Auburn, while Kentucky takes on Florida, Georgia visits South Carolina and Tennessee is at Vanderbilt.

The Bulldogs renew their rivalry with Jim Wells' Alabama Crimson Tide at 6:30 p.m. Friday followed by a 2 p.m. game Saturday before closing out the regular season with a 1:30 p.m. contest Sunday at Dudy Noble Field.

A salute to MSU's five seniors - shortstop Matthew Maniscalco of Oxford, Ala., and pitchers Steven Dowe of Tylertown, Miss., Jacob Blakeney of Magee, Miss., Joey Collums of Germantown, Tenn., and Brian Owens of Brandon, Miss., is planned before Saturday's duel with the Tide.

Since the SEC first went to tournament play in 1977, Mississippi State has played in 23 of the 26 league championship tourneys. Only Florida, with 24 previous appearances, has played in more.

Mississippi State has won or tied for five SEC Tournament championships: Won 1979, at Starkville, MSU 12, Florida 11; won 1985 at Baton Rouge, La., MSU 8, Georgia 3; won 1987 at Athens, Ga., MSU 13, LSU 3; tied 1990 at Hoover, Ala., MSU-LSU; won 2001 at Hoover, Ala., MSU 4, LSU 1.

NOTES: Texas Rangers first baseman and former Mississippi State great Rafael Palmeiro, who played under MSU coach Ron Polk, 1983-84-85, hit his 500th career home run Sunday at Arlington, Tex. Although slowed by injuries the past two seasons, Palmeiro becomes the second Major League player to reach the milestone this season and the 19th all-time, joining Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa who reached the plateau on April 4. Palmeiro's 500th was a three-run homer to right field in the seventh inning off Cleveland righthander David Elder helping spark a 17-10 win. He was mobbed by his teammates at home plate and with the fans chanting "Raffy" he came out of the dugout for a curtain call.

The "sweet swinging" lefty has twice hit 47 homers in a season (1999, 2001) and has delivered 40 or more home runs four times. Making a strong bid to win the triple crown in '99, Palmeiro, who homered in his first time at bat at Mississippi State, batted .324, collected 148 RBIs and hit 47 home runs, all career highs with Texas. "Raffy" twice hit .400 or better during an All-American career with the Diamond Dogs. He hit .415 in 1984 while drilling 29 home runs and had 94 RBIs. Former MSU star and Texas Rangers manager Nat "Buck" Showalter holds the record for highest batting average for the Bulldogs when he hit .459 during the 1977 season. Will Clark is next with a .420 average in 1985 while Jackie Parker hit .418 in 1954, Mark Gillaspie .410 in 1981, Palmeiro .406 in 1983 and Mike Kelley an even .400 in 1979.

Don Foster, a veteran newspaper writer who is the Sports Editor for the Starkville Daily News, writes a weekly article for Gene's Page. He can be reached by email at

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