This game follows the 9:30am tourney-opener of #4 Kentucky and #9 Ole Miss. Where it begins to get really complicated is figuring what the Diamond Dogs do next. A loss would send Mississippi State to a Wednesday elimination game against the loser of the first contest. Win and MSU might have Wednesday off…if the lower-seeded Rebels also win. Otherwise State plays a later Wednesday game and…
One gets the idea. By expanding from a much more conveniently-scheduled eight teams to the current ten, the Southeastern Conference has created a bracketing monster to go with a monstrous collection of quality ball clubs assembled at one venue. This, Coach John Cohen reminded, is what his peers all asked for. "Every coach wants a ten-team tournament, at least.
"So if this is the only way to get it done we're all agreeable to that." Though, State's skipper admitted Saturday, he could not begin to explain the fresh format. "This is the honest truth, I haven't looked. Somebody just told me the one-seeds don't play the first day, I didn't even know that!"
What Cohen and club all know is they are in the tournament. And, they are going to Hoover with their goal of winning it. That is what sweeping a top-five opponent to complete the regular season can do for a team attitude.
"It gives us a lot of confidence," LHP Jacob Lindgren said. "I mean, we are confident all the time but his really boosts our confidence, I think we're going to come out strong."
The Bulldogs (34-21) certainly finished strong by taking three from Kentucky; a pair of nailbiters by 3-1 and 4-3 scores, capped by a startling 11-3 romp on one of those rare big-scoring days for this squad. A couple of huge middle-innings allowed State to start some early thinking about their prospects for both the SEC tourney and then NCAA Tournament. It might stretch things to claim the Bulldogs are a ‘lock' for post-season but most do expect to see State's name scroll across the selection board a week from Monday.
Just as it did in 2011 when a borderline Bulldog club received what most perceived as the last at-large spot. They turned that chance into a memorable championship of the Atlanta Regional and were eight outs away from an upstart spot in Omaha. Yes, those memories will be referenced here in May-June 2012.
"It's kind of like last year when we got hot at the right time," said IF/OF Demarcus Henderson, the surprise Saturday star with three big-time RBI off the bench. "Just hopefully maybe we can take it a little further this year."
Cohen agrees. "I'd like to think we can get on a roll. Our kids are confident, and they should be."
The confidence comes not simply from finishing strong. Or from posting Mississippi State's first winning SEC record, at 16-14, since the 2007 season…another team that went on an unexpectedly long tournament run. There was a point where prospects for 2012 were fading fast. Half-way into SEC season the Bulldogs were 5-10 after a sweeping at South Carolina, leaving many to wonder if even the expanded Hoover format had enough room for State.
All they did was put together a second-half surge that the best Bulldog bunches of the past would admire. They stormed through five series with eleven wins, including sweeps of Tennessee and Kentucky and a gutsy two home wins over archrival Ole Miss. If not for a still-controversial foul ball call on the final Sunday out at Alabama, this fourth Cohen club would have matched the most league wins of any since 1997.
For that matter, a 16-win season left State only three behind champions LSU, as the league title was won with less than 20 victories for the first time since 2003. Yet they are the seventh seed on one of the intricate tiebreakers which reflects just how competitive the conference was in 2012.
As complete as the turnaround was on the record, which after all is what matters, other numbers reinforce just how dramatic the mid-season change was. Back when the Bulldogs were 5-20, the pitching staff had a 4.35 earned run average and were allowing opponents to hit at a .286 clip. Compare that to what State did in the last 15 games; a staff ERA of 1.55 and average-against of .211. Also, the defense improved from .965 fielding to .979, but that statistic is not entirely accurate. Many if not most of the errors Bulldog fielders were charged with did not produce a run anyway.
That is just how dominant MSU moundsmen were in the final five SEC series. Talent, versatility, depth, all qualities State boasts, with one other. "It's holding our composure together, making sure we got outs and staying focused on winning the ball game," said catcher Slauter, who would be a fine choice for regular season MVP given his outstanding work with all those arms.
But the Bulldog headliner of course remains series-starter Chris Stratton, with his 10-1 record and 2.16 ERA which will surely earn All-SEC honors this week along with, most expect, first-round draft status in June. His role is pretty simple said Stratton.
"Give my team the best chance to win every night. Go out and try to put up zeroes, and that's what we've been doing lately."
Not by himself of course. The one-two punch of Stratton and Kendall Graveman, both junior righthanders, was a solid as any SEC pairing…and why the Bulldogs really believe they are a NCAA threat if sited in the right regional. No field wants to face these two in June, least of all in a large ballyard. Which is what Regions just happens to be, a professional park playing longer than ever after the overdue dialing-back on bats in 2011.
However there is one half-to-half statistic that belies any baseball wisdom. When they were 5-10 the Dogs were hitting .246 against SEC opponents and ranking 11th or 12th in the weekly standings. Over their 11-4 run? They hit even worse at .211, and only got back over .200 by knocking Kentucky around for 14 Saturday hits; before that it was a .196 average.
Again though, numbers can deceive. Not about the consistency of State hitting because there was none. What kept the Bulldogs in the game, and games, and even more so infuriated foes was a knack for turning rare opportunities into a run. Maybe even two. Just that sort of brief breakdown by opposing pitching was all the Dogs needed to eke out a lead or stage a comeback that the stout pitching staff could exploit. The epitome was game-two at Alabama when MSU mustered just three base hits all day. Each came with a runner on base who'd gotten there without hitting safely; each produced a RBI and a 3-2 victory.
For that matter State didn't have to get a hit to change a game. Cohen saw a perfect example in the final game as SS Adam Frazier waged a ten-pitch duel with Kentucky ace lefty Corey Littrell. "He ended up flying-out," Cohen said. "But it's those kind of at-bats against a really good pitcher that forces coaches to make decisions and gets the next guy in the game." Which eventually happened as Littrell took his first loss of the season on the last day of the schedule.
That said, a dozen-hit day at Alabama; some quality contact in the tight series at Florida; and well-struck shots against Kentucky offer encouragement Bulldog batters might, might be finding a flow. "I think the whole weekend we hit the ball hard," said Henderson, who did not hit the ball hard himself. His RBI came on a slick squeeze bunt and a chip-shot single for two more runs. Still for the rest of the team there was hard-hitting almost all the way around. "Some didn't fall and some did, but hopefully they start falling our way," Henderson said.
"We've been making adjustments in the middle of the week and changing our approaches, and things are about to turn around for us," said Slauter, crediting a lot of extra batting-cage cuts from everyone these days. And even Slauter, who could not recall the last time he'd bunted for a hit in junior college or high school, was able to squeeze-in a run Saturday. "We're doing every little thing possible to make sure we can score as many runs as we can."
The biggest base hit of the series though, and biggest period, was the three-run Friday homer by 3B Daryl Norris for a sudden 4-2 lead which held up the remaining five innings. It was the first college home run by the talented cornerman who still is not 100% back from a March 7 kneecap injury. His average has been sliding steadily while his team's record climbed, but cranking one out of the home yard was not just a series-changer.
It signaled that Norris is getting back to speed at the dish. He hit a few other balls hard before that shot, too. "I know it's in there, I'm not going to force it or anything. I'm just glad it happened." Just as it happened in game-one at last for 1B Wes Rea. Stuck in a 1-of-40 slump, the big Bulldog knocked in two RBI for a lead State never lost on a tight, controlled swing to power a hit through the left side. Then he did it again and again in the series.
Sure to start because of his defensive prowess, getting any offense from Rea is a most-welcomed bonus here at tournament time. He will still have to deal with the nagging shoulder-nerve problem that got a temporary shot-fix over the weekend. "Maybe my swing is back, and hopefully I can carry it over the rest of the season."
Norris and Rea are the obvious evidence of what State was missing in their SEC first half and now have available, if not entirely full-strength. OF Brent Brownlee will have to play on a creaking knee, and OF/P Taylor Stark be careful with that healed hamstring. Henderson, too, just got back in the real picture after breaking a finger in April. Injuries have been such a large part of the 2012 season that now that fact is almost ignored.
Not by those who know, though. "We got some of our injured guys back," is Cohen's key to the turnaround. "Just having them on the bench helped. And we had some moments of confidence happen. We had that sweep against Tennessee and the extra-inning games, I think it really vaulted our kids' confidence. And I think we have great leadership and most of that is on our pitching staff."
Speaking of which… This expanded format of a Tuesday-to-Sunday tournament, combined with the shorter turnaround after the final SEC series, make picking the pitching an incredibly strange situation. Not just for State, either. A couple of league clubs are confident and at least one other hopeful of earning a top-eight national seeding for the NCAAs, ensuring home-field advantage. All they have to play for now is a few seeding points and to keep their pitching on some sort of schedule.
One or maybe two other teams have to win games this week to lock up or even earn NCAA eligibility. Whether they dare risk the best arms on short rest is a tough call. Then there are clubs in the middle like State, who want to win the strongest possible NCAA seeding and thus the best regional berth available. And, in the case of an ultra-competitive Bulldog bunch, just keep winning period.
Cohen and Butch Thompson are making their own choices today in advance of Monday's practice on campus. What they assure is Stratton will not throw in game one no matter how important that matchup with the Razorbacks is. Wednesday isn't a sure thing either, as Stratton himself will have a say based on his recovery from 82 Thursday pitches. And as Cohen noted, that game itself was after a shorter rest from pitching at Florida the prior Friday.
Still the idea that State's ace and one of the SEC's elite arms could potentially end up not pitching in the league's central event exemplifies just how confused approaches to this year's tournament could become.
Graveman only went 55 Friday pitches in a tough 3.2 innings against Kentucky on Friday, giving up far more fly balls than usual. Hoover has more room for such stuff though. And there are other opening options. Brandon Woodruff is well-rested for one, and reliever Luis Pollorena went 28 Friday pitches and is a left-handed matchup choice. This is where State's pitching depth, starter and relief alike, ought to be an advantage.
If, of course, the club can score a few runs and stay in the winner's bracket. It is also going to test what the Bulldogs have left in the tank after a furious second-SEC-half run to finish strong. They certainly don't talk as if they are finished. "We're going to fight and get ready for Hoover," Pollorena said.
It is a fight this Diamond Dog team believes they can win, too. Given the pitching and defensive consistency, and tendencies of scratching out just enough scoring, Mississippi State ought to be regarded as something of a Hoover dark horse, Cohen believes.
"I would agree," said Slauter. "We're hot right now. I can't say I'd want to play us right now, either."
At least that part reads simply enough. Now, about the bracket diagram...