Tournament baseball can create the most unusual allies. And this new-for-2012 SEC Tournament format is really twisting such temporary preferences, none more so than in Tuesday's first two games. Explained simply as possible: if #9 seed Ole Miss defeats #4 Kentucky, then #7 Mississippi State gets past #6 Arkansas, the Rebels as lowest successful seed advance to a Tuesday match with overall #1 LSU.
And, as a result, the Bulldogs will not play again until Thursday. Which would be absolutely ideal for the team in general and Stratton in particular. The junior righthander is absolutely off-limits for the opening game, having thrown last Thursday; and is questionable even for Wednesday at this point. Well, questionable to his coaches as of today.
Stratton has no questions. In fact, he would happily take the ball tomorrow afternoon on four days rest. "Yeah, I'd like to. I like to pitch any time I can! But I think whoever comes in is going to do the job. I can go Wednesday for sure, it just depends on what the coaches want me to do."
Through 2012 Stratton has done it very well indeed. His 10-1 record and 2.16 ERA surely merits All-SEC status when the teams are announced. A week ago today he was awarded the Boo Ferris Trophy as top college ballplayer in the state of Mississippi. Stratton is on the Dick Howser Award finals list now, and his June draft status just keeps climbing.
But what coaches John Cohen and Butch Thompson want to do is delay throwing their top Dog as long as practical. Not possible, but practical. The key would be getting Wednesday down, but this involves more than just the Bulldogs beating Arkansas tomorrow…as if that weren't challenge enough. If Kentucky wins the early game, State is the lowest-seeded winner in the bracket and draws the Tigers in the same timeslot. And of course if the Razorbacks win, then MSU is back at Regions Park for the early Wednesday game with either Ole Miss or Kentucky.
For his part Stratton downplays the ‘short rest' concept. "It hasn't bothered me at all. I think I did it twice this year, against Tennessee and Kentucky." Correct on both counts as each time Stratton came back from a previous Friday start, as well as long stints and tough losses at South Carolina and Florida. He won both bounce-back starts, going 9.0 of the 11 innings needed to beat the Volunteers; then 6.1 last Thursday in beating the Wildcats.
More impressively, in those short-rest starts he allowed one run to each opponent with 18 strikeouts in 15.1 innings. And, zero walks. So the starter knows what he is talking about, and a Wednesday assignment will not rattle Stratton. "It's the same amount of rest. I'll get a bullpen today and be ready to go whenever."
By not throwing Tuesday, Stratton also won't be trying to reprise what he did back on March 23 when he went 7.0 innings in a Friday win over Arkansas. That was State's lone success of the series, as the Razorbacks came back for a 8-0 evener and 8-5 brawl that lasted eleven Sunday innings. Stratton has pitched to Arkansas in Hoover though. Not long, and not as a starter but a mopper-upper in the 8-6 loss to end State's 2011 stay at the SEC Tournament.
"I got to pitch one inning. I came in one inning at the very end, just to kind of get some work in. So I'm hungry to do something, and to do something special over there." He'll just have to leave it to his fellow MSU moundsmen to get the week started. It won't be easy against a Razorback order coming off a high-scoring sweep of Tennessee. They rank fifth in overall SEC offense after the regular season with a .283 average, can hit for respectable power but are even better knocking doubles around the yard, and run the bases very well.
"They've got Ficociello, Reynolds, Carver," Stratton says rattling through the top three Hogs in the order. "They've been really good all year. And if we want to do something we've got to keep them at bay." And off bases much as possible. One thing Stratton and State do not have to fear, or not as much, is giving up the big bomb. Yes, home runs can be hit out of Hoover, but only with the perfect combinations of pitch, location, and swing.
For a guy who tends towards more fly-balls than most, Regions ought to be a productive pitching place. Just like Dudy Noble Field, notes Stratton. "We realize if you attack the zone it's really hard to leave the yard. I know we had a couple last year, the one that hurt us against Florida. But besides that we kept the ball down."
Besides, he added, "This year we've played in the five smallest (SEC) parks and I don't think we've given up very many home runs at all, maybe three or four all year." Kentucky, which hit 54 homers this season and was second-best in the SEC standings, put several drives to the warning track last weekend but nothing left DNF. No wonder Stratton wants to get a start in a professional-size park which ought—ought—to play to Mississippi State's strengths.
"It's a lot better. And we have people with a lot of sink like Ross Mitchell and Kendall Graveman who can get beneath people all day. So I feel we've got a really good shot."
Head coach Cohen agreed that a season's work at Dudy Noble Field ought to prepare the Bulldogs for this week's spacious setting. "I feel like the ballpark at Hoover plays a lot like ours, and in a lot of different ways that helps our club. But like very other series or tournament that we play in we're going to have to pitch and play defense, that's what we do."
Well, scoring some timely runs would be helpful, too. Offense has been the Bulldog weak link all SEC season, yet Stratton saw something over the final weekend sweep that might, might bode better for tournament time. Knocking the Wildcats around on Sunday actually bumped Mississippi State off the bottom of the league batting statistics, to #11 at .228 in league-play and .253 overall. Still just about an all-time low for the metal bat era at State…but progress is progress.
"That's our best hitting of the entire year, and we held Kentucky I think to seven runs the entire weekend," Stratton said. "So as long as we can keep this momentum going I think we can be in contention to host. The post-season is the time to get hot. Everything that happens in the regular season really doesn't matter once you get to the post-season. So we have to make every game count."
Now, about that rivalry-rooting? Winning a day-off would, Cohen said, "be huge. But the minute you root for anybody in a tournament situation, what you root for ends up biting you a little bit the minute you get into that scoreboard watching stuff! And kids do that because they're kids. But we're just so concerned about the Arkansas situation."
Arkansas won't be Stratton's situation. So, while he will participate as usual in the normal pre-game duties tomorrow, the pitcher can be a covert cheerleader for the traditional foe in their morning game. Really, pull for Ole Miss? "Definitely! I won't be having to pitch so I can pay a little more attention to it!"
That is what this expanded and extended SEC Tournament schedule has done. There is one other potential and definitely untended consequence of a ten-team, six-days format. It is quite possible some conference ace, whether coming off a long, hard weekend stint and not recovered or being held-back for next week's NCAA Tournament, won't take the Hoover hill at all this year. Particularly if their team goes two-and-through without throwing the best arm.
"Well, if that happens we'll take the rest and be ready to go in the regional!" Stratton grinned, speaking for all league series-starters.