Diamond Dog NCAA Tournament Notebook

Only daily observers of the Diamond Dogs would have noticed. But there are lots of those, and they did indeed notice that fellow wearing the 30 jersey last week. "My wife was like, you revealed your number finally," Coach Butch Thompson said.

Now it isn't as if Mississippi State's pitching coach was hiding the digits or anything. Thompson's number has been published on the roster all four seasons for the SEC world to know. For that matter the 30 has been on the cap some years, the practice gear, and the shell-style pullover.

It's just that Thompson has preferred all along to keep the pullover on all season, requiring opposing-team radio crew to guess who that coach stalking to the mound to make changes was. That came to a halt midway of the championship run through last week's SEC Tournament, and not by Coach Thompson's choice.

Mrs. Coach Thompson put her foot down. Or held the nose or something. "My wife was getting on me. I've always worn the ‘trash bag' there and it was getting pretty strong." As in days of hot weather starting to tell, or smell. Understand, unlike those football assistants who try to prove how tough they are by wearing sweat-shells during two-a-days, Thompson freely admits to superstitions. With the Bulldogs on a six-weekend tear why risk annoying the Baseball Gods by making a change?

But there was one higher authority than those B.G.'s and she won. By great good luck, so did the Bulldogs beating LSU in ten innings with some pretty fabulous relief pitching patched together with their coach in a regular uniform. "And I said I'm going to keep wearing it!"

Coach John Cohen agrees, his pitching coach can be "pretty superstitious!" Still there was a larger reason for wearing a shell over uniform jersey, and not just the chilly early-season conditions. "When you try to get somebody's attention and there are forty guys in uniform in the dugout, it's hard to," Cohen said. "Though Butch and I are probably a little more wide than several of our players! But if you're wearing something different its more noticeable."

And being noticed by a player who needs to know something is worth the extra ten or so degrees in a hot post-season dugout. That isn't superstition.

There is a twist to this making for more than the standard dugout data college baseball produces, directly applicable to Mississippi State's rivals in the Tallahassee Regional. Why 30? Thompson wears the number of his coaching mentor Brian Shoop, who of course brings UAB to this weekend's reunion. Shoop wore 30 as an aide to Ron Polk (1883-89) at Mississippi State.

However, "I was 26 at Birmingham-Southern, that was my dad's birthday," Thompson explained. He would have taken the same numbers when hired by Cohen to coach Bulldog pitching, but "Scott Deloach was 26. 30 was available and it had some significance for me, so that's it!"

MENTORING PROGRAM: Want one more numerical twist? Nowadays 26 is worn by graduate assistant Brad Corley, the former Diamond Dog (2003-05) outfielder who came back to campus this school year. "Brad needed a degree and needed us, but he's left a mark in one year's time by what he's done for us," Thompson said. In the bullpen, he means.

State fans recall Corley for his team-leading batting and slugging numbers, but he did do some occasional pitching back in the day as well. Now he reports to the pen along with relievers, watches, and reports to Thompson and Cohen. "The guys just listen to him, after his years in pro baseball," Thompson said. "And how he's run our bullpen—Greg Drye can stretch them out—he has meant so much."

Cohen agrees. "One of the unsung heroes on this is Brad Corley. He's in the bullpen saying I'm not sure this is coming out of his hand the way we know it can, what do you think about this guy?" Given the remarkable results from bullpen Bulldogs this season, Corley has earned his coaching spurs. Which is why next spring he will have his own high school team to coach.

Corley also now has his own piece of program history. He was the starting rightfielder when Mississippi State won the 2005 SEC Tournament championship; now he has been an assistant with another Bulldog team to take home the trophy from Hoover. His boss, Cohen, is the first SEC skipper on record to have won a conference tournament as both a player (1990) and now head coach (2012).

There could well be another future skipper in this Diamond Dog dugout. Sure, he is majoring in business and has talked about a real world career. Yet there are times Caleb Reed doesn't just act like a coach, he is one. Talk, especially.

"He don't shut up!" Thompson said.

Happily most—most—of what the senior reliever says is worth hearing by Bulldog pitchers who acknowledge what his expertise has meant in their own development. Jonathan Holder most of all, who has succeeded Reed as the closer; while his elder now typically sets Holder up to seal deals. And speaking of deals…

"Caleb can coach, but he can sell ice to Eskimos," Thompson said. "He's the salesman type guy that can talk to anybody, and the guy over the last four years I've had to say ‘be quiet' too the most! Caleb can probably do anything, he's probably the most adjustable dude in our program and can do everything at a high level."

Fans naturally assume State's coaches are control freaks based on all that attention to details. Ironically, Cohen said his real goal is getting a team to the point it can just about manage itself. "I love being a coach, so does Coach Thompson. But more than that you love having ten coaches. I've said that from the moment I've been here." The trick is having old hands around who can handle younger talents. Here in 2012 the Reeds and Brent Brownlees and Corleys have been up to the roles and responsibilities.

"Caleb has taken Holder under his wing and said yeah, I'd love to be that guy at the end of the game but you're going to be that guy and I'm going to help you get there," Cohen said. "I'm going to go get the right-hitters out and you're going to finish this thing up. When you have that many selfless guys helping the process out makes it that much easier."

TOGETHER AGAIN: The NCAA's selection-and-siting committee had to have a few chuckles, at least those who know, when lumping Mississippi State, Samford, and UAB in the same Florida State regional. There are so many ties between the three programs both over the years and currently as to keep columnists busy all week. Even a NCAA publication writer has filed a story on the links, though that also brings grins to those familiar with Polk's tumultuous relationship with the governing body.

No sooner was the field announced than Cohen's cel went into meltdown. "I really pride myself on returning emails and phone calls. This week has a been a real challenge, but I feel I'm back on top of it. there is a lot of familiarity with all these clubs."

By pure irony, before the selections were announced Thompson had conversed with Shoop that morning. They talk often anyway, and Thompson recommended Shoop's hire of pitching coach based on when the young coach had attended Thompson's summer camps at Georgia. Of course there is always that other presence on the field, though these days Polk wears 35 instead of the 1 he made famous at Mississippi State. Word of advice to reporters: don't ask him why this number, because he will only be too happy to explain.

There are also three former Diamond Dogs now playing in green-and-gold - righthanded pitchers Michael Busby and Tyler Johnson and lefthanded pitcher David Hayes. And, of course, senior Patrick Palmeiro, in his second season with the Blazers, is Rafael's son…though the kid hits righthanded. He still hits it well that way and had the key RBI in a 2011 rain-interrupted victory over State.

Mississippi State may or may not rematch with UAB, but they will certainly be facing off with Samford on opening day. Thompson has the ties here, having been an assistant at Auburn when Casey Dunn was playing there. For that matter Thompson scouted and recruited many a player turned out by Dunn's father who was coaching Vestavia Hills HS. As for players, Samford lefthander Lex Rutledge was a pitcher for Tupelo High when State's Chris Stratton was the ace.

Overriding it all of course is the prominent presence of Florida State's legendary Mike Martin, one of the few skippers who trumps Polk in the career wins total. It stands now at 1,716 to 1,218, by the way. Polk took two Bulldog teams to Tallahassee Regionals, going 0-2 in 1993 without playing the home team; but 3-0 in 2007 with two wins over the Seminoles.

And on and on the connections go this week. "You know, baseball is a tight little circle nationally," Cohen said. "But when you get into with this type of circle with these four teams it's really tight! Even though we didn't play them there is some familiarity there. And these are very good teams in a great regional."

"This is crazy, the way it set up," Thompson said. "This is just a cluster of relationships." Though, he added, "When the game starts you'll cut the other guy's throat to win!"

LAY OF THE LAND: The Bulldogs will practice late Thursday morning before their flight to Tallahassee. But they also want to get a feel for Dick Howser Stadium before game-day, since no active Dog has played here before beyond maybe a camp visit of years ago.

This is something of particular interest to Brent Brownlee. He's heard reports about the interesting rightfield layout, of the straight fence extending to centerfield before changing angle. But that's just second-hand talk; this senior needs to see and judge for himself.

"That's one thing, when we get their Thursday night to get out in the outfield and throw balls off the wall and see how it plays out. And let Coach (Nick) Mingione hit some fly balls and see the surroundings. It's huge when you go to a new ballpark, you want to know the dimensions and how much foul territory you have. Like you said, a straight-line is different after playing last week at Hoover and so many home games in a big outfield."

DHS is not really as ‘small' as many might make it sound; the fact is that Bulldog outfielders are just used to being in a truly large college park. No wonder they more than most felt so at-home last week in AA-sized Regions Park. LF Demarcus Henderson was named all-tournament in no small part due to some great grabs, but Brownlee and CF Hunter Renfroe could just as easily earned that honor.

Still this will be a smaller, relatively speaking, venue. And given the odd angles there is some fast away-from-homework for Brownlee and cohorts. Of course, they're used to adjusting on the run by now. Four seasons in the SEC has given senior Brownlee a wide range of experiences. What, for example, is the toughest rightfield he's played?

"I would say Alabama. Because their foul line, the wall is right close to the foul line. It's a little different and I'd never experienced that. They had the pads down the wall that kind of stuck out a little bit and the ball would hit that and stop."

Then, what was his favorite…besides DNF of course? "I really liked Auburn. I thought I could see the ball well, I just felt comfortable out there for some reason."

Brownlee is comfortable playing any part of the outfield. Last year at this NCAA time he was starting in left. And, doing so in tighter stadiums such as Georgia Tech and Florida. One of the real tricks can't be scouted, he adds. Only on game-day can outfielders find out what the background is like, and that really requires adjusting on the fly. Ball.

"Exactly. Sometimes they have that wall back there. And sometimes you have a tall pitcher and their ball stays in the stands. And you can't really see the flight of the ball off the bat. Georgia Tech was like that with a short wall. But it's just something you have to work with and be focused in on, and just be able to see the flight and get that good jump."

Defenses adjust to conditions. The Mississippi State offense? Not so much. At least, Renfroe does not expect any Bulldog batter to get fence-fascinated and start swinging for teasingly shorter distances.

"I don't think so. We're not a big power team so we focus on staying in the middle, hit line-drives, and do our thing. Take HBPs, get walks, take marginal pitches and try to do our best to get on base and just let things happen for us."

But like everything else…nobody really knows until everybody lines up, the pitch is thrown, and somebody swings shortly after noon Friday.


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