Bulldog Post-Season Begins With SEC Tourney

Ross Mitchell did not have to see the bracket yet. He already knew the best part about earning the fifth seed at this year's SEC Tournament. "Thankfully we're playing at 8:30 instead of nine in the morning, so it won't be so hot."

The conditions, he means. Mitchell and fellow veteran Diamond Dogs recall quite well the drain of mid-day May play at Hoover's Metropolitan Stadium. They spent six-straight late mornings and afternoons at it last year after all. But of course it wasn't as much enduring as enjoying Mississippi State's unprecedented run to the 2012 SEC Tournament Championship.

A marvelous memory, Mitchell will agree. And while he does welcome a taste of evening baseball at the Met for a change, the Bulldog goal stays the same. "I think we have the team that can go out there and win it again," the pitcher said. "We just need to go out and have fun like we did last year."

The fun hopefully begins, or maybe resumes, Tuesday evening as #5 seed Mississippi State (40-16) takes on #12 Missouri (17-31) at an estimated 8:00 or thereabouts in the final game of opening day. Coach John Cohen's club secured the fifth seeding by taking the final regular-season series, from South Carolina. Who, ironically enough, the Bulldogs will see again Wednesday if they get past the Tigers. Not that State's skipper is thinking that far ahead.

In fact… "Now we're going to go to Hoover as a five-seed and play a solid Missouri club we don't know anything about. That will be new for us," Cohen said.

Maybe not utterly new as Cohen has a couple of links from back in the day. He began his coaching career as an assistant at Missouri from 1992-97, with three seasons assisting the current Tiger Coach Tim Jamieson. "He's one of my closest friends in the world. Maybe he'll give me a scouting report!" Or maybe not. Regardless, State's staff was pulling together available information within hours of the 7-2 series-clinching win Saturday. These teams did not play in the regular season, after all. "I'm not sure I could tell you one player's name on the roster," Cohen said.

State and Missouri have only played once before, at the 2003 Starkville Regional with host MSU winning the elimination game over Jamieson's club. Tuesday then will be the first meeting as league cousins.

The unfamiliarity creates an obvious question of how Coach Butch Thompson plans to pitch a new opponent. That isn't the foremost thought on MSU minds though, so much as what arms are realistically available by Tuesday evening. It's no joke that the extra hours earned by avoiding sixth-seed and the morning start can make a difference, maybe more so with the well-worked relief staff than the actual starters.

Counting last Tuesday's win over Oral Roberts, bullpen stalwarts Mitchell, LHP Chad Girodo, and closer RHP Jonathan Holder all threw in three games. Only in Mitchell's case did the innings really pile-up as he worked 7.0 total frames over five days. Worked very well, too, getting one win with a 1.29 ERA. That makes the soph southpaw probably the most unlikely double-digit wins man in the entire SEC as Mitchell takes a 10-0 record into the post-season.

Holder for his part scored a pair of saves, breaking the season record on Tuesday and stretching it to 15 by closing out the game-one win. Girodo's timing was perfect too, as in a couple of short late stints he went on-record and earned two victories to stand 6-1. All three State wins last week went to bullpen Bulldogs, which is no surprise this season.

It is also something of a commentary on State starting work down the SEC-season stretch. Yet against the aggressive and early-swinging Gamecocks, the usual trio were more efficient than the non-decisions showed. Much more, in the case of RHP Kendall Graveman. He had his best outing in weeks with 6.1 innings in game-two with just five hits and one walk. Even better, Graveman got back to his ground-ball ways facing an order that wanted to drive everything deep.

LHP Luis Pollorena went just past half-way in game-one with five hits and a walk as well, and even the four runs he absorbed was something of a success as he kept his team within striking distance long enough. Maybe more encouraging, given his recent struggles to get into a second inning, was the 4.1 turns provided by LHP Jacob Lindgren in the all-important rubber game with a lone run, and that on a solo home run. Lindgren didn't give up any big innings, a major proof of progress that bodes better for post-season plans.

None of these should get the ball against Missouri though. If pushed, Pollorena could bounce-back from a Thursday start by Tuesday but State would much rather rest him a little longer. "There are several candidates," Cohen said for this assignment, with indications that RHP Trevor Fitts (0-0, 1.65) would get the ball for a second Tuesday in a row. Against Oral Roberts, Fitts went 3.0 innings with two runs on four hits and a couple of strikeouts. Those weren't great numbers but what mattered more was just getting experience at planning to start, prepping before the game, and going out to the hill with all eyes on him. This should stand him in good stead the second time-out.

There are others, all righthanders, who worked little or not at all over the weekend and are now on-call Tuesday, such as Will Cox, Myles Gentry, and Evan Mitchell. Thompson would much rather not use the usual relievers if possible, and not just for this week's haul. He is already thinking about resting some arms for NCAA play. One obvious case is Holder, who showed some worrisome signs in losing a game-two save. His innings in late April and early May ran a bit high and rest is recommended.

If, Cohen said, that is possible. "Again we have to evaluate Missouri a little bit," he said. Meaning, evaluate a lot. The statistics show a team hitting .247 overall and the same in SEC play, without much in the way of power—which is largely negated by the Met's far fences anyway—or speed either. The on-base rate is 50 points behind State for the full year, and while strikeouts are almost identical the Tigers have walked only 157 times compared to 246 free Bulldog bases.

Missouri has named its starter, in tall junior lefthander Rob Zastryzny. His 2-9 record and 3.46 era might look odd, but this is a well-regarded southpaw who has often deserved better than his squad could support in a struggling season. Zastryzny has struck out 75 against 22 walks, and is used to shaking off scoring and continuing on. He is also rested, not having pitched in the final series with Kentucky due to a back problem.

After making the NCAA Tournament in 2012, the Tigers know they are concluding their first SEC season this week at the league tournament. Mississippi State meanwhile can count on a bid, and if unofficial RPI and schedule-strength listings are close enough to accurate a #1 seeding awaits. The complication though is that fifth-place SEC overall finish, and at least three conference peers essentially assured of hosting Regionals.

The Diamond Dogs want to be the fourth, and while they would not begrudge third-place Arkansas a site as well the concern is that hosting will come down to this pair. At which point, Cohen has said, everyone can find out if all the NCAA's emphasis on RPI and SOS was mere lip service or serious.

"I'm not on any NCAA committee so I'm not going to be able to help you," said Cohen. "But I can tell you this, I'm really proud of kids. I don't think, I know we played the most difficult schedule in the Southeastern Conference." And went 16-14 against it, which if the same record as in 2012 is a more impressive feat considering who this team did play…and did not. Specifically, State didn't face the 12, 13, and 14 finishers. Despite this stacked-deck the Dogs broke over .500 and reached the 40-win regular season benchmark for the first time since 1997.

The eight national seeds and host sites are to be announced Sunday after all conference tournaments conclude, an adjustment from prior years where many leagues were still playing when the word came. Last year's Bulldogs will always wonder, had the committee waited until the 3-0 victory over Vanderbilt was final and the trophy in hand would State have been allowed to host? Or at the least have a more favorable siting than prohibitive favorite Florida State?

That isn't supposed to be a question in 2013, though at the same time this is not a team that needs to win the conference tournament to earn a top NCAA seeding. Or, hopefully, siting. Either way, "We just want to take it one game at a time and see what happens from there," said LF Demarcus Henderson.

The Bulldogs will practice Monday afternoon when Cohen and RF Hunter Renfroe return from the Ferris Trophy luncheon in Jackson. Following practice the team departs for Hoover…where this year, Mitchell smiled, "We get to sleep later."

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