Obviously lack of breaks didn't prevent the 2012 Bulldogs from winning the championship, and doing it over an unprecedented six-day course at that. In fact they defeated two teams, Kentucky and Vanderbilt, which enjoyed one-day byes during a wicked Hoover heat. That is one aspect where the '13 event is already different; the first two days were pretty warm but Thursday conditions dropped near 80 and Friday was even nicer, if windier.
"I could feel a big difference in the weather," said Frazier. "When you're not paying in 95 degree heat it's always a big plus." The biggest plus in that regard of course is that this time around State has played three-straight night games; the '12 run was done entirely in mid-day May humitures. And for those who haven't spent any time on the field or sidelines there, take it from one who knows: the Met is a true heat sink amplified by all the surrounding aluminum, concrete, and glass.
Certainly Frazier couldn't imagine playing 17 full innings under last year's daytime conditions. Even this year's opening game grind was tough enough he said. "After that marathon we had to begin, if we hadn't had two night games following that I guess I wouldn't be standing here right now." He meant literally standing, too.
Coach John Cohen knows something about Hoover heat after his 1990 five-day experience there, on another Bulldog team that won a SEC Tourney championship. "Playing at night, that's big. I think it changes the whole deal when you're playing in the heat. And thank goodness Hoover ordered up some cooler weather for us."
So. What does the coach have in mind for MSU this off-day? The pitchers, he leaves to Butch Thompson to stay on script, which LHP Ross Mitchell feels good about already. The key, he said, was RHP Myles Gentry's remarkable and successful relief stint in beating South Carolina in the second round. "That was a ridiculous performance, really big, He set us up for today, which sets us up for another day and gives us an off-day," Mitchell said.
As for the entire team, "We'll probably do some lifting and conditioning stuff," said Cohen, noting there'd been none of that since Monday. "And we'll have a little work session; we'll have some fun and they'll be able to watch some games and do some things during the course of the day. But at the same time we'll get some work done on Friday."
Frazier for his part wasn't exactly overjoyed when hearing his coach talk weightlifting. "Nah, we don't want to do that!" Mitchell however was already energized about playing another sort of game.
"We're at the (Galleria) mall and there's a ping-pong tournament tomorrow. I think I'm going to be in that so it will be fun," Mitchell said. No joking. Table tennis is a regular Diamond Dog pastime on the locker room layout and it does get quite competitive. "We've got some good players on the team," said Mitchell. The mall tourney format is singles though and that's a disappointment of sorts.
"Me and Brandon Woodruff are doubles champions in the locker room." Then again, Woodruff is sidelined for months after elbow surgery so Mitchell has had to go free-agent for teammates lately. "I'm having to find other people so it's heartbreaking."
The team stayed in Hoover today, but the head coach excused himself. Beating Texas A&M to stay in the winners bracket was a big in many ways, but "I guess the most significant thing about this victory is I get to watch my daughter Jordan graduate, which was a point of concern for everybody in the Cohen household!"
NAME THAT TUNE: Diamond Dog fans do a fine job making Hoover, or many another post-season venue, feel like a home away from home to their team. Stadium and SEC officials still buzz about the fantastic fan turnout for the championship games of 2005 and 2012 when Bulldog backers packed the park on short notice. None say so on-record but the easy access to Hoover for Mississippi State fans, and to a lesser extend those supporting Ole Miss and LSU, is a trump card in continuing the tournament here.
But for a moment Thursday evening the Met really did have a ‘Dudy Noble' feel to it. Or a sound, rather. Whether by sheer coincidence or maybe a little suggestion—no one was saying—when Jonathan Holder entered for the ninth inning save situation, his song came on. Yes, the Johnny Cash rendition of "God's Gonna Cut You Down" rang from the stadium speakers, just as it does when Mississippi State's ace closer leaves the home bullpen.
"That was pretty cool," Frazier said. "Our fans love it. We had a feeling he's going to shut it down; no doubt now when he heard that song. And whatever he likes and gets him in that zone, go for it!"
With or without that specific soundtrack, Holder has enjoyed a resounding sophomore season. He scored his 16th save last night, increasing the record he broke (it was 13) only eleven days ago. Holder now has 25 career saves, albeit a career that is not quite two entire seasons so far; and now is alone in second-place on that list. Only Van Johnson's 29 saves in 1995-98 still stands above Holder.
The closer Cohen called "the big guy" last night, Holder also has 79 strikeouts this season, in just 45.0 innings.
SHOT HEARD ROUND THE SEC: He may be having a rough week with the bat. But anyone writing-off Hunter Renfroe as a factor in this SEC Tournament had to reevaluate opinions after the undisputed defensive play of the series so far.
With Mississippi State having just expanded its lead to the final 6-4 margin, Texas A&M had a one-out baserunner in the bottom of the seventh. It was the first Aggie to reach on reliever Mitchell and kept pressure on both he and his defense to maintain the tight margin. After all, A&M had been the offensive surprise of the tournament to-date with four home runs.
The Aggies weren't playing for a longball there though; they had a pinch-runner Brandon Wood on first base and Krey Bratson at the plate. The batter had scored A&M's last run to boot. He did his job this turn too with a well-lined drive into short centerfield.
Renfroe, playing standard depth, read the trajectory immediately and got his usual good jump. But even those who saw him make running gets and strong throws last season were re-amazed by what came next. He not only blazed in to steal the base hit from Bratson, he unloaded a strike towards first base on the proverbial string. 1B Wes Rea did his part perfectly, looking nonchalant right up to the last instant of sticking up the mitt and making the catch.
It was awfully close from all angles—"I thought he was safe!" Frazier said--but umpire Gregory Scott couldn't resist ringing Wood up for a unique double-play. The double-irony there was Scott had missed a call the previous night on State, calling a dying drive by 2B Brett Pirtle a diving catch in leftfield when replay proved it had been trapped.
The big buzz though was Renfroe's rifle-throw. "My neck hurts from watching that ball go to first!" said Mitchell. "We were saying in the dugout we thought we had seen it all from Hunter. But he just keeps doing different things that shock us."
Renfroe was playing centerfield Wednesday and Thursday nights as usual CF C.T. Bradford is out with a muscle bruise, his status for Saturday still uncertain. Of course Renfroe handled that position over half of '12 when Bradford was also out with a serious injury, and made both great gets and awe-inspiring throws. This one, now, even Cohen called special.
"I don't know if anybody in college baseball would have made that throw. Scouts ask you about Hunter Renfroe, you say every once in a while he does something where our entire club just is silent and then they go…wow. He might have thrown that ball 105 miles an hour. Even though he didn't get any hits tonight he's a guy can change the game just like that. That was a huge double-play."
And, the 69th of Mississippi State's season. This is only two twin-killings short of last year's program-record 71 in 64 games which also led the NCAA.
SPEED THRILLS: No Dog will run 105 mph, but neither is this a slow squad by any standard. Mississippi State has flashed some speed at various points this season, yet here at tournament time Cohen is giving his guys freer rein to run. Not always straight steals, but taking off before contact or going for extra bases or getting squeezed in.
Or, not; there have been spectacular failures to successfully squeeze runners from third base in the last two weeks. But neither cost the Dogs a game directly or otherwise. Besides, this show of speed apparently has put opponents on edge; because South Carolina, both in the final series and the SEC Tourney, and Texas A&M have gaffed some routine plays under the pressure.
Thursday evening though, the pedal was clearly being pushed more often. As Frazier said, "That's the first time I guess since I've been here we really took advantage of hits and runs," Frazier said. "We've got a lot of team speed and any time you can use it that puts pressure on defense and puts us in better position to win."
So why the restraint up until now? Not surprisingly it is all about matchups to Cohen.
"All the elements were there for us to do a little more hit-and-running. We were going against guys who had some sink, we got into a little right-handed on the mound which allowed us to get better jumps. And our kids responded." Besides, the coach added, "You can put those plays on all you want but if you don't execute them they don't work. And our kids really executed."
None more obviously than LF Derrick Armstrong. He practically created State's insurance seventh-inning run on his own accord—or Ferrari rather—by first bunting his way on base; then stealing second and forcing an errored throw to make third for free.
"Pressure, pressure, pressure," Cohen said. "The bunt, he runs a 3.7 and we're going to run him somewhere in that sequence. And he beats the ball there and it hits him and gets into centerfield." Armstrong didn't have to haul it towards home to score; that was where Frazier's quick feet came into play as his grounder was stopped by a diving Aggie shortstop. He threw it for first anyway even though Frazier was just about there already with his fourth base hit of the evening.
TRACKING A TREND: This is the sixth time a Mississippi State team has begun a SEC Tournament, whatever the format, with three-straight wins. In those previous five cases, four championships resulted.
This was automatic of course in 1979 and 1985, back when the field was just four teams; two from each division. The '79 title is well-remembered by elder Dogs; not only was it the first SEC Tournament ever played at Dudy Noble Field, the home team won in most dramatic fashion as Rick Dixon walloped a three-run homer in the eighth inning to beat Florida in the title game.
No such offensive theatrics were necessary in Baton Rouge in '85. The pitching of Jeff Brantley, Gene Morgan, et.al., took care of three wins to bring home that trophy. 1987 in Athens was another matter, as a State team that only qualified for the first-ever, six-team tourney field on the last day by sweeping Alabama went on an improbable four-day tear to the title. Also, in those cases and years, up to 1988 the SEC Tournament champ was the official conference champion.
And 1988 marked the only failure so far after three opening wins, or when Bulldogs reached a title game. That State squad dropped a double-header to Florida, at Dudy Noble Field, on championship day. The 2001 tournament title team of Pat McMahon actually lost in the second round but came back the long way to win it all at Hoover. And four years later, in his second State stint, Ron Polk scored his fourth and final SEC Tourney trophy with a flawless four-game run capped by knocking off Ole Miss in the championship game.
As noted by Frazier, the '12 tourney team did drop a game-three but was able to recover and win Mississippi State's seventh SEC Tournament. Four of these have been earned in Hoover; 1990, 2001, 2005, and 2012. Can 2013 produce a fifth ring?