Familiar Foes Featured At Starkville Regional

If the post-season goal involved new faces in new places, the committee failed. But if the NCAA was looking to assemble quality, competitive Regional fields…well, nowhere did they succeed more than with the quartet assigned to Starkville. As Diamond Dog pitcher Kendall Graveman put it, "We have a unique situation."

Uniquely challenging, he could say, as Mississippi State prepares to host three fairly-familiar foes in this weekend's Starkville Regional. The NCAA has assigned South Alabama, Mercer, and Central Arkansas as the 2-3-4 seeds coming to Dudy Noble Field. The top-seeded Bulldogs will take on UCA (39-20) on Friday evening, after the other pair square-off in the afternoon. Gametimes are 2:00 and 7:00 though subject to update to meet TV requests.

Certainly the cameras ought to be focused on Dudy Noble Field this weekend given the Regional's composition. "Just putting a quick pen to it, I think if you add up the four RPI together you have the most difficult Regional in the country," Coach John Cohen said. The Mississippi State skipper wasn't alone in this evaluation, as that view was shared by at least one national network analyst when the entire 64-team, 16-regionals field was finally set.

Making everything that much more competitive, as well as challenging for the host team, is the degree of familiarity. "We've already played two of them this year," shortstop Adam Frazier said. "And one of them last year. So we kind of know what to expect and what they bring to the table."

What this trio brings are clubs not only capable of beating the Bulldogs; two already have. Back in the first March weekend this season Central Arkansas came to DNF and left with a series win. After falling 4-2 on Friday, the visiting Bears won 7-5 in ten innings and 7-3 in the rubber game. "They just kind of brought it to us the next two days," Frazier said. This was a year after UCA beat the Dogs 2-0 towards the end of the 2012 schedule, again in Starkville.

These Bulldogs had better results in a single meeting with South Alabama, taking a 6-4 win in Mobile back on April 2. This programs are pretty familiar anyway as they've met 65 times since 1976 in one of the region's better inter-conference rivalries. And going back again to 2012, Mercer came to DNF for a pre-conference season series. State won twice and these Bears once. That series is infamous too as it came when Mercer was using unapproved and very potent bats which cost them once discovered.

The larger point is that none of these NCAA guests will be unfamiliar or likely uncomfortable playing in Mississippi State's house. By the same token, the Bulldogs are able to apply their direct experience with the three Regional opponents towards game preparation again. As Graveman agreed, seeing those names served to focus a lot of minds after the thrill of being granted host rights.

"The only thing you were kind of anticipating was who was coming. It was relaxing to find out yesterday we were hosting. Now it's hands-on-deck so we'll be ready to go."

"I think it's a great field," Cohen said. Great for observers, he meant; for coaches it means some serious and specific preparation. True, the State staff won't have to scramble for information as is usual at Regional time. What they already know is challenging enough.

"I think if you look at the nature of this Regional, you're looking at some very good offensive clubs," Cohen said. "Some clubs that have some power. Mercer has tremendous power, Central Arkansas has very good power, and so does South Alabama. So you look at their numbers offensively and that's kind of a common thread."

Power is relative to field and conference competition and many more factors. Still these teams can swat the ball. Mercer had 56 homers this season and 116 doubles; South Alabama 30 longballs with 106 two-baggers. Central Arkansas only 21 homers and 83 doubles, but with 13 triples. Those stats belie how the Bears made contact off Bulldog pitching in March. Or, contact with pitches all season; they have been plunked 117 times in 59 games.

Plus, UCA pitching numbers are more impressive than Mercer's or South Alabama's, with a 2.78 staff ERA. "They're a good, scrappy team," Frazier said. "They're going to bring intensity every game. So we know we have our work cut out for us."

Renfroe pays the Bears the best baseball compliment. "We're going to have to pitch well, play really good defense, and treat this like another SEC weekend. Because essentially that's what it is. That's the level of competition that we're going to be playing."

The same stands for either, other opponent. Cohen figures his team remembers enough of the UCA series to prepare respectfully. "I think any time you lose you gain something if you treat it the right way. You move forward and learn from that. I'd like to think they learned something from that beating we had on Saturday against a really good Vanderbilt team also. I think that's what happened to our club, they have progressed during the course of and learned a lot."

Mississippi State won't just pull out old scouting reports of course. But Cohen doesn't deny specific preparation is simpler, especially since they played a full series with UCA and have seen their leading pitchers. True, the Bears saw State's rotation at the time too, but the Bulldogs ought to have learned a little more in the losing process.

For that matter Bulldog pitching isn't identical in late May to what was used in early March. The rotation is different and the relief cycles maybe more so as some MSU moundsmen have progressed and other regressed; or been injured. State certainly will miss the starting performance RHP Brandon Woodruff game in beating South Alabama, before his elbow went south and needed surgery.

Cohen wasn't ready Monday to set any sort of starting schedule. He and Coach Butch Thompson have to talk about it, a lot.

"We'll go back through their lineups and we'll discuss what's best for us. You know, our club is so different, our pitching staff is so different. From a standpoint of our starters are, not necessarily irrelevant; its very relevant. But at the same time our matchup out of the bullpen is most important thing to us. So more than the starter we'll spend a lot more time talking about who our first guy out of the pen will be, and those types of discussions."

Health-wise, State is close to full-strength beginning the work week. Centerfielder C.T. Bradford strained a hip flexor at Hoover in the 17-inning marathon win over Missouri and missed three full games. "He's going to spend a lot of time getting ready and rehabbing," Cohen said. "If it means him not practicing as much to get him in the lineup, that's what we're going to do. He's a really important piece to what we do." Renfroe resumed the centerfield job he filled much of 2012 when Bradford was seriously sidelined, with Demarcus Henderson going to right and either Derrick Armstrong or Jacob Robson in leftfield depending on the right or left hand matchups.

Catcher Mitch Slauter told Cohen during Monday morning hitting drills his left hand, cracked in April, is almost there again. "I feel like Mitch is getting really close to 100%." Otherwise, the Bulldogs have the usual late-season pains and strains from a long season. Practices will be twice-daily but divided by offense and defense, with pitchers on their own schedules. None will be stressful per the head coach.

"You want to do enough to make sure you're ready for Friday. But you also don't want to blow anything out at the same time."

The real stress these next three days is on the Mississippi State Ticket Office, filling the flood of demand to watch the first Regional at Dudy Noble Field since 2003. Even the eldest Diamond Dogs were barely in junior high back then, and for that matter the 2007 super regional is ancient history to them. So bringing NCAA baseball back to the home field means as much to the players as the people cheering them on.

"We enjoy playing in front of our fans because that really gets us going," ace closer Jonathan Holder said. "I'm looking forward to see it, and being a part of it."

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