Bulldogs Get Down To Post-Season Business

It is exactly what they have worked for and play for over two, three seasons. Now that the Regional is here on the home field though…the Diamond Dogs still must treat it like just another weekend or series. "We have to be able to play the game and do what helped us get to this moment," as Luis Pollorena said.

That is a mighty fine line Mississippi State must walk, because today's moment is a milestone indeed. It isn't merely the week's worth of excitement generated since Sunday when the Starkville Regional was confirmed. It is years of labor by this coaching staff to return Bulldog baseball to the Regional hosting map. Or for that matter an entire decade of waiting by fans since the 2003 Regional ended with a resounding thud.

So as crowds begin assembling through the afternoon, and play begins at 2:00 with two-seed South Alabama facing three-seed Mercer, the energy will radiate from Dudy Noble Field. It is what the Diamond Dogs have wanted.

It is also business.

"It's going to be fun," agreed Pollorena, one of the seniors who sees a goal being achieved. "This place is going to be packed. But we can't get caught-up in the environment."

Easier said than done to be sure. At the same time top-seed Mississippi State (43-17) might have found it easier to focus under the circumstances thanks to the matchup. Though they might have said ‘thanks a lot' about tonight's re-matchup with Central Arkansas (39-20). The Bears may be only seeded fourth in this field, but as Coach John Cohen reminded Thursday there likely isn't a better #4 in the entire tournament.

Central Arkansas certainly didn't look like a low-seed over two months ago when they waltzed out of Dudy Noble Field with two wins from a three-game weekend series. This fact has been rubbed in State faces all week, a useful reality check which has served to keep attention on the task at hand. Hopefully.

Left-handed pitcher Pollorena isn't scheduled to throw in this rematch; nor did he toss against the Bears back in March. He did see duty a year ago though in relief when Central Arkansas beat the Bulldogs in the last non-conference clash of the '12 regular season. And he recognizes most of the names from this week's scouting report.

"They're not going to wow you with power, but they're not going to run out of bats. They try to get on base, hit-and-run, do whatever they can." Such as getting hit 117 times in 59 games—"Either they're standing on the plate or they're not moving!" Pollorena said--or more amazingly drawing an absurd number of walks. Conventional wisdom would say, then, throw away or at least keep it mid-plate, right?

Wrong. "We have to not be afraid to pitch inside, we have to take control of the inner half, mix the ball in-and-out and mix speeds. We're not going to change our identity because of what they're doing."

There is one change Pollorena and fellow pitchers would enjoy at this intense end of the season, though. For weeks on weeks now Mississippi State has settled for shorter starting stints than their peers, handing the ball and turning the game over to an often-brilliant bullpen. It has worked well enough to earn a top-twenty ranking, a winning SEC record again, and of course Regional hosting rights.

But now that everything is on the literal line; when the only way to keep playing is keep winning, it is time for the starting staff to set a stronger pace, Pollorena agrees. "As a starter you'd like to throw out at least five, six, seven, eight innings.

"But whenever we get pulled we have all the confidence in the world whoever comes in. Whoever is on the mound is our best pitcher. So we're not scared of getting pulled early." It's just that the starters would rather stick around past the middle-point. Or longer.

They also ought to be in condition to keep chunking now. A semifinals-round exit from the SEC Tournament kept these Bulldogs from defending the 2012 championship. It has however given the entire pitching staff a little extra rest. And considering the chaotic end to the regular season, between a weather-scrambled series at Ole Miss and the early-starting weekend with South Carolina, there was already some Dog discombobulation involved.

Pollorena is Exhibit A in fact, having been ‘shorted' one day twice and two days again in his weekly schedule. The strain showed as he labored 3.1 innings against the Gamecocks on a Hoover Wednesday night. Now he ought to be primed for, presumably, a Saturday stint in the Regional's second round.

"I probably did need the rest anyway. Just being able to get that whole week ready and prepare helps out, with an extra bullpen or something." At the same time, Pollorena said for veteran pitchers throwing for-real at Hoover last week was the best preparation. Even the blowout by Vanderbilt was useful, in a make-the-best sort of way.

"And I feel those extra games helped us to, being able to get live reps. Even though we lost the game we struck them out 13 times so we know we can pitch and compete with anybody."

So tonight Pollorena will watch righthanded classmate Kendall Graveman get this Regional going, and await his own assignment depending both on State's outcome as well as results of the early Friday contest. Cohen has not actually set a starter for Saturday yet, as he and Coach Butch Thompson will naturally do some quick calculating on the best matchup and other factors.

Either way, "We all prepare the same way. Me and Kendal have been on the same program all week. So we're excited, and whoever gets the job we'll be ready," Pollorena said. Just as they are ready, more than ready, to finally play post-season baseball on the beloved field. It's time.

"We're excited to put on the white uniform, to play at home."

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