A second half which begins with Mississippi State (23-15, 7-8 SEC) at Missouri. Game times are 6:00, 2:00, and 1:00 for Easter Weekend, and the weather forecast has eased up considerably from original outlooks. The forecast on the field? That hasn't changed a lot as far as opponent and opportunity, said 2B Brett Pirtle.
"I know they're better than last year and they were a good team last year. So they're going to be a tough team to take a series from. It's going to be fun, though."
The Tigers may be 17-18 at the moment, and a game back of the Bulldogs at 6-9 SEC. But they are coming off a potential turning-point of their own after taking a series at Kentucky. Plus, Pirtle and fellow veterans remember the teams' meeting of last season on opening night of the SEC Tournament. It turned into morning too as Mississippi State needed 17 innings to take the 2-1 win at Hoover, tying for longest-ever Bulldog game anywhere, any time.
This is the first-ever meeting of the programs as SEC kin. Coach John Cohen knows something both about this Tiger team and the venue; he coached there from 1992-97 after all. "They're playing well right now," Cohen said. "Having watched their series at Kentucky they're a really solid club that can do a lot of things well. Hopefully we can go up there and play well because this is the time of year you need to start playing well."
Actually these Bulldogs have played well already this season, at least in a three-week stretch to begin the SEC schedule. Two struggling series with five losses later they are 7-8 beginning the decisive second half of SEC season. Though this also isn't exactly what it seems no surface; though under .500 at half-way the Bulldogs are, incredibly, only three wins behind the overall league leader. Meaning that mathematically State is a sweep, and corresponding sweeping, out of a first-place tie. More practically they go into the weekend in a five-team (five!) tie for seventh place…and a single game in front of the three clubs knotted in last place which coincidentally includes Missouri.
This massive muddle sets up a mad dash for conference clubs wanting at least a top-four finish, to avoid the one-and-done opening day at the SEC Tournament, and remain in contention for hosting regionals. Some analysts again project double-digit NCAA bids for the conference this wild season, but the road to Omaha is easiest beginning at home.
Mid-schedule pressures are nothing new for this club, as Rea reminded. "We're a game behind where we were at this point last year and look how it turned out for us. We've got the problems, we put them behind us, and look from a long term standpoint and say we're not far off where we need to be."
"I mean we've been through it," said Pirtle. "Last year middle of the season in SEC we lost three series in a row, before you knew it we were in the national championship."
Any sort of second-half surge much less post-season run will require quick and considerable improvement at the plate. Beating up on Alcorn State's feeble pitching in a 16-2 rout was nothing to brag about, but it did relieve some pent-up frustrations. "We needed a night like that, the sticks have been struggling," Rea said.
Which is putting the position mildly. The Bulldogs rank 10th both in SEC batting after five series (all team stats reported are conference-games only) and more to the point in scoring. The latter is what matters as last weekend showed, when State actually hit well by this season's standards with a .303 average. But too few hits came when baserunners were positioned to score and only five of the 33 safeties were doubles. For that matter there was a (that word again) frustrating percentage of two-out singles that led to nothing on the scoreboard.
However, within these issues is the solution, Pirtle pointed out. Reaching base—something he has now done in 44 consecutive games against SEC opponents whatever the setting—is supposed to be the hardest part. If the Dogs can keep doing that, then everything else is possible.
"Right now we're getting the hits," said Pirtle. "We just need timely hitting, that's really all we need. Lately that's what we've been slumping in, getting the RBIs. But the offense is there, so all we need is the key hits. After we get those it will fall into place."
On the SEC stat sheet the Tigers look to have similar offensive issues; eighth in batting at .255 and with just 48 runs scored in 15 league games. But numbers are risky rating devices. Missouri just went into Kentucky, one place with a real home-field advantage, and out-scored the Wildcats to win a series and gain momentum.
State has re-arranged the rotation, something which has become more the norm this season anyway. The latest round of revisions stems from a sore shoulder that has kept RHP Preston Brown out of Friday work for two weekends already and maybe more, Cohen indicated today. For now, LHP Ross Mitchell (5-3, 2.15) and RHP Trevor Fitts (3-3, 3.29) are the scripted starters again; but they exchange days after last weekend with Fitts beginning this series and Mitchell back in his game-two role that began at Georgia.
Making long-left reliever Mitchell a starter has proven priceless. He has worked 40.0 of 45.0 possible SEC innings with a 2.47 SEC ERA, and not only provided wins or at least the chance for them but saved bullpen in the process. While that certainly is welcome on the first Friday of a weekend, State is just more comfortable counting on Mitchell to take care of game-two so top relievers can be used as needed the first contest and be fresh enough again by Sunday. Fitts hasn't been as long-lasting with 20.1 SEC innings in five starts, but the potential is there for stronger stints.
"Ross has operated well on Saturday for a variety of reasons," Cohen said. "And I think hitters are a little different on Friday than on Saturday. Ross is definitely a creature of habit and moving him up was something I really fought. I think on Saturday he makes the Sunday guy better in a lot of ways."
Make that Sunday guys, as with Brown out and Fitts moved up game-three will fall to either RHP Ben Bracewell or RHP Brandon Woodruff. Both worked last Sunday and took shellings, but in fairness they also had each tossed a lot of pitches the previous Tuesday. Now they are better ready for a weekend job.
"Both those guys are disappointed how they pitched on Sunday," Cohen said. "We got them more rest and hopefully they'll be able to perform like we think they can."
Giving up 29 runs the last two Sundays combined has inflated State's staff ERA a lot but they know—as does Missouri—that the current 4.16 doesn't reflect how the Dogs can pitch it. And the defense remains first in the SEC in fielding too. The Tigers by the way are 14th in staff ERA and sixth in defense. Both would seem aspects the Bulldogs must attack this weekend to begin putting up some real runs. In this year's SEC it doesn't require a whole lot of those to be sure; just more than Mississippi State has been producing so far.
"We're going up there with the right approach," Pirtle said. "Just right now it's not going the way we want it for RBIs. We're going to play through it." And, he implied, start producing those key contacts that bring teammates around and home, as well as allow the Dogs do resume the aggressive baserunning that was key to winning the three March series. All it takes is that one hit. Just the one big, timely, and even unexpected hit to change both scoreboards and mindsets, said Pirtle.
"It will come. It's baseball. As long as we stick with our approach and not press at the plate it's going to come."