A future that is right now, so to speak. Mississippi State ends the regular and SEC schedules this week at Alabama, in a series starting Thursday. By Saturday evening the Diamond Dogs should know or at least have very good indications for ensuing post-season weeks. And there is much, much to play for right now.
Bring it on, the Bulldogs are saying. "Coming off some big wins the confidence is really high," LHP Jacob Lindgren said. "We just have to keep working hard and playing hard."
Of course this time of year any and every win is big for a team with post-season ambitions. And Mississippi State (33-19, 16-11 SEC) is certainly coming off some thrilling victories. Stressful, too. The final home series came down to three nailbiters with Tennessee. The visitors took the opener 4-2 with their margin provided on two gift runs on Bulldog breakdowns.
That just set a stage for more intensity as Dogs didn't blink facing disaster. They outlasted the Volunteers after nine scoreless innings to win 1-0 in the tenth on a chopped single by SS Seth Heck with one out. Then after falling behind 2-0 immediately and 3-1 through two innings, State caught up mid-game and forced extra innings again. Three of them, before a two-out, bases-loaded walk of Walker pushed across the margin of 4-3 victory.
Because hopes of hosting a NCAA Regional are still slender the series was likely the home finale for this team. "It meant a lot, especially to our seniors," said Lindgren. "It was their last time playing here, you never know." And, possibly Lindgren and a couple of juniors who have good reason to expect a good draft position in June. So exiting Dudy Noble Field after a couple of overtime wins was that much more dramatic.
And important to staying in striking distance for some SEC goals. Mississippi State moved up into a three-way tie for third overall, even with Vanderbilt and South Carolina; and one game back of West Division leader Ole Miss. There is a tiny bit more margin on the contenders behind, as a Sunday washout left Louisiana State 14-11-1 and Alabama 14-12.
What it all adds up to is…chaos. With three games left to play five clubs, including State, remain in contention for the conference crown as leader Florida is 19-8. In the wild West four teams could come out first, though the Dogs and Tide will eliminate one or the other. LSU has the easiest path by hosting Auburn, while the Rebels are at Texas A&M.
And as the SEC Office runs down the long list of tiebreakers, since as of now seven teams are scrambling for the six SEC Tournament berths left to settle, the Bulldogs will be watching scores from Nashville where Vanderbilt plays South Carolina. State has the tiebreak on the Commodores, but did not meet the Gamecocks this season.
What everything adds up to is, State doesn't completely control championship chances since other teams must lose. What they do have in sight is a precious first-day bye at Hoover for a top-four finisher, either outright or on tiebreak. Which in turn would effectively guarantee an at-large NCAA bid, probably a good #2 seeding and possibly somewhere convenient for Bulldog fans. Fans who set records in 2014 for total and average home-game attendance by the way, as well as re-writing the NCAA campus record for game crowd of 15,586.
The home folk were getting antsy over the weekend though, as all the May momentum earned by sweeping at Auburn was endangered after Friday frustrations. The scores showed, well, there wasn't much of it by either team. The Bulldogs out-hit Tennessee, which is actually the norm down this second half of SEC season. But .241 batting showed State sticks continue to struggle for any consistency. And putting up runs?
That stays the source of all frustrations this season, though by now it ought be evident there is no real answer. Coach John Cohen and staff have assembled every imaginable batting order available, within the dictates of pitching plan and corresponding defensive lineup. Runs remain rare save for the fluke romp as at Auburn or against Vanderbilt.
And yet, the team wins more weekends than not and the lost series turned on a specific, isolated example of missed at-bat opportunity that would have changed everything. Such as the lost series to A&M, or Friday to Tennessee. That latter game exemplified issues as State stuffed all sacks in the eighth and ninth innings with no or one outs, and pushed nobody across. More runners were left stranded on third base the next two games, as for whatever reason a simple sacrifice fly has become impossible to produce.
"We just kept hanging in there and found a way to win."
Again though, somehow and some way and more to the point some body came through to secure a must-win series. In extra innings, at that. "This is a crazy game and certainly we would have liked to have ended it earlier," Cohen said Sunday. "But we just kept hanging in there and found a way to win."
Which is all that matters. In fact State has reached 16 SEC wins for a third-straight season, which doesn't sound like much until reminded it last happened in 1988-90.The flip side is what this team's record would have been with just two or three more well-timed hits. Or opponent errors. Or just a ball-four to somebody. To be sure, "It's frustrating we're not getting the key hits at the right time," said Cohen.
"I just wish we could score more runs for our pitching staff. Our position players do too, because they deserve it."
Pitching and defense have certainly come to the fore in winning five of the last six SEC games with three shutouts and only eight total runs allowed. Two of them, again, on backstop issues which are an increased concern. But holding Tennessee to .171 hitting in the series and just three—three!—innings with a run scored reminds how stout State pitching can be. Not just at home, but on the road when holding Auburn to one run in a whole weekend. In a cozy sort of ballpark, too, which is what MSU moundsmen will be working in again this weekend at Tuscaloosa.
There really wasn't a lot more to be asked of State's staff against the Vols with 18 hits in 31 innings. Or nine walks against 33 strikeouts. And the glove-work was excellent, often exceptional. Pitchers praised how 2B Brett Pirtle surely saved runs twice and likely more often with some amazing plays. Heck's did not look as spectacular but against fast Vol runners his charging gets and perfect throws deserved much more attention than given. Both third basemen, Alex Detz and Matthew Britton, handled their corner smoothly.
And in another under-appreciated aspect, 1B Wes Rea showed why despite some missteps this season he may still be the finest defensive player at his position in the country. Twice for sure Sunday he ended innings and prevented runs in the process with perfect picks of low throws. What did get the attention was his series-turning swing in the Sunday sixth, as with two outs and one on Rea took the first pitch far, far over leftfield to tie the game. "I'm so happy he did it," Cohen said, adding "If he doesn't take that swing…" It was Rea's first homer since he hit three the same day, February 22.
That shot also reprised something Cohen saw a week earlier, when CF C.T. Bradford and OF Cody Brown hit early home runs at Auburn. For whatever reason, these days the Dogs win when a ball leaves the yard. Any yard. No, the plate approach will not change to try for fences, not even this weekend. But as opponents know State seeks line drive and ground ball singles, they are not pitching to prevent home runs so much. Only more games and swings will show if this matters either way.
Regardless, pitching and defense keep priority. Especially when LHP Ross Mitchell is throwing another shutout or complete game, or both. He was relieved a little earlier than usual this week, in the seventh, because State wanted to use rested reliever RHP Jonathan Holder then and it worked. Holder won and is now 5-1, with as many decisions this season as he has saves (6)! But his working the last 3.2 left Lindgren (4-1, 1.02) ready for a long Sunday stint to get his own win out of the bullpen. Mitchell admitted he was a little annoyed to yield early, by his standards, but Cohen wanted swing-and-miss from Holder at that point.
"It's all about roles," Holder said. "Everybody is kind of settling in, this year it took a little longer but I feel everybody is kind of in that moment."
Replacing game-one starter RHP Trevor Fitts (4-3, 2.62) was also more for tactical reasons than reflection of his pitching at that point. And while RHP Preston Brown (4-1, 2.64) had a tough and short Sunday with 1.0-plus inning, he's shown before he can battle through early struggles. Though in retrospect Cohen would have stuck by a notion to go with LHP Lucas Laster (0-0, 1.52) first in game-three. Laster, and LHP Vance Tatum, are free for SEC work now with no midweek games; while RHP Ben Bracwell (3-4, 2.54) was excellent in game-one relief and RHP Brandon Woodruff (1-2, 6.32) threw enough Sunday bullpen pitches without getting in to have worked a real stint. They all obviously make for a well-stocked starting staff headed to Hoover.
In Tuscaloosa, on a short week? "I think we're fine," Cohen said. "We'll wait and see what we need to do with Ross, do you leave him on Saturday (game-three) or move him up to the Friday? But Brownie didn't throw a ton of pitches so he might be available to move up a day."
An even better position question is how State plays behind the plate. Freshman C Gavin Collins is second to Pirtle in season average, .342 to .327, and is obviously the best offensive catcher. Though to be fair, save for a big Sunday at Auburn with a home run, his hitting has tailed off in the last three series. Catching hard breaking or low stuff is the greater challenge and since the Jacksonville State loss the staff has changed catchers when changing pitchers. Until Sunday it was second-year man C Zack Randolph; only Friday he let the fourth run score on a missed pitch.
Sunday it surprised most to see rookie Walker put on the mask, especially with tough-stop Lindgren on the hill. Yet the kid rose to the huge challenge and played his position as well as could be asked. "Cody has caught me many times, I have trust in him and he has trust in me," Lindgren said. "So we're a good pair together. And all the other catchers are good, too."
Which means nobody is written-off here in the late season when everybody is likely to be needed. That includes extra hitters like Reid Humphreys and Derek Garner. While Humphreys was 0-of-4 in the series, he was coming off a big Sunday at Auburn; and two weeks earlier his clutch hit was decisive at Missouri. For his part Garner had taken just three swings since April 15 until Sunday, when he stepped in for a two-out double. It came to nought, but showed there is potential in reserve.
The coaches are evaluating their own team video for now, and will get into serious scouting next before making most pitching and lineup plans. "We'll wait and see how it lines up," Cohen said. "But we'll need everybody because it's a great Alabama team and we still have a ton to play for. And our kids realize that."
They do indeed. Surviving the last home tests, and building off a road sweep the week before, has club confidence as high as it has been all season, said Walker. "And we're going to try to do the same thing at Alabama."