That would be a fine focus. And a fine outcome too, which would send Mississippi State storming into tournament time on their longest success streak of the season. Or, they could go stumbling to the SEC Tournament next week if this trip to Alabama turns out poorly. So…
"It's a big series," OF Cody Brown said. "The next game is always the biggest one of the year. If we can get off to a good start Thursday night, and just lead us into the rest of the weekend and hopefully come away with three wins."
If talking in such sweeping terms sounds bold, consider how Mississippi State (33-19, 16-11 SEC) has arrived at this pivotal point. After losing three of four April matchups, the Bulldogs have just strung together consecutive winning weekends to reach this series tied for SEC third with South Carolina and Vanderbilt. More impressively, they stand only three games behind overall league leader Florida and just one behind Western Division leader Ole Miss. Not too long ago such status seemed lost but here they are in position to come out ahead after all.
"I told our team Sunday, everything that we try to accomplish is really still within reach," Coach John Cohen said. "We still have a chance to win the SEC West, it would take some doing but we still have a chance to win the Southeastern Conference. Our kids are excited about this opportunity."
They ought be. So much remains in play beginning Thursday evening with a 6:35 start. Friday's game-two is 6:00 for CBSSportsnet, and 3:00 Saturday for CSS.
To be sure Cohen's 'some doing' is putting it mildly. The Bulldogs are three games back of league leader Florida, so catching them requires a sweep by State and sweeping of the Gators at Tennessee. And these teams didn't meet in the regular season, forcing tie-breakers…which going into the final weekend is a topic of interest almost everywhere around the SEC. Whether for overall or Division crowns, for first-day SEC Tournament byes, or just plain qualifying for Hoover, the conference Office will keep a running update of who has edge(s) on whom. As well as a watch on weather around the region since rainouts can and in the past have had a say in where everyone finishes up.
The series is pretty big for Alabama (33-19, 14-12) as well. The Crimson Tide is already booked for Hoover, and is not a SEC overall contender; so those pressures are off. But the Tide can think about forcing a tie for a title with 17-10 Ole Miss, should they get a great big hand at Texas A&M, and would hold that specific West tiebreak.
Lots of other wild cards could fold Thursday evening, including who remains in striking distance of the Gators. For a MSU program that hasn't won a SEC title since 1989, the first year the league crowned a true regular-season champion, odds of snapping a quarter-century-old string aren't high. More practically these Bulldogs are playing for their highest SEC finish since fourth in 2007 or third way back in 2000. And State has not won the Western Division in any of the formats used since '89.
Just to secure a first-round bye at Hoover would be another step in the still-going rebuilding process. It would also put State in a stronger post-season seeding position whatever happens there, since this 2014 SEC Tournament stacks up as the messiest brackets and outlooks in many, many seasons.
"I think we're in a good position," Mitchell said. "We've won more SEC games (through nine weeks) I think than since Cohen has been here and we're playing good. We haven't had the early success we'd have liked but I think we're in a real good position right her and I'm excited to see how it plays out."
Alabama can say the same. Pre-season forecasts warned that 2014 could and should be the year for the Tide to have their breakout. It happened, as Alabama was holding top West spot up until May when the schedule turned toughest. A home sweeping by Florida in tight games, then a split at LSU which never got finished due to Sunday weather, might have stemmed the momentum.
It hasn't lessened the challenge Cohen has scouted. "They're a really good club that's gotten older. You could see when all these kids were freshmen, the middle infielders and centerfielder, all of them were really good players and they just needed some experience. They're very athletic, they can defend the field. They've got some guys in the middle of their order who can really hit. They have a power arm on the front end and the lefthander with great pitchability in the middle. So they're a good club."
Since all seven SEC series begin Thursday, every pitching staff is getting ‘shorted' this week. Mississippi State is not in particularly tough shape even after needing 10 and 12 innings to beat Tennessee last weekend. Still Cohen isn't settled on how Coach Butch Thompson and he will line up the arms just yet. He would clearly prefer not moving RHP Trevor Fitts and lefty Mitchell up a day as many clubs will do with their 1-2 pitchers.
"In a perfect world I would love to keep those guys on Friday and Saturday and come up with a starter for Thursday," Cohen said. It is not so much a factor for Fitts after a 57-pitch, 3.1-inning stint last Friday; as for Mitchell coming off 6.1 Saturday innings. The southpaw's loose and low style doesn't stress the arm badly but experience this season shows Mitchell is much better after getting six days off with a couple of weight workouts and rehab stints.
Besides, Mitchell said, "For some reason the past two Friday nights have not been too good for me."
But wait, nothing is ever so simple at this point of the season. "The thing about Ross we love is he helps the starter the next day," Cohen said. "If you put him on the tail-end he doesn't have a guy behind him. It's so much easier when you watch (the opponent) up close and personal one game." Making some decisions would be easier if LHP Lucas Laster were available for Thursday, but he isn't after 5.2 middle-innings in the must-win Sunday comeback. "Even to bring him back Saturday is shorting him a little bit," Cohen said.
So the early indications would be bringing back Sunday starter RHP Preston Brown after just 1.0-plus inning, albeit he threw 30 pitches with three runs responsible. What Brown, and Mitchell, have going for them is being ground-ball type pitchers in a ballpark where fly balls can and do clear the fences much more often than at Dudy Noble Field. Ask Mitchell, who recalls how two years ago he gave Tide infielder Mikey White his first home run!
Here two years later Mitchell is more confident in his smaller-park approach. "Being more a ground-ball type pitcher it doesn't affect me too much. If we can stay in and stay low it's hard to get on our balls." As for getting long starts that is another ideal which State would welcome…but not count upon. Not with a bullpen that ought to be rested and ready even for an early-opening series.
There is one more factor to consider; the question is just how much will State or Alabama or for that matter most of their peers calculate this weekend's pitching against next week's conference tournament? This is what will make Thursday much, much more decisive than normal for a game-one. The winning team, especially if the Bulldogs, will have the inside track on a Tuesday bye at Hoover. The loser must to some degree allow for being on the park on day-one. Maybe even morning-one.
"I mean that's something you have to keep in the back of your mind," Cohen agreed. "But for right now we've got to win baseball games. That's so important for what we're doing. Tuesday or Wednesday is an issue, whenever we play. But we're going to do what whatever we can to win on Thursday. I mean whatever it takes, and then we'll let everything else take care of itself."
Mitchell agrees that for all the tournament time implications, the Bulldog future is right here and now. "We can just control what we do this weekend. We've got to focus on us and trying to get that sweep, that's what is most important and letting it play out the way it's going to play out."