Diamond Dogs Transition To Tourney Season

Tournament season begins Tuesday…or does it? This is what makes the Southeastern Conference's week in May such an annually intriguing event. Is the SEC Tournament a goal in itself, or the next stage towards a larger goal? Judging by his Saturday comment, John Cohen was already looking along parallel tournament-tracks.

"Now we get into post-season, and everything is about building your resume for the NCAA Tournament," the Mississippi State skipper said minutes after ending the regular schedule. "I think we still need to do that."

Before any panic, the coach is not at all implying there is any question of these Diamond Dogs participating in the national championship tournament. A 35-20 record and fifth-place conference finish assures Mississippi State of an at-large berth and fourth-consecutive NCAA appearance. A 18-12 SEC mark should guarantee a #2 seeding as well.

So what Cohen means is between now and Sunday's selecting/seeding/siting all to be announced Monday, the Bulldogs are playing to improve their status in all three categories. They want to be as highly-rated a seed as possible. Which in principle—if not always in NCAA practice given the geographic complexities--would put them in a more favorable Regional within easier driving distances. Certainly there are many schools projected to host who might not want to see the Diamond Dogs themselves in their bracket, but would love to have the team's legendary fan following filling the grandstands.

But, there is still work the Dogs must do to strengthen that case. Which brings everything back around to Hoover, and the immediate business in store. For State it begins, and if they stumble could quickly end, Tuesday in the single elimination matchup with #12 and final seed Georgia (25-28, 10-18). Game time is, well, late because it is the fourth and final contest of opening day and Hoover veterans know how far four-game schedules can get behind.

It is not unfamiliar territory for most of these Bulldog veterans though. State was also the #5 seed last year and drew the late slot, which went really, really late before outlasting Missouri 2-1 in 17 innings and the longest SEC Tournament game ever. Playing practically two complete games in one didn't keep those Dogs from winning two more and reaching the semifinals.

And whatever other programs' approach, none can accuse Mississippi State of taking this tournament lightly. It is arguable Bulldog baseball did more to inspire if not outright create the modern SEC Tournament with eye-opening fan support in the 1980s. The result was in 1990 Hoover first hosting the event—and Mississippi State sharing the championship with Louisiana State after a weather-forced Sunday conclusion. After a few more years playing with school hosts and other sites, the tournament returned to Hoover in 1998 to stay and is contracted further through 2016.

Bulldog teams have won it all in this park in 2001, 2005, and 2012. The latter made history as those Dogs had to play six-straight days to take the title in maybe the most unexpected title run in event annals. Cohen of course played in that watershed 1990 Tournament, and coached the '12 club to the crown which remains commemorated on the Dudy Noble Field scoreboard sign.

And yet…as Cohen's comment reminds, this is a week where teams assured of NCAA participation have little to lose and maybe something to win. Either way, "Our kids are looking forward to that opportunity. Hopefully we can get a little bit of rest and some good work in-between and get ready for that."

This year resembles 2011 and '12 more than last year, when Mississippi State was playing to host a Regional. Which they did and won en route to their run for the College World Series. Hosting is not absolutely impossible at this point but would require a lot of unexpected and outright fluke outcomes around the country. 2012's championship in Hoover didn't tip the balance towards hosting though this '14 team does go in with a much better SEC finish and the most conference wins of Cohen's tenure to date.

At this point though the Dogs will take their expected assignment elsewhere and try to run with it again, like the 2011 team did by winning a road Regional. Last year's club had to win its super Regional at Virginia as well, so tournament play away from home is something State is comfortable with. This team maybe more than most; they went 8-4 in SEC road play and won four of the five road series, including the finale at Alabama. Going into Saturday's game-three they had won eight-straight league away games and barely missed making it nine in a 2-1 loss.

Though the very last game was a modest letdown, it didn't take away from how State handled the second half of their conference schedule. Or more specifically, the mid-schedule sputters in losses at LSU and to Ole Miss after opening 6-3. Having dipped under .500, the Bulldogs bounced back strong.

"I'm really proud of our kids, go 11-4 in the second half," Cohen said. "They just made a decision we're going to have a great second hand and put ourselves in contention, and that's exactly what happened." Closing out the regular schedule strongly sends the squad into their favorite time of the year in a positive mood, too.

"We've had a good SEC year right now," 2B Brett Pirtle said. "So we're just going into the tournament and need our momentum to keep going. Just keep doing the simple things and not trying to do too much."

The other Bulldogs will have to do very, very much to extend their season, since only a .500 record qualifies for NCAA play. That, or winning the SEC's automatic bid. So much like Missouri a year ago State's Dogs will face a team just trying to extend their season past single-elimination, and they discovered how dangerous such a club can be in an all-or-nothing situation.

Curiously these clubs opened SEC season against each other, with visiting State taking the series in Athens. More coincidentally that was the weekend Mississippi State made a crucial pitching decision after dropping Friday's opener 7-1. Longtime lefty reliever Ross Mitchell was moved into a starting role and won game-two; and RHP Trevor Fitts moved back to game-three for another victory. Since then Mitchell has been the rock of this rotation, best in a second-day or –game setting; and after showing what he could do on Sundays Fitts eventually took over Fridays.

Little of that applies this week of course, with a Tuesday opener. Even the late slot doesn't justify risking the rotation leaders on too-short rests. But more by luck than planning State can put a good arm on the mound in the opener. "At this point I'd be shocked if it's not (Lucas) Laster," Cohen said Saturday. The lefthander was considered to start game-three at Alabama before RHP Preston Brown got the ball. It didn't work out well for Brown or State in a small ballpark, but did leave Laster fresh. His last outing was May 11 with 5.2 innings against Tennessee.

Laster is not quite the same sort of ground-ball pitcher as Mitchell. But, "It's a big ballpark and Laster has pitched well in our ballpark and down in Pearl as well," Cohen said. "I think he's a good matchup, but we're going to have to look at Georgia and see how well he matches up with them." Laster did not throw at Athens. He did pitch well in a start against the Rebels in Trustmark Park, with 5.1 innings, in what is his only start against any SEC opponent to-date.

Though Coach Butch Thompson might shy from using lefty relief ace Jacob Lindgren too much too soon after two stints at Tuscaloosa, righty Jonathan Holder is certainly ready to go again. So is most of the bullpen by then if only for short outings in what, hopefully, is a long stay. How long, now, is always a topic of debate. State was left so drained by winning it all in six 2012 day games they had nothing left for the Regional round.

Exiting in the '13 semifinals worked out much better in a Regional that stretched out to four days as things developed. There is no sure-thing formula to follow as every squad differs. But on the whole, Bulldog teams enjoy this Tournament no matter what it portends for the NCAAs.

And, they want to accelerate their May momentum on into June. There's no mystery to how it is done now, said Mitchell. "I think we're just playing good right now, to be honest. We have a good plan each inning we go out there."

Mitchell and Lindgren will have an off-field matter to take care of first. They and Cohen will be in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame tomorrow for presentation of the Ferriss Trophy, awarded to the state's top college ballplayer. At last report Mitchell was running away with fan voting, though that accounts for just 10% balloting in who wins the award named for Mississippi State's legendary and beloved Dave ‘Boo' Ferriss. Diamond Dogs have won four of the eight Ferriss Trophys, including 2013 with outfielder Hunter Renfroe

Cohen will have his final call-in radio show Sunday evening at 7:00. Their tentative schedule today was to practice Monday and travel to Hoover on Tuesday.

The winner of the late day-one game meets South Carolina in the same slot Wednesday. The Gamecocks also were 18-12 in SEC play and earned the #4 seeding over State by virtue of defeating Ole Miss in the regular season series. The Bulldogs did not play South Carolina in the regular season.

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