Mississippi State and Ole Miss hold their annual non-conference clash Tuesday evening in Pearl. First pitch in Trustmark Park is 6:30. After the last pitch, somebody is going to be sweating even worse than usual and not just for lost pride points.
State is 23-21, 7-14 SEC after their weekend in Arkansas. The Bulldogs did hang on for a 2-1 Sunday win to salvage something from the road trip. Still after losing six of seven SEC series Mississippi State is just trying to stay in contention for the conference tournament. They are tied with Tennessee for the 12th and final Hoover berth, just ahead of 6-14 Georgia.
So at the moment NCAA tourney talk is moot around MSU. For Ole Miss the situation is more interesting, or frustrating. The Rebels are a bit more comfortable in SEC Tournament terms at 10-11, which is tied for eighth. But they are 23-22 overall, thus uncomfortably close to heading for Hoover without adequate NCAA margin.
Thus a couple of clubs arrive Tuesday at Trustmark Park with something real to win. And, potentially a lot more to lose than a trophy and bragging rights. It’s a good recipe for game atmosphere at least, on top of a yearly event that has set and re-set T.P. attendance records. The unfriendly weather forecast has even improved for Tuesday.
However unfriendly the tournament forecast is now for Mississippi State, there is time to save the season. But this will be more a matter of what the Bulldogs can get done in their remaining three league weekends, to avoid embarrassment of missing Hoover. This week also brings a coaching challenge for John Cohen.
Because, the upcoming home series with #1-ranked Louisiana State begins Thursday evening. Cohen can’t afford to burn many bullets on Tuesday if there’s to be any chance of taking down the Tigers on such short turnaround. The Rebels stay on the normal schedule with a weekend at Missouri.
But the rivalry score can’t be overlooked either. In fact, State has had to play-up their Governors Cup successes of 2013 and ’14 to offset losing the SEC series to Ole Miss both times. In turn the Rebels did the same in 2012 when State won the weekend and Ole Miss won Pearl.
Since the game moved from Jackson’s Smith-Wills Stadium in 2007, and changed names as well, the score is 5-3 in favor of Bulldog teams with wins in ’07, ’08, ’11, ’13, and ’14. This extra game began in 1980 as the Mayor’s Trophy.
Comparing the competitors shows more SEC statistical similarities than differences. In SEC-play only the Bulldogs are actually out-hitting their rivals, .261 to .241 with runs scored only one apart. But on the mound Ole Miss has edges in ERA and strikeouts, while runs and walks are essentially equal. And while State has been a much better defensive team, the Rebels have run the bases much more effectively.
For the last non-conference game on the schedule Mississippi State does have a regular arm available. LHP Ross Mitchell (3-2, 4.30) did not throw all the Arkansas weekend and now get to make his first start of the senior season. Not his first start at State of course; the record-setting reliever began 12 of his 19 games in 2014 after all. That included a Lafayette Regional start, his last time to throw a first pitch.
Back in the bullpen this year Mitchell has 18 appearances for 44.0 innings. It hasn’t been a smooth season, whether because of the new low-seam ball impacting his breaking pitches or opponents having lots and lots of scouting experience to call upon. Or most likely, both. Mitchell has just 14 strikeouts against 11 walks and four HBPs. And in his last five outings opponents have tallied 20 hits and 10 runs.
Mitchell has participated in just five games against Ole Miss in his four seasons. He took a 6-1 home loss to the Rebels last year on 8.2 innings with 13 hits allowed. But in 2013, at Pearl, it was Mitchell taking over in the second inning and throwing 6.0 relief frames to get the Governors Cup victory. It is the only win against a Rebel team Mitchell has had a part in so far.
The Bulldogs could badly use a return of that Mitchell this week, not just to get a non-conference win but save arms for the early LSU weekend. Cohen will talk pitching plans for the series on Wednesday.
Mississippi State will work out of the first base dugout Tuesday evening. Ole Miss is taking its turn as the designated home team.