Tourney Stakes Trump Rivalry For Dogs, Rebels

It’s called the road to Hoover. In Mississippi State’s case it really has become a road. The Diamond Dogs have two remaining series, both of them trips, in which to secure a spot in the SEC Tournament.

The schedule-ending itinerary begins with the Bulldogs visiting Ole Miss in a series more serious than usual. And the usual is pretty darned serious when the state rivals square-off under normal circumstances. This 2015 renewal is not normal, at least by the two programs’ recent standards.

“Both of us are in a position we’ve got to win. So it’s going to be even more competitive this year,” said LHP Ross Mitchell. “Both teams haven’t had the season they’ve wanted but you know it’s going to be a good weekend. Both teams have something on the line they’re playing for.”

A lot is on both lines. For Mississippi State (24-24, 8-16 SEC) it is staying among the top dozen conference clubs and keeping a place at the SEC Tournament. The Bulldogs go into this series tied for 11th but only a win ahead of 13th and 14th. With six scheduled league games left there’s no margin to play with.

Margin is much on Ole Miss (25-24, 11-13) minds as well. The Rebels are in far stronger if not assured SEC Tourney position. They could lock up a place this weekend. What matters more is staying above break-even overall for NCAA eligibility, and getting to Hoover without having to win anything.

Call it playing not to lose priceless ground. Or to win a better situation for the final week. Either way, the intensity will be as high as ever.

“So we’re going to give them everything we have and hopefully come away with three wins,” said the ever-optimistic Mitchell. “A series win would be good but we’re in a position where we really need a sweep.”

Game times are 7:30 Thursday, 6:00 Friday, and 4:00 Saturday with all on the SEC Network. The Bulldogs won’t need to do any scoreboard watching Thursday since the other early-opening series of Florida-Vanderbilt doesn’t involve State’s competition for Hoover. By Friday evening though, it will be impossible not to track what is happening with Alabama (8-16) at Auburn, Georgia (7-16) at Kentucky, and Tennessee (7-17) at Arkansas.

Looking to the final weekend, the Bulldogs go to Tennessee for what might well become a ‘playoff’ series. Georgia hosts Arkansas and Alabama hosts Vanderbilt. Already MSU media are looking at possible tie-breaks, most of them built around weather allowing every series to be played in full. Mississippi State will try to keep a bare-basics approach to it all.

“We have six games left and our kids know what’s at stake every time we go out there,” Coach John Cohen said. “I think they’re looking forward to this opportunity.”

It is also a rematch. The teams met last Tuesday in Pearl with the Rebels battering Bulldog pitching around in an 11-1 win. It was State’s last non-league game of the regular season. Mitchell got the start, his first opening since 2014, and struggled statistically with four runs on five hits and a couple of walks.

From his mound vantage-point? “I felt I made some pitches. Balls were just finding some good spots.” In truth the Rebels did not shell Mitchell all that hard, except for a gap-double for two RBI. But that also reflects the change in Ole Miss offense for 2015. They hit .264 on the season, actually a little less than State’s .270, and have not relied nearly so much on longballs at home or away.

Mitchell can see the difference. And, similarities. “There’s some competitors on their team. They still have some bats that were there last year and have some experience. I’m excited to get another chance at them and I know some of our other guys are, too.”

For senior Mitchell this weekend offers a chance to change his history with Ole Miss. Save for a long-relief victory two years ago in the Governors Cup he’s had to battle Rebel orders. The same can be said for most MSU starters the past two years as Ole Miss won the 2013 series at home and were a caught ball from sweeping in Starkville last year. The last State success in Oxford was in 2011 with a winning split.

Fans, from both sides, will have to work around graduation weekend events to get to the park; and the Bulldogs are having to stay well away from town just to find lodging. Though neither team is having a special regular season the typical crowds are expected as the rivalry resumes.

“They’re a lot like us, the outfield is going to mess with you especially when you’re in the bullpen. It’s a good atmosphere,” Mitchell said. “But we’ve played in some pretty atmospheres this year, A&M and Arkansas. So we’ve seen it and we’re ready for it.”

With no midweek games the Bulldogs, who didn’t play on Sunday, have a rested and ready rotation for consecutive weekends. LHP Lucas Laster (4-3, 3.25) goes on another Thursday followed by RHP Preston Brown (5-6, 3.88) in game-two. And unlike previous series State is announcing a game-three starter in RHP Austin Sexton (4-4, 4.09).

Also the entire bullpen is available. Several needed a midweek-off since they threw all three games with LSU. Though State only won one in that series it was a strong supporting outing by three relievers that made it possible, led by Mitchell in his best outing in months. “And I’m excited to see what happens the next time I go out.”

The bullpen got needed boosts by RHP Zac Houston and RHP Dakota Hudson over the weekend as well. They too have had issues during the season, not always of their own doing. Any staff would struggle with the inconstant offensive support of 2015. Still those two righties made statements in the LSU series, and RHP Trevor Fitts is a known quantity as well.

It’s likely Cohen will keep everyone, fan and foe alike, guessing about lineups. This isn’t deception as much as just mixing and matching bats as the coaches think best without giving up too much of a defense that ranks 10th-best in the NCAA this week. As far as order, there have been just four ‘streaks’ of the same 1-through-9 all season. Three of those were only for consecutive games too, with a four-game stretch early in April.

Cohen did say Wednesday that 3B/DH Luke Reynolds is wait-and-see as far as starting, after turning an ankle last Friday running past first base. Reynolds was able to pinch-hit and got a key hit in game-three, which makes him State’s hottest hitter down the stretch. He is 13-of-19 in the last five games including a 3-of-4 night against the Rebels last week.

This weekend may not make State’s season; and pending other results may not even break it. Bulldogs still would rather not take chances on having to win big on the last weekend to make a third road trip in May, to Hoover. That Mississippi State is even in danger of missing a SEC Tournament in this 12-team era is a subject for another day.

For Thursday, it’s all about finding the right sort of consistency which has evaded the Dogs all spring. “It’s been a challenge,” Mitchell said. “There’s been a lot of ups and downs. We’ll finish off a series with a big win where it looks like we really click and here we go, we’re about to really start rolling. And then we haven’t.”

“But that win last week, we feel like we’re going to start rolling. And I believe we’re going to. I believe we have the talent, I believe some key pitchers are starting to step up and fill some roles with some confidence. And some hitters are starting to get comfortable at the plate again. So I think we’re going to make a good push right here and try to make a post-season run.”

An interview with reliever Zac Houston follows.

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