Bulldogs Take Hoover Hopes To Tennessee

The situation is about as blunt as late-season baseball gets. Win their own games while hoping another particular team losses often enough. Oh, and keep an eye on regional weather, too. No, this is not where Mississippi State planned to stand in mid-May.

This is the Bulldog reality as they travel to Tennessee. The final series of the regular season begins Thursday at 5:00 (CT), with the same game time Friday and a noon finale Saturday. That’s if weather allows and thunderstorms are possible in east Tennessee Saturday afternoon.

Don’t look to the Diamond Dogs themselves for any gloomy forecasts. Certainly not OF Jake Vickerson. “We still have a chance to make the tournament. Obviously it’s a win or go home weekend, so I expect it to be an exciting series and we’re going to leave it all on the field.”

Of course whether game-three even matters to Mississippi State by then hinges on the Bulldogs (24-27, 8-19) taking care of the other two contests. Despite last weekend’s sweeping, and despite surprise successes by direct competitors for the last SEC Tournament berth, a small window of Hoover opportunity remains.

That figurative window does not frame a scoreboard, Coach John Cohen warns. Even if State is still relying on outside aid to keep their contests meaningful.

“You can’t do that. You have to focus in on what’s important,” Cohen said. “Which is throwing strikes, continuing to play really defense, and progressing offensively. Those are the things that have to happen, because we don’t control anything else.”

Most simply and assuming everybody plays full series—no makeups or Sunday games are allowed—State must win two more games from Tennessee (21-25, 8-18) than Georgia (25-26, 9-17) does against visiting Arkansas. If the other Bulldogs are swept by the Razorbacks, that would allow State to sneak in by just winning their own series.

There are also scenarios that would favor State if Georgia were washed-out twice thanks to tiebreaks and the SEC’s use of percentage over wins and losses like pro ball. Of course Georgia is in this stronger position because they were spared by rainout from a likely sweep at LSU. Plus, they swept Tennessee in Knoxville, while the Bulldog teams did not meet this season.

Scoreboard- and weather-watching won’t matter if the MSU Bulldogs don’t win their own games. The season has boiled-down to just somehow getting back to next week’s SEC Tournament. It’s something State hoped was again a given under the 12-of-14 teams format, and missing the show will be as humbling as a losing season overall.

NCAA Tournament? That is far out of reasonable speculation though players do hold their own hopes. Unless the Bulldogs can reprise their historic 2012 tear to the SEC Tournament title and automatic bid, the program’s streak of four Regional appearances ends this year. That in itself is a larger story for later study while college ball’s elite plays on.

The one encouraging point is, based on recent history, the opponent. Tennessee is not an annual matchup and Mississippi State wishes it was. State has topped Tennessee in seven of the last eight series. The last Vol series success was in 2009, in Knoxville, and Bulldog teams have won ten-of-12 games since.

However, the Vols have a bit more 2015 May momentum and equal motivation. Thanks to weather their Arkansas series was cut to two games which Tennessee split. They previously topped South Carolina in a series; and won Tuesday’s home game with UNC-Asheville. The Vols ended a six-year SEC Tournament void with last season’s opening-round appearance.

State expects stay with the recent rotation of LHP Lucas Laster (4-3, 3.39); RHP Preston Brown (5-7, 4.39); and RHP Austin Sexton (4-4, 4.11). Tennessee lists southpaws Andy Cox (2-3, 3.79) for Thursday and Drake Owenby (2-6, 4.57) Friday with nobody yet set for Saturday.

Playing for their perilous post-season lives is not where the Bulldogs thought they’d be by now back in February. Much less, after the 13-0 start. SEC season dashed most of the higher hopes and quickly, and State has won one of the nine series so far. That was also over South Carolina, coincidentally.

Every sort of statistical reason can be run-out for why this season has turned out utterly opposite to expectations. Starting pitching, forecast as the weakest link, hasn’t been great but is a bit better than expected on the whole and shows more promise for the future. But the bullpen has collapsed whether from injury—RHP Trevor Fitts does expect to pitch this last weekend of his senior regular season—or inexperience or just plain ineffectiveness.

Offensively the story is stranger still. The numbers are actually better than the eye-test tells, whether in average or scoring or on-base or whatever. Something always seems to break down at crunch times though, and while such records aren’t kept this club may set a standard for runners stranded in scoring positions. An informal mark likely set last year, actually.

Cohen said today OF Reid Humphreys, one of the few big-bat threats in the order, is questionable with a leg muscle strain suffered in Oxford.

All that stated…the Diamond Dogs have played well enough in so many SEC games that by sheer odds they ought to have won maybe half the coin-toss contests. Instead most went the wrong way and often in agonizing ways that should crush a team’s attitude entirely. Yet Cohen and several Dogs talked of Wednesday’s practice as great, or better.

For that matter even after three losses at Oxford, two by a run and one in extra innings after a blown 7-2 lead in the ninth, the coach sees a squad still ready to play baseball some more. “There were many times I’m still excited about some things our kids are doing. In fact this team does certain things better than our 2013 team that almost won a national championship.”

Nobody in the Bulldog locker room is talking about championships any more. Neither are they punching-out yet. Hoover is still there until the standings say otherwise.

“Y’all have seen it, we can play with anybody in the country,” senior Vickerson said. “It’s just a matter of finishing or getting that big hit or making that big pitch. If we can take care of business this weekend hopefully we can get something rolling.”

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