In Mississippi State’s 2016 case the question is more interesting than ever. The Diamond Dogs know, as surely as can be until the NCAA actually announces, that they are hosting a first-round Regional. And barring the most unexpected circumstances these SEC Champions are going to be a national seed and thus guaranteed to host the super round too, as long as they win next weekend.
So what does Hoover really mean for the team which will get its trophy before Wednesday’s game? More than might seem, per Coach John Cohen.
“Even though we won the league, there’s a lot at stake.”
What, now, that can be a little tough to define to those not competing. A Bulldog team which enters tourney time on a 11-game win streak, ten of those SEC victories, can’t just switch-off the intensity for a week and try to switch it back on for the NCAAs. Or at least they shouldn’t.
Cohen has been in this position himself as a player. He was on the 1990 State squad which played in what was known then as the Hoover Met for the first SEC Tournament held in this stadium. That team wasn’t the regular-season champs, finishing third instead. But they battled into the Sunday finals, forced an extra game with LSU…then saw it halted and finally suspended by weather. Both teams went home knowing they were hosting NCAA Regionals which contributed to the quick call-off.
Cohen has had plenty experience in SEC tourneys as a coach too, with Kentucky and State. He’s seen every conceivable scenario, from having to win games or even win the event to be sure of NCAA play and possibly hosting…to having seemingly nothing to gain.
Don’t tell that to a coach who has seen interesting decisions by the NCAA’s selection and siting committee. “Some crazy things can happen in that room,” Cohen said. “The easy thing to say is take care of your own business and let the chips fall, if you start worrying about all the other factors it can drive you nuts.”
More than one media member has posited State might be best served to show up, accept the trophy, lose twice and go get ready to host.
“There’s two extremes,” Cohen said. “If you lose two there’s the taste in your mouth of not playing well. The opposite extreme is win five, or whatever, and your team can be a little tired and exhausted.”
That certainly happened in 2012. In the first year of the six-day SEC Tournament, Cohen’s fourth Bulldog team played every single day. Every mid-day and afternoon, that is, in hot conditions too. In an epic run they won the Tournament title…
…and showed up at the Tallahassee Regional spent, not sharp, and eliminated after three games.
There’s no ideal formula, Cohen agrees. And ’12 showed the risk of pushing a club to the finals even when they want to win another title. “It’s hard to work when kids are tired,” the coach said.
“We’ll take all those things into account. And our kids want to win. They want to keep winning.”
MATCHING AND MIXING – State was awaiting its Wednesday opponent when this was filed, as the Kentucky-Alabama game was to start around 4:30. The Bulldogs took a series at Alabama, winning on Thursday; sitting through a Friday rainout; and splitting a pair of seven-inning games Saturday. That game-two loss in extra innings was the last defeat of the schedule in fact, and as many a Dog has said triggered their current streak of success.
So Cohen has a scouting report on the Crimson Tide. “Obviously we’re not as familiar with Kentucky as Alabama. Though I’ve talked with Gary Henderson, we’re pretty close.” Henderson of course was promoted to replace Cohen when the head coach returned to his alma mater for 2009. The Wildcats are a tough ‘scout’ as they’ve had some really bad series this season, but have turned around and battled Florida and South Carolina on even terms.
“It’s just been a little up and down for them but they can beat anybody in our league,” Cohen said.
The real challenge of tourney time is not the scouting, but selecting who to pitch and when. State’s first-ever bye in Hoover helps, coming after the final series which began last Thursday. It also means the Bulldogs are guaranteed two games this trip.
“So we’re going to stay with Dakota (Hudson) for sure on Thursday,” Cohen said. “And we need to play well and win because we’ve got to get (Austin) Sexton out there. If he goes two weeks without pitching that’s going to be difficult for him because he’s a guy that need to work a little bit.”
For Wednesday, it will be RHP Zac Houston (4-0, 2.25) starting for the fifth time this season, the first against a SEC opponent. Houston hasn’t worked at all since starting and throwing one inning at Troy, as his right-side relief services were not needed in either the Auburn or Arkansas series.
In fact that inning at Troy was the only work Houston has seen in the month of May. That’s typifies the contradictions of conference tourney pitching. Thanks to Hudson and Sexton the Bulldog bullpen has not exactly been over-worked for a while now. Cohen and Wes Johnson would like to give innings to a number of rusty relievers…
…but with limitations on others. “I’ve love not to use Reid Humphreys but if we need an out, or two or three at the end of a game he’s available. I really don’t want to use a Daniel Brown either but if we have to we will. All these games are important.”
Just not important enough to burn Hudson out Thursday. Cohen figures 100 pitches will be a limit, that or six-seven innings. So, “Even though he doesn’t want that ball pried out of his hands, we’ll do it. Because there’s a lot at stake.”
FATHER KNOWS THE BEST -- There might be some prying involved, to hear first-team All-SEC starter Hudson talk. This winning streak has the whole squad hungry for more, more, more.
“I feel we’re ready to get deep into the tournament,” Hudson said. “We have guys that haven’t really thrown that much or played that much through this year. But I feel we’re going to get some experience and be able to see how we’re going to hold up in Omaha. That’s the approach we’re going to take into the SEC Tournament.”
Given his season and his status, Dakota Hudson almost surely expected All-SEC recognition. What kept the news from being routine was how Hudson heard…in a text from his father.
“Just being able to hear it from a family member was really exciting. I’ve been walking around with a grin all day.”
Five Diamond Dogs have reason to grin. They combine to make up the largest All-SEC group from State since 1989 and tie the record total achieved four other years…going back to 1949 in fact. This year also matches the most first-team selections with four. Hudson, one of the two starting pitchers named to the first unit, is joined by 1B Nathaniel Lowe, C/DH Jack Kruger, and OF Jake Mangum who was also Freshman of the Year. OF/DH Brent Rooker was a second-team selection.
To Hudson, having the largest representation on the SEC’s first-team isn’t just the result of fielding a Championship squad. “It just shows how much our guys push each other.
“If you have one guy doing some pretty remarkable things like Jake Mangum, you have three or four nipping at his heels and all the other guys who have been doing well for us. It’s huge for our team and shows how hard we worked.”
ROUSING ROOKIE -- And, how hard they play. Hudson isn’t the most openly emotional Bulldog. Certainly not when on the job where the ace is sheer stoic.
Contrast this to Mangum. Oh sure, in interviews the freshman is as low-key as it gets. Pull on the uniform, go to the field or batters box, and it’s a different Dog. When Mangum makes a tough play or hits his way on, some sort of big gesture is coming, count on it. The image of a cocky kid is one thing, but Mangum is another situation per Hudson.
“I feel it’s an internal confidence. He’s not going to tell you about it but he’s going to do it. And be himself.”
Which is a heckuva self to see. And yes, Hudson sees. He freely admits to keeping an eye on the kid ever chance, even over his left shoulder looking back into rightfield.
“Oh yeah. I mean games I’m not playing, I’m sitting there watching him. Games I’m playing, I turn around and he’s making a diving catch and fist-pumping.”
“We have a few guys that are super energetic. But to do some of the things he’s done and feed off that, is huge for our team.”
IN FIELD – Lowe was the only Bulldog infielder earning All-SEC. But somebodies have to throw all those balls his way to field—which Lowe did at an eye-opening rate with just two errors in 485 chances for the regular season.
And while true that a good first baseman can make a lot of middle- and corner-fielders look better, the fact is State gets pretty good and at times outstanding glove work from the rest of the infield. Lately Cohen has offered unsolicited praise for 3B Gavin Collins, who is indeed a good 2016 story. He was primarily a catcher his first two seasons, working as an alternate on the third corner with mixed results to say the least.
This year, Collins has been almost entirely the third baseman. And an ever-better one, working at a do-or-die position it needs reminding where disaster is a funny skip or hot shot away every at-bat. The move was made to both limit strain on a repaired hamate bone in the catching hand; and to keep Collins’ big bat in the order. It’s produced a team-best 9 home runs with 11 more doubles and 34 RBI. Now, it has also produced a capable corner man.
“I think some folks have been pretty hard on him as a defender,” Cohen said. “And he’s done nothing but gotten better every time out. I’m so proud of how much work he’s put into that.”
Meanwhile, back in the middle…SS Ryan Gridley and 2B John Holland take care of their fielding business just fine. Gridley in particular has become an excellent SEC shortstop, though league coaches didn’t name him to the All-Defense team. He was a Freshman All-SEC in 2015 at least.
Gridley is also a surprisingly productive batter averaging .284, which is excellent for the eight-hole he usually swings in. Though he has two home runs, a source of squad ribbing, Gridley is a typical singles hitter with occasional gap-range. And, often, he reaches on infield singles.
Or just plain errors. Gridley really gave Arkansas headaches with spanked grounders that became errors or ruled-infield singles. Picking on his counterparts in opposing infields won’t get him in any hall of fame, but it does get Gridley’s offensive job done he said.
“Every single at-bat that’s what I’m trying to do. Just try to hit it hard and make someone make a mistake, or put it where they’re not. That’s it.”
MIDDLE MEN -- Gridley has also made a productive partnership with senior Holland, doing their part in State’s 49 double-plays turned to date. Now, the shortstop would be just fine with any other second-sacker on the roster. He worked well with 2B Hunter Stovall up to the rookie’s injury, in fact they almost seem bookend Bulldogs out on the field. Stovall is reportedly ready for a return to action after hyperextending the left knee in game-one at Alabama.
2B/SS Luke Alexander has also been limited by injury, and a cracked bone in the left (catching) wrist will require after-season surgery. A healthy Alexander would have made filling out lineups this year really intense, and he’s expected to challenge for shortstop, or third base as a sophomore.
For now, Mississippi State has been exceptionally fortunate to have former Florida State freshman and juco transfer Holland both here as a senior and healthy after some winter issues. The average might not show it but Holland has had a number of timely hits during State’s 10-win SEC streak from the nine-hole. And his defense has been assumed.
Gridley just thinks the two regulars have developed good chemistry for their season. “Me and John, he’s from Atlanta and we’re really close. It works really well with us in the infield. I always know where he is, our communication is pretty easy between us.”
Oh, and something few others know about Holland. “He keeps it light out there,” Gridley reports. “He’s a really funny guy.”