Mississippi State returns from the SEC Tournament and immediately begins work leading up to the NCAA Tournament. Physical work, that is.
Mentally and emotionally, that process started about as soon as the Diamond Dogs knew they were done at Hoover. If not sooner, given how frustrated Mississippi State players already were with themselves.
“It’s embarrassing,” 3B Gavin Collins said about a one win, two loss trip. There is a fast cure for such shame, though. Get back to playing their own best brand of baseball.
Get back to winning. Because, “When we play our game we’re not going to lose,” 1B Nathaniel Lowe said.
Not-losing is why Mississippi State went to the SEC Tournament as the SEC Champions. The trophy received there reminds of the most remarkable turnaround tale in program, maybe even conference history. State went from dead last in the 2015 standings, and obviously missing all post-season play; to the outright 2016 title.
And, to hosting NCAA play again. This won’t be official until 7:30ct Sunday evening when the 16 host sites are announced. But the Bulldogs are as assured of playing at Dudy Noble Field this weekend as they are of playing, period.
The full 64 team field, regional pairings, and most of all in MSU minds the eight ‘national’ seeds, will be announced on ESPNU beginning at 11:00am Monday.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do this week and we know that,” Collins said. “And we’re going to get after it. We’ll have a different look and be ready to go when the regional comes.”
These Bulldogs definitely want to show a different look than in Hoover losses to LSU and Florida, or even in a grinding win over Alabama. Or it’s more accurate to say they want to get back to the look of league champions, of the team that won program-record nine SEC series and 21 games. That was a good look.
Hoover, was not. At least not for what would be expected from the conference champs. However Coach John Cohen knows from his own playing and coaching experience that league tourneys are not definitive statements about a club’s capacity.
They are more useful pointing out a conference’s quality.
Not that Cohen downplayed the embarrassment factor. “I know I am,” he said. However, “We won the SEC but that means nothing because there’s this much of a gap between any team in our league. If you don’t show up and really let the game come to you and focus and make great decisions, these are the things that are going to happen to you.”
Put another way: Hoover had best be a lesson that from now on MSU mistakes will come at the highest costs. Lowe was talking specifically about fielding errors in the losses, but he could equally have applied the comment to State’s entire approach after all the regular season success.
“I think we got away from our identity and didn’t play our game, control what we can control,” the All-SEC first baseman said. “But that’s what happens when you play elite level teams. They’ll take care of you.”
This is the key point. Because from now on all Mississippi State will see are teams that are either among the nation’s elite or at the very least the cream of their own conferences. Even though the Bulldogs will, it is all but officially confirmed, go in as an elite seed and hosting a #4 seed…any and every opponent is a winner. And, visitors to be motivated playing in front of likely the largest crowds in their non-Omaha histories.
It had to be asked, did the Dogs get distracted by the national seed subject in build-up to Hoover? Were they feeling any pressure to seal such status? Collins didn’t dial it back answering.
“No. absolutely not. We were never really talking about that. We didn’t come out and take care of business and execute the things we should.”
Lowe agreed. “That’s irrelevant, that’s outside those foul lines. We didn’t take care of business.”
However, Hoover is outside the subject-lines now. It’s all NCAA, all the way now. Cohen said Friday that upon Saturday return there would be a practice. And since State can’t know the opponent(s) until Monday, all the work is all about themselves.
The closest thing to ‘advance’ prep is lining up pitching plans…though obviously that too will depend at least partly on opponent matchups as well as days. State did keep the 1/2 rotation of righthanders Dakota Hudson and Austin Sexton on schedule, after throwing RHP Zac Houston in the Alabama win. Houston’s near-complete performance stands him in good stead for a potential NCAA start, Cohen agreed.
At the same time LHP Konnor Pilkington, the #3 man in the second half of SEC season, got a few throws in at Hoover. He will bullpen this week to be ready to either open on Friday—assuming that’s the day the Regional opens—or stay on track for Sunday/Monday. The upshot is that starting pitching is sufficient for a four-team Regional, something State hasn’t been able to say or play in many, many years.
With the Florida game out of control Wes Johnson was able to get a few other arms out on the mound. Cohen did say that being run-ruled kept OF/RHP Reid Humphreys from tossing any. Still, “We got some guys out there that we needed to. Certainly we take some positive things away and get into work week and really prepare for a Regional.”
The best preparation though, is for the Diamond Dogs to remember what got them through the regular season and into hosting position. Or, how they turned 2015 anguish into 2016 glory. Collins endured that lost campaign as did plenty of current veterans. The rookies and transfers saw it from a safer distance and still signed-on to turn the program around.
They have. But the turnaround is only complete, as Cohen has said, if it concludes in the College World Series. Collins said the squad will treat the SEC Tourney as “kind of like it’s a miniature last season thing. We had that all last season.
“Now we have those two games and it clicks in everybody head we need to get back to work on the right things. And everybody keep remaining healthy and get after it.”