What these Bulldogs desire is no secret. They want it all. Badly.
All evidence necessary was seen in how Mississippi State responded to sweeping through the Starkville Regional. While the crowd around them roared, between those lines and in the dugout it was a calm bunch of Bulldogs. Happy, sure, but calm.
They were also clear why. Brent Rooker explained it best.
“Winning a regional was not our goal at the beginning of the year. Winning a national championship is. And we haven’t accomplished that yet.”
No, but the Bulldogs have taken another step in that 2016 process. They have followed up on winning the Southeastern Conference Championship, and earning a first-ever national seeding, by winning their regional. That’s a couple of real goals achieved.
The biggest remain.
And the process resumes this weekend as Mississippi State (46-16-1) hosts a super regional. The opponent won’t be settled until host Lafayette and Arizona complete that regional, presumably Monday. The specific days and times will be decided by NCAA and networks as well.
What matters is the Bulldogs are playing more ball, and playing it on the home field. Which is where they reported this morning in fact, choosing to ride their regional momentum into practice despite Sunday’s near-midnight finish.
As Rooker has been accurately and appropriately quoted, “We treated it as a business trip.” OK, the ‘trip’ part is figurative since the Bulldogs earned the right to stay and play at home. The idea holds just as true.
Even the coach, no stranger to winning tournaments, shares the attitude. In his own way, that is. Sweeping three regional games to him isn’t so much cause to celebrate as for relief. “Because if you have to play (Monday) it changes your schedule.”
See? Already the State staff was thinking ahead to the super round. That is not presumption, much less arrogance. Just the way business is done this time of year. Besides, Cohen insisted, out of personal superstition he had not even looked a lick in advance at either Lafayette or Arizona. Knowing the coach, he was correcting that within minutes of leaving post-game interviews.
Of course being baseball, avoiding an extra day and game came at, yes, a cost. The emergence of Zac Houston as a successful starter, and the right-side nature of Louisiana Tech’s order, means LHP Konnor Pilkington hasn’t started since the final regular season series. It doesn’t take long for rest to turn into rust, so Pilkington was to throw a simulated game ASAP and stay on-track for the super regional best-of-three. “He’s chomping at the bit,” Cohen said.
By same token, OF/RHP Reid Humphreys has another day for his sore but fortunately unbroken (per Cohen today talking to Gene Swindoll) right hand to heal after taking a pitch to the paw. Overall, the Dogs are better for taking care of the regional as efficiently as they could and having more prep-time for whoever survives Lafayette.
Efficient is an excellent description of the weekend. Mississippi State batted .311 in the regional, only one point less than their season average. Slugging and on-base rates were comparable as well. Though the ‘slugging’ came from two sources as regional MVP Rooker had two home runs on the first day, and in the same game C Jack Kruger got an inside-park homer to boot.
But, Cohen said, going deep wasn’t the gameplan any more in NCAA play than the regular season. And that all but eight of State’s 33 hits were singles isn’t any sign that punch lacks against NCAA-team pitching. The Saturday and Sunday matchups prioritized situational hitting as much as situational pitching, especially after Sunday rain deadened the air. Nine of ten game-three hits were singles and converted into enough scoring.
“That’s one of the strengths of this team,” Rooker said. “We scored nine (against SEMO) and then we faced two really good arms. As an offense we’re going to do what it takes to win games. If that’s hitting doubles in gaps we’re going to try to do that; if it’s putting down bunts, moving guys over, playing small ball, get the runs we need that’s what we’re going to do.”
“But,” Rooker added, “any time a pitching staff throws up a zero it makes an offense comfortable.”
Does it ever. Sunday was the only shutout win but limiting SEMO and Cal State Fullerton to six total runs and a .151 average shows a comfortable pitching staff. Even a less-than-sharp start by RHP Dakota Hudson, where four runs were allowed in 3.1 innings, isn’t pushing any locker room alarms. Not with RHP Austin Sexton, Houston, Pilkington all ready, and a bullpen that just seems to unleash a new standout every weekend.
In short, Mississippi State is as well-ordered, not to mention -armed and -positioned, as a club should be for the next stage of NCAA Tournament testing. And if a few fans were disappointed not to see Dogs dog-piling for their entertainment this time…there’s the upcoming opportunity if State takes care of super business.
Certainly the squad squelched concerns that Hoover had been a bad sign of letdown after achieving one championship. Now that day saw lots of celebrating. It was just kept to, well, a day.
Which showed their coach just how serious Mississippi State is about making the Series.
I’m proud of these kids because they’ve come so far. There’s a nucleus of guys that they still have a chip on their shoulder, the want to show the world they’re better than what happened a year ago. That coupled with some newcomers, some good work in the summer, has really created a nice ball club.”
Yes. A year ago. Maybe memory isn’t quite as painful now, after a whole year and great success. Yet there’s just enough left to keep motivating Mississippi State, keep the club from settling for what has been done already. “The core of our team, a lot of the guys were a part of the team last year,” Rooker said.
“It helped us grow and get to this point. We know what it feels like not to succeed and that helps the success be a little bit sweeter. I’m proud of the way we’ve rebounded this year and got to this point.”
But, just this point. Two more points remain un-reached. Getting to Omaha, and winning it all there, says Rooker.
“When we accomplish that goal, we’ll dogpile and celebrate.”