STARKVILLE, Tuesday, Feb. 10th - While preparing for their first day of spring practice for the upcoming 2004 baseball season, several of Mississippi State's baseball coaches and players talked to the media about the upcoming season and team."> STARKVILLE, Tuesday, Feb. 10th - While preparing for their first day of spring practice for the upcoming 2004 baseball season, several of Mississippi State's baseball coaches and players talked to the media about the upcoming season and team.">

Coaches and players talk about upcoming season

<img src="http://www.genespage.com/images/coaches/baseball/ronpolk.jpg" align="left"> STARKVILLE, Tuesday, Feb. 10th - While preparing for their first day of spring practice for the upcoming 2004 baseball season, several of Mississippi State's baseball coaches and players talked to the media about the upcoming season and team.

Head Coach Ron Polk

"We have gone through a whole winter of strength training, conditioning and individual work. Now, we are all coming together. Unfortunately, the weather throughout the south is not cooperating but I don't think anybody else is getting outside today and tomorrow. We have a day-nighter today and tomorrow where we split up and work on some fundamentals. Hopefully, we will be able to get outside Friday, Saturday and Sunday. And, maybe, even play a scrimmage game on Saturday and Sunday if the weather cooperates."

What are your plans for the first week?
"I don't mind being inside. We have a lot of work to do like run defense, a lot of baserunning. But, hopefully, it is just two or three days."

Will the player-coach evaluations at the end of last fall be your starting point for who will play where at the first of the season?
"That, plus we have had some off-season workouts that could cause some things to pop up. The next three weeks of practices will be crucial. Plus, when we start playing those pre-season games, we will find out who can cross the line and compete."

You have a very young team; 31 of your 41 roster players are freshmen or sophomores. Because of that, will the leaders of this team have to come from the younger guys or from the few seniors that you have?
"We only have three seniors and two of them are co-captains, Steve Gendron and Jeff Lacher. We ask the seniors to be our leaders but some of the sophomores we have are third-year guys, so we aren't totally young."

Your team is picked to finish 5th in the SEC West. Does that fuel the fire a little going into the season?
"Not for me. Early season predictions don't mean a thing to me and I don't think they should mean anything to anybody. Where we are ranked this season is probably one of the lowest ones we've had since I have been at Mississippi State. I guess they felt, because we lost a lot of pitching off last year's team and two key players in Matthew Maniscalco and Matthew Brinson, we are an unknown right now."

You have 34 home games this year with 3 others in Jackson. While that doesn't mean the schedule is easier, does it make it easier on your team?
"Looking at our schedule compared to the rest of the SEC, I'm not sure we don't the strongest schedule in regard to potential high RPI people. We have three games with Southern Cal and two against a South Alabama team and a mixture of others. Thankfully, we have these teams at home and that is a big factor."

Is everyone 100% and ready to go today?
"(True freshman) Bunky Kateon, who had rotator cuff surgery is still rehabbing and making a lot of progress, but it is going to be questionable how he will be when we open up. We also have some nagging stuff; hamstring pulls and a couple of tired arms."

Pitching is going to be a big question mark on this team with the exception of Alan Johnson, Jamie Gant and Jeff Lacher.
"We have those three and Brett Cleveland a few others that we used. We did lose a lot of innings and wins, but, at the same time, I think our pitchers have made a lot of progress from last year to this year and I have confidence in them."

Will there be some young guys, based on their fall practices, that will contribute significantly this spring?
"I think there are a couple of infielders that conceivably could; Jeffrey Rea and Michael Rutledge and Bunky. For the most part, our graduation losses were shortstop and first. And we have some guys in the program the last few years - Tyler Scarbrough, Brian LaNinfa and Brad Jones, Ryan Harbuck - who will fill in well at the first base position. So we have choices. Hopefully, over the next three weeks, we can play at least 6, 7 or 8 ballgames so we can further evaluate the ballclub."

At the start of practice, who will be your top two or three at first base?
"Brad Jones, Brian LaNinfa and Tyler Scarbrough and even Ryan Harbuck is swinging the bat good. Tyler gives us a right-handed hitter at that position. He is also listed as a third baseman. Brad and Tyler can swing the bat. That's a position where we have a little pop in the lineup, so we will have to mix and max during the season."

With Bunky Kateon's shoulder situation, how is shortstop stacking up?
"Bunky will be rehabbing right up to the first game. We'll see what happens. He can run, hit and do everything but throw the ball across the diamond. (We have) Michael Rutledge and Daniel Tackett. We also have Steve Gendron as a secondary shortstop and Josh Thoms, so we have people who can fill in."

What about some of the young pitchers like Josh Johnson and a couple of others, will they factor in this year's ballclub?
"We have a few, although not a heck of a lot. Josh Johnson would be one that I think has a chance to be a factor this year."


MSU Pitching Coach Daron Schoenrock

Did any of the pitchers move up in your pitcher rankings due to off-season workouts?
"A couple of the younger guys have gotten stronger. But, the main thing about the off-season workouts was that they learned what they could do. We take a certain week and work on one pitch, like the changeup or breaking ball. Then, they have a better understanding of what I want. So, because of that, they have all improved with their knowledge of themselves."

Did you see any improvements in freshman Josh Johnson?
"Yes, he smoothed out his delivery. I think he has a better understanding of commanding the strikezone, the difference in throwing a strike and throwing a quality pitch. In high school you can throw strikes and win with his velocity. But at our level, we are trying to turn that strike into a competitive pitch or a pitch with a purpose. Josh has the ability to use a fastball a lot. What we are trying to do is get him to use it down in the zone, up in the zone, instead of just down the middle."

They roles of the pitchers aren't as established as they were last year?
"No, they aren't. We are fooling around with the idea of trying to give Jamie Gant some starts if we can get him ready to do. We are fooling around with using Brad Corley as a reliever. It's always possible, during the second half of the year, they might reverse back."

Due to the number of pre-SEC games this year, you really aren't in a rush to have a set starting rotation, are you?
"We will always try. I will try to put the rotation out there the opening weekend that we will use against Tennessee. It just so happens the last two years, it hasn't changed. This year could be a year it does."

Talk about Jamie Gant as a starter this year?
"I've talked to Jamie about how he will respond as a starter. Last year, he had that big moment in every game where he had to bear down and get an out. He could use that to elevate his game. That big moment now will be starting the game. In the past, the hitters were already swinging. When you hand the ball to a guy in the 5th and 6th innings, they are already swinging. When we went to Jamie, they were already swinging."

Is Jamie 100%?
"He is ready to go. We had to take it slow with him because he had a little tendinitis and he may have tweaked something in an off-season workout or in the weight room. But he has actually been on the mound and he will get back in the mix with our guys this week. He has been throwing pain-free and showed good life in his last bullpen."

Are all the pitchers 100%
"Yes, everybody - all 17 - are full strength."

Since so many pitchers graduated, everything is really wide opened this year, isn't it?
"It is wide opened. I've talked with the four or five guys that we are leaning toward starting and told them not to read anything into what we do, just keep playing your game. This has been a very unselfish group to work with. (Senior) Jeff Lacher had a tremendous fall and a great off-season. He told me that he didn't feel he had to be the Friday (rotation) guy, he just wants to be in a significant role. But he has earned the right to get a look there."

Talk about Alan Johnson.
"He is stronger now. That was the number one thing with him. What I see out of Alan now is a more confident person. He is not going to overpower with a dominate fastball but when his command is on, he can dominate hitters."


Assistant Coach Tommy Raffo

Have you seen hitting improvements among the guys returning this year?
"Typically, the guys who return have obviously gotten better. We are hoping for some good years from these guys. Last year, we had Thomas Berkery, Craig Tatum, Brad Corley, Jeff Butts and Joseph Hunter, so we had a lot of young guys in the lineup, which was exciting. Now, we are looking for them, when they are at the plate to have great at-bats and work counts to where they can handle some pitches to drive and hit the ball with some authority."

Will the hitting, as a team, be different than last year?
"The biggest thing we look for, as a coaching staff, is who can beat an opposing pitcher, one through nine. You don't want to have any easy outs. If there are easy outs in a lineup, that can be a detriment to producing a big-run inning. Most of the good teams that we have had at Mississippi State, one through nine, were hard outs. I think that is what you will see more of from this club. We will have occasional pop and power. Of course, we would like to have a Will Clark or Rafael Palmeiro but there are very few of those type players out there."


Catcher Craig Tatum

What are your expectations for this team?
"Last year we lost Paul (Maholm) and Paps (Jonathan Papelbon), so everybody doesn't think we are going to be as good. But I think this year we have more depth. Our bullpen is inexperienced. Saunders (Ramsey) is really the only person we have coming back out of the bullpen. We have our entire outfield back. And I think we have people who can fill (Matthew) Brinson's shoes hitting-wise, but maybe not defensively. Although Brad Jones is good defensively. The only question mark is what we will do at shortstop."

What do you think will be the strength of this team?
"I think we are more consistent throughout the lineup and will put the ball in play. Last year, we hit the ball well at the beginning of the year and had great pitching at the end of the year. Pitching-wise, we have AJ (Alan Johnson) back and Jeff Lacher back. And Jamie (Gant) on Friday night or however they decide to do it. We have Corley coming out of the pen. He throws as well as Gant, just not as consistent."

What is your impressions of freshman pitcher Josh Johnson?
"He is kind of like Jamie with his mentality and his stuff, but he throws more strikes than Jamie did as a freshman. I expect him to come in and play a big role, probably throwing in the mid-week games if I had to guess."


Third baseman Steve Gendron

Talk a little about this team.
"It is younger. It really reminds me a lot of our team when I was a freshman. Our freshman year we really didn't have anybody who was a super star. We just played well as a team. I think that is something that we will be like this year."

Kind of like this year's MSU men's basketball team?
"Yeah, I'm hoping we are similar to the basketball team. No one gave them much respect going into the year. Now they are in the top 10."

What is the strength of this team?
"I really think our hitting is going to be a lot better. A lot of guys have made a lot of improvements. Our defense will be solid again, although I don't know who will be playing short this year."

Are you in the picture at short?
"I wasn't a secondary shortstop in the fall but now I am."

Playing short would be no problem for you would it?
"No, I played it my entire life until I came here."


Freshman second baseman Jeffrey Rea

What was the biggest adjustment you had to make last fall after coming from high school ball?
"There was a lot more late-in-the-count breaking stuff, a lot more changeups. It seems like in high school they didn't spot up, they threw it right down the middle with fastball. Now, they are hitting spots in and out."

Were you able to adjust?
"I didn't hit balls as hard as I thought I should, but I was peppering it around, trying to use my speed to get on base best I could."

Even though you aren't a big guy, you have surprising pop in your bat, don't you?
"Yeah, hitting is my bread and butter. I'm trying to work on my defense best as I can."

Do you know your status for this year?
"They have told me that I will definitely get a good bit of playing time. I don't know if I will start or not."

Have they told you what positions you will play this year?
"Right now, I am a primary second baseman. It is a little different than during high school because all I played in high school was shortstop."


Gene Swindoll is the owner of Gene's Page, the unofficial source for Mississippi State sports on the internet. The URL for Gene's Page is http://mississippistate.theinsiders.com. You can contact him by emailing swindoll@genespage.com.


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