Mississippi State head baseball coach Ron Polk talked to the media during Saturday's MSU pre-season baseball press conference."> Mississippi State head baseball coach Ron Polk talked to the media during Saturday's MSU pre-season baseball press conference.">

MSU baseball press conference

<img src="http://www.genespage.com/images/coaches/baseball/ronpolk.jpg" align="left"> Mississippi State head baseball coach Ron Polk talked to the media during Saturday's MSU pre-season baseball press conference.

Coach Ron Polk

Opening Comments

Opening weekend opponents.
"We open the season next Saturday in the MSU Challenge with Western Kentucky and Illinois being the foes. These first three ballgames will be a good test for our ballclub. Western Kentucky will have already played 9 games by the time we open up with them. The National Bank Commerce Class will be the three-game series with the Trojans of Southern Cal on March 12th, 13th and 14th. "

Home games.
"34 of our 56 games will be played at Dudy Noble and we play 3 games at our second home, which is Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson (Mississippi). The games on March 16th and 17th in Jackson with Louisiana Tech and Louisiana-Monroe are their home games but were bought out by the Jackson professional team. That means we will be the visiting team in Jackson. We will be in the grey and the top team on the scoreboard."

Fall and spring practices.
"We had a great six-week fall program; had great weather. Then, we went through our off-season program with individual skill development, weight-training and conditioning. We started official team practices on Monday, February 9th. We had a brutal week of weather the first week but the last couple of weeks have been outstanding. We have one more week of practice before our first game on Friday (February 27th). The only team in the Southeastern Conference that we don't play are the Gamecocks of South Carolina, thus we have 10 SEC weekends, 5 at home and 5 on the road."

Season tickets sales and the removal of trees in right field lounge area.
"We should have well over 5,000 season ticket holders by the time we throw the first pitch. As you can see, the outfield lounge is packed. In right field, they have taken down my beautiful trees, not because I wanted them down but to allow access where the new scoreboard is going up. We will eventually be adding more areas for the outfield loungers."

Dugout Club information.
"Our Dugout Club has now passed the 700 mark, which has allowed us through their membership dues of $50 per year a chance to improve our facilities. Improvements to the media include replacing the bad looking carpet with new tile floor in the pressbox. Plus, they have repainted all the walls. Eventually, we would like to replace the tables, but that's all we can do now due to our limited budget. We changed out all the light bulbs and redirected some lights because there were more lights behind second base than there were on home plate. While I was (coaching) in Athens (Georgia), a tornado came through here and redirected some of the fixtures. They still have two light poles to redirect. We also put new ceiling tile in the players locker rooms. We also put some speakers outside the concession stands and rest rooms, so people can listen to Jim Ellis broadcast (the games)."

New scoreboard/video board.
"You also know about a generous gift from the Henry Mize Foundation that will allow (for a new scoreboard/video board). This scoreboard will allow the opportunity to put our boys pictures on the board when they come up to hit and come in to pitch. For SEC weekends, they tell me we will have four cameras showing replays on the board. The digital board is very high quality. The steel should be going up in a couple of weeks. We like to think that it will be ready for the first SEC weekend against Tennessee, but it might not. (The contractor) thinks there is a possibility."

Pre-season polls predictions.
"We have picked low in the SEC pre-season poll. I can't remember, in all my years here, being picked that low. I can't remember the last time we haven't been picked in the top 25 in the country. A lot of times the pre-season polls reflect how old a team is, how they did the previous year. We were 16th in PRI last year. We did lose some key players off last year's ballclub. But we are technically young with 31 of our total 41 players being either freshmen or sophomores. Some of the sophomores are third-year guys which means they redshirted one year. Some of the key players on our team are sophomores."

Returning players.
"We lost pitchers on our staff who accounted for 24 of our 42 wins last year. We lost two primary position players in shortstop Matthew Maniscalco and first baseman Matthew Brinson. The rest of our starters return."

Freshmen position players who will play this year.
"Our recruiting last year centered around infielders. And we feel very good about these young men. Some of them will be redshirting and some will be actively playing. One of the infielders we recruited, Bunky Kateon, reported to school in the fall with a sore shoulder. We tried to play through it, but it finally got so bad we had an MRI done on it and they discovered a tear in his rotator cuff. The operation was a success and, supposedly, he is ahead of schedule. We aren't sure how quickly he will be ready for the season. If he isn't ready, then he is a potential redshirt. Right now, we are going day by day. The other two infielders, Michael Rutledge and Jeffrey Rea, should see playing time this year. Jeffrey is a second baseman from Nettleton (Mississippi) and Michael is a third baseman/shortstop from Cullman, Alabama."

Catchers.
"Behind the plate we have Craig Tatum with Thomas Berkery backing him up."

First basemen.
"At first base we have many options. Tyler Scarbrough, who was a second baseman/third baseman last year, provides us with a right-handed bat. He is adapting to first base very well even though it is a new position for him. Brad Jones, Brian LaNinfa and Ryan Harbuck are all good hitters. Brad Jones has a little edge on defense over the others. Jones and LaNinfa can also play in the outfield."

The rest of the infield.
"In the infield we have four-year starter Steve Gendron at third base and he can also play shortstop if necessary. Berkery and Rea will be at second base with Michael Rutledge, Daniel Tackett and Josh Thoms, Casey Hamilton helping us up the middle of the field. Casey is also an outstanding hitter who could also help us as a potential DH hitter down the line."

Outfielders.
"Our outfield is a veteran group with the return of Jon Mungle, Joseph Hunter, Brad Corley and Jeff Butts. We also really like a redshirt, Tyler Jones, who we hope to get some playing time this spring."

Designated Hitter.
"We have plenty of options at DH. One of our better DH hitters is Casey Hamilton. But we also have Brian LaNinfa. We have a lot of options left-handed but not as many right-handers. We have Scarbrough if he is not playing. We also have Berkery or Tatum if they aren't playing."

Pitchers.
"We have 17 pitchers on the ballclub. The big losses were Paul Maholm, our SEC Friday night starter, and Jonathan Papelbon, our closer. Others either transferred or we lost to graduation. But we have returning pitchers who saw a lot of action last year, Alan Johnson, Jeff Lacher, Brad Corley, Jamie Gant and Saunders Ramsey. Right now, it appears the (SEC) rotation is beginning to take shape with Gant, Johnson and Lacher as the potentials. Who pitches on what day will be determined at a later date. Other pitchers who pitched some last year and will have bigger roles this year are Brett Cleveland and Brooks Dunn. Jon Crosby, a transfer from Georgia Tech, should see some innings as should junior college transfers Eric Ebers and Todd Doolittle. We like our freshmen pitchers. One of them, Josh Johnson, a boy from a local school, Caledonia, has a chance to help us big-time this spring."

Hitting and running.
"We worked hard on bat discipline with our hitters because we feel that is very important due to the nature of our ballclub. We are trying to reduce our fly balls and pop ups that we call, 'I got its'. Team speed is good and we might even be running a little more this year."


Q&A WITH RON POLK

How do you think your team will be as far as being long ball hitters?
"About the same. We may get the wind blowing out, but this is a tough ballpark to hit home runs. They say it is tougher with the sky suites. If we don't hit many, hopefully, the other team won't either. But I don't consider this is a power-hitting ballclub. We have some guys who can hit is out, but I don't think we have anybody who can hit 24 or 25 home runs."

Do you have a pitcher who has a chance to step up and be a closer for you this year?
"We don't have anybody established as a true closer. Brad Corley is the closest that we have. If he gets command of his pitches, he could also be a starter. The bad thing is if he is playing right field and you bring him in, that messes up your DH spot. But, at the 9th inning, who cares what happens to your DH unless the game goes into extra-innings. Saunders Ramsey gives us that drop down guy, especially against right-handers. We also have some others. We have a lot of combinations. We may have a guy go out there and pitch to one guy, then bring in somebody else for the next hitter."

How big was it for Steve Gendron to come back?
"A lot of times we have good players that sign and we wish them well. But there is a lot of luck in college baseball because of the 11.7 scholarships; who you keep, how many seniors you have on your club, how many kids get injured during the course of the year. In regard to scholarship people, it is so minimum. To have Steve Gendron and Jon Mungle come back - the two boys that were drafted - is very important to this ballclub. Steve's leadership as a co-captain is very important to us."

What kind of role will Josh Johnson play on the ballclub?
"He could be a mid-week starter, could setup and might be in the SEC rotation as a freshman. In this league, a lot of true freshman pitchers perform, but not many position players. I could count on one hand the number of true freshmen position players who play in the SEC because there are so many elements as to what the game is all about. But a pitcher who has a good arm and good command, like Josh has, has a chance to pitch. Is he ready for an SEC weekend? Maybe. There may be some guys with more experience in front of him, but he is going to pitch a lot this year. We are not going to redshirt Josh Johnson."

After the first weekend games, do you know who your mid-week starters will be?
"It depends on how the weekend goes. We'll throw everybody we need to (against Illinois and Western Kentucky). I think the weekend games will be tougher than the mid-week games. I think Illinois - knowing Itch Jones who is a very good friend of mine - is bringing 13 pitchers down and he is planning on using all 13. It is kind of like a spring training for him. But don't feel sorry for Illinois. I have been up there and spoke at their clinic. They have an indoor facility that will knock your eyes out. It is as big as Dudy Noble Field. It doesn't have the sky, so you can't field fly balls that well. They have played actual games inside of it, so they'll be ready."

Do you have a feel as to how good your team is?
"I think we are good. Are we a national championship contender? I don't know. The key is staying healthy, knocking runs in and pitching wells and making the routine play. Last year, we were 5th in the country on defense. Are we going to be 5th again? I'm not sure because we lost two good defensive players in the two Matthews."

How much do you feel Jeffrey Rea will play this season?
"He is limited right now. He took a a ground ball off his finger. It is a little fracture, nothing serious. He hasn't been able to do very much. He hits a little bit, but not everyday. Throwing-wise, he is not ready yet, but, by the weekend, he should be alright. He could bend it yesterday (Friday) and the day before he had a hard time bending it. He is a freshman and has some skills. For his size, pound for pound, he is as good as you are going to get. He only weighs 150, but he is a strong kid. He has a chance. He has got a little bat speed. We expect him to be the second baseman of the future."

Who do you see as replacing Matthew Maniscalco at shortstop?
"We didn't see a lot of Bunky (Kateon) in the fall because we had to operate on him between the 3rd and 4th week, but we think he is going to be a great player for us. He is athletic. He is not going to be with us early and may not be with us all season. That is a big concern. But we have other choices; we have Michael Rutledge, Daniel Tackett, Josh Thoms."

If you move Steve Gendron to short, who would replace him at third?
"We have a lot of choices there, too. Rutledge is also a third baseman. Scarbrough can play third."

Where does freshman left-hander Jesse Carver figure into the team's plans this year?
"Jesse is going to be very good. He is a left-hander with some talent. Is he ready right now? We aren't really sure. He is a potential redshirt. We will meet with Jesse (Sunday). He has a bright future for us."

Talk a little more about where Jon Crosby figures in your plans this year.
"He is from the Memphis area and went to Georgia Tech. He got hurt real bad this summer when a ball hit it on the cheek. It shattered his entire cheek bone and he almost lost an eye. He has some weapons. Is he ready for SEC? Probably not, but he could really be a help for us in mid-week games."


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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