Indeed, if the Diamond Dogs should copycat their first-half performance they would wrap up the regular season at the semi-mystical 40-win mark, and go into the postseason in very, very good position. Quite likely a hosting position, too, in NCAA regional terms. But of course that is still seven weekends into the future, and the second 20 victories are much harder to collect by far.
For that matter, as of right now Mississippi State doesn't have quite 28 games remaining to play before tournament time. The schedule shows 25 dates, though two more make-up games have been lined up to replaced games washed away during this exceedingly soggy springtime. "We've got two of the three," said Polk, "the third we don't have an opponent but we're talking to some people."
Specifically, last week's scheduled game with Birmingham-Southern has been reset for May 9, and the teams will still try to play in Jackson's Smith-Wills Stadium. The next evening the Bulldogs host Mississippi Valley State in a newly-scheduled match. "That was the Eastern Illinois game we lost," Polk clarified.
So at the moment the State staff is calling around the region for somebody willing and able to play a midweek game to replace the rained-out conference contest at Tennessee. SEC games cannot be made up.
While the 56-game schedule is half-done, the conference campaign is only 40% of the way toward determining the 2005 SEC champs. And after their four league weekends Mississippi State is, if not among the frontrunners, right there in a tight pack of contenders chasing the Division leaders and ready to make a move if somebody stumbles. How close are things around the loop at the moment? Taking two of three from Auburn means the Bulldogs have won three of their four SEC series, but are only a win over .500 at 6-5.
Speaking of close…"Three games we lost were by one run," Polk noted. "Take one more win and we're 7-4." Or for that matter just playing the entire series against Tennessee, and three full nine-inning games, and the Bulldogs might be a stride or two closer to the top today. Instead State had to settle for a Sunday twinbill against a Volunteer team ideally designed for shortened contests. As somebody likes to say, that's baseball.
"Those two seven-inning ball games at Tennessee come back to haunt you," mused Polk. "I hope it doesn't cost us a chance to do real well." As in, make a bid for a Division or even conference crown.
Yet all things considered, standing on the sunny side of .500 is a good place to be the way this SEC season has played out, so far. Over in the East, South Carolina—the one league member not on State's slate this year—just scored a sweep in Baton Rouge to go 8-4 through four series. That ties them with Florida for first in the Division, though seven of the Gators' wins have come against East victims.
On the West side Alabama has surprised everyone with a 8-4 start, including taking a pair at Mississippi over the weekend. "Alabama, that's amazing," Polk said. "Word was they couldn't swing the bats." Almost as amazing was Arkansas (7-5) sweeping Vanderbilt, putting them a game back of Alabama and one win in front of State at this point.
Then there are Auburn and Mississippi at 6-6 SEC and with 22 overall wins each. And while LSU has uncharacteristically struggled on the home field early the Tigers are still lurking close behind at 5-7. Thus the Bulldogs can't be too confident about standing third in the West and sixth overall here in mid-April.
"I mean, we can't get any separation," said Polk, despite knocking off the Tigers two-of-three. "We're still a game-and-a-half behind Alabama. But that's not bad, with 18 games to do. We've just got to take care of business at Georgia." That being one of the league teams that has fallen behind at 3-8 SEC and 18-14 overall. Only injury-ridden Kentucky is worse off at 1-10. Those records might seem to bode well for the MSU Bulldogs, since they are at Georgia this weekend and come home to host the Wildcats the next. The coach is more cautious.
"Georgia is a sleeping giant," insisted Polk. "I've no idea why they're having a tough time but they beat Clemson twice. This is not going to be a cakewalk because they're good enough to beat you."
Equally, the Bulldogs have shown they can beat SEC teams in hostile settings by taking a series at Arkansas, and those two losses at Tennessee were in one-run nailbiters. So Mississippi State goes to Athens reasonably optimistic about the prospects of gaining some ground this weekend. And if not for a completely out-of-character start in the Saturday game with Auburn, these Dogs would be in even better Division-shape. The Tigers, not one of the SEC's noted power teams, swatted three balls out of the yard in the opening inning.
And still the Bulldogs ultimately had the tying and winning runner on base in the bottom of the ninth, pointing out how close they came to a huge home sweep. Polk is hoping that game-two setback doesn't come back to bite the Dogs in late May, too.
For that matter, State's skipper is still quick to point to the nearly non-existent margins his team has to work with, whether in specific series or for the remainder of the season. The Bulldogs were not at full-strength in Sunday's rubber game with two members of the 25-man roster ill. "(RH reliever) Saunders Ramsey was sick, he crawled to the ballpark," Polk said. Fortunately the senior stopper was not needed; catcher Thomas Berkery, similarly ill, was. "I said do the best you can and he got a couple of hits and did a great job behind the plate."
So this time State survived illness. Next time? Well, in recent weeks the Dogs have had to work around modest but still troublesome injuries. Shortstop Bunky Kateon (back) and second baseman Jeffrey Rea (hamstring) have missed games with their nagging situations that can flare up again at any point. Berkery, whether catching or playing third base, has taken a typical beating. And it was a scary Sunday moment when first baseman Brad Jones was hit in the ribs tagging a passing Tiger runner and lay on the turf for almost a minute.
"We have to stay healthy," said Polk. "That's the whole key for this ball club." It was last spring that early injuries depleted the Dogs over the course of a long season and were crucial in State not making the SEC Tournament. So far nobody has been knocked out by a new ailment, though senior outfielder Jon Mungle has not been able to come back from the knee injury suffered in February 2004.
That cost State some expected outfield depth; other positions are thin by call of the coaches. "We chose to redshirt a couple of guys we liked," said Polk. While it may be tempting to activate them just in case, "we didn't want to burn the whole year." So coach and team alike will keep fingers and anything else available crossed for the rest of the campaign in hopes no Bulldog-body goes down for a weekend, or longer. And illness? "With the very little amount of depth we have sometimes kids have to suck it up," Polk put it.
Speaking of ‘very little'…Mississippi State is half-done with a schedule and produced so little longball noise as to be practically silent. The Bulldogs have hit 11 home runs in 28 games, and knocked only three balls out of the park against SEC pitching. That is through 91 innings and 360 at-bats. Calling that a power shortage is like calling Rosenblatt Stadium a nice ballpark to visit in June. Berkery's three homers tops the list for State; Rea and Jones have two each.
But if the Bulldogs aren't showing lots of pop, neither is the opposition with 14 all year. That was why the three Tigers shots were such a surprise, even if wind helped a couple of them leave the yard to leftfield. State's pitching staff has done an excellent job keeping balls inside the fences and in play for the defense. In fact, the staff ERA in league play, 3.12, is better than the 3.60 for the season as a whole. That might not hold up over a whole SEC season but does emphasize that the strongest point of this ballclub is the pitching—whether starting or relief.
And Dog throwers do their job without being overpowering; the strikeout-to-walk rate is not quite 2:1. The starters simply take care of business. Against Auburn, Alan Johnson put in eight frames with a lone run allowed; on Sunday Jon Crosby, who missed his turn due to rain at Tennessee, recorded the first complete nine-inning outing of State's year in a 4-0 shutout.
Crosby's emergence as a weekend winner has put a big piece in place for a solid rotation. Individually none are looking like all-stars; collectively they are as good a group as any in the league so far. Russ McNickle has done a good job," Polk said. "Daron Schoenrock set the table getting these guys ready but Russ has done a good job, the guys believe in this system.
"We know A.J. will always give us a ballgame, and that was the first bad outing Todd has had. In fact if I'd left him out there people would have booed me but maybe by the third inning he might have shut them down the rest of the way."
Ironically, the outstanding starting stints over the past few weeks has come with an interesting downside. The bullpen hasn't gotten as much SEC work as normal for this point of a season, particularly the long-relievers. Crosby's complete game was worthy of headlines, yet Polk had wanted to give Jamie Gant and Mike Valentine an inning or so to clean off their April rust. Ramsey can go longer without work and still be sharp, but it never helps to keep the wing loose because this weekend State might well have to go to the bullpen often.
Of course being able to complain about not giving relievers enough innings is almost always a sign things are going well overall. It's just that State has not been able to make full use of the roster's true strength. "We've got depth at pitching," said Polk, "and it's a shame we're not getting to use some guys enough because of the rainouts."
Meanwhile the coach is not as concerned about modest offensive prowess as the fan base. The Bulldogs are batting at a .294 clip overall but just .273 SEC. Team slugging is only .365. And despite having a pretty athletic lineup, State has stolen only three bases in league play, with just six attempts. True, running is a way to risk injury, but there are enough Dogs who can move that this seems to be an area with untapped potential.
Actually, the head coach is looking at other potential in his batting order. Only centerfielder Joseph Hunter hitting over .350 after 28 games (.354), and Berkery (.333) is the lone other Dog connecting once ever three at-bats. Rea is at .327, and rightfielder Brad Corley is a tick under .300. Polk's response?
"I'm happy to be where we are, with the fact that we've got two or three guys in the lineup we were counting on hitting and they haven't hit yet," he said. And that is where the optimism comes in. "I mean, if they have second halves like they did last year…if we pitch like we have and play defense like we have, and stay healthy…yeah."
Yeah, what? Yeah, the Diamond Dogs can not just stay in the SEC pack but think about picking up the pace in the second half of this exciting season. As noted, there isn't any margin for error or injury, or for slumps on the hill either. But the bright side of the coin is that halfway through the schedule Mississippi State is on the right pace according to their coach. Now, if only the weatherman can provide some encouraging words.
"We just need to have dry weather," Polk added. "We can't afford any more rainouts."