That is why Mississippi State is now preparing to play another week, and much of the second half of this Southeastern Conference season, without a three-year starter in centerfield. Junior OF Joseph Hunter has been sidelined by a thumb bone in his right (throwing) hand that was broken Saturday afternoon at Georgia. Hunter, who was swinging fourth in the Bulldog order, took a pitch off the hand in the second inning of State's 6-0 victory.
Initially the forecast was a two-week recovery, but this morning Polk said Hunter—who was pacing the starters with his .373 average--is now likely to miss "three to four weeks." That would put him back in the lineup maybe for the last week of the regular season.
Meanwhile the State skipper has to revamp both the lineup and the batting order, and while there are some veterans available Polk has decided to call on a new name. "We're going to activate one of our freshmen, Mitch Moreland," the coach said. That was pending final agreement by the rookie from Amory, Miss., who does have the option of continuing to redshirt this year. But indications after Moreland's meeting Sunday night with Coach Tommy Raffo was that the youngster will play ball after all.
Polk believes Moreland is ready, too. "In the fall he led us in production rating, that's offense off-the-bat," the coach pointed out. "He's a good athlete. And he made the final decision he'd rather have four years remaining, but we always talk about there's a chance that we may have to activate in midyear if something happens." Now, something has.
"We didn't have a lot of depth in the outfield to begin with," said Polk. Senior Jon Mungle, who missed almost all of 2004 with a knee injury, was counted on to contribute again but ended up having another operation in spring. When Hunter went down Saturday, LF Jeff Butts moved over and Ryan Fesmire finished the game in leftfield. For Sunday, Ben Grisham started and Fesmire concluded the day in left. Fesmire is a lefthanded hitter, Grisham a righty.
Polk gave some initial thought to just moving DH Brian LaNinfa into leftfield full-time, but with Hunter out for so long and the SEC second-half just beginning, the staff agreed to go with new blood. "We feel Moreland had a great fall, we were hoping to redshirt him but now it's time for him to get some lineup experience."
Just in case, Polk added that for Tuesday night's game at South Alabama—which will be dedicating a new stadium--he will probably let LaNinfa open in leftfield with Moreland the DH. "And probably we'll flip it for the next day." That will be a Wednesday evening contest, also with USA but in Jackson's Smith-Wills Stadium. "Then we'll make decisions for Kentucky this weekend, and on until we get Joseph back."
As to where Moreland will swing, or what State can do with the batting order after losing cleanup-man Hunter, well, "I'll play around with it tonight," was Polk's Monday comment.
The loss of Hunter does nothing good to an offense that has yet to heat up two months into the schedule. In defeats at Georgia the visiting Dogs scored one and three runs. And all of Sunday's scores came on two base hits, a RBI-single and two-run homer both off LaNinfa's bat. It wasn't enough as MSU fell short 6-3 in the rubber game of a series that the Dogs reasonably expected to at least win, if not sweep.
Instead State returned home 7-7 in SEC play (23-10 overall), having gained no ground at all…in fact, they lost a step. Just as last Monday the Dogs are a game-and-a-half in back of West-leading Alabama, but now they are in fourth place as Auburn and Arkansas are 8-7. And MSU is just a half-step ahead of 7-8 Mississippi and LSU.
That's the Division picture. For the SEC as a whole Florida (10-5) took a short step in front of a tight pack by taking a series from Alabama (9-6). Tennessee and South Carolina also have nine wins each.
The upshot is that Bulldog dreams of perhaps contending for the SEC crown took a serious, maybe even fatal, blow by letting the Georgia series get away. Even with five full series left for everyone it will take a lot of wins, including some sweeps, for Mississippi State to catch up and then pass the current frontrunners. A Division title might now be the real regular-season goal of this team.
"We're just hanging in there with every one in the West right now," Polk said. "Overall everything was going OK, then we stumbled a little bit at Georgia." More than a little bit, when the injury to Hunter is factored in. He was one Dog that had been hitting the ball consistently well. Now the MSU offense must look for help elsewhere for a while.
"We pitched good enough all three days to have a chance to sweep," said Polk. "We didn't swing the bat well but that's been a problem all year." So much so that after 33 games the Bulldogs are batting barely .300. In SEC standings they are tenth in RBI and runs, 11th in hits, and 12th in plate appearances. That's weak enough, but the home run totals are even more disturbing as State has put only 13 balls out of parks so far. That's last in the league, of course.
For all his inclination to play for the big-bop inning, Polk is not all that worried about the lack of power in this order…because he never expected to see a lot anyway. Batting average is another matter because the coach really expected to see more consistency from State's sticks. That is, before he got a good look at the kinds of arms on SEC mounds this season.
"The whole league is pitching-dominated this year," Polk said. "Not one team that jumps out offensively. I think we have more pitching prominence, maybe that's why we're not swinging the bat like we thought we would." Or, maybe, some Diamond Dogs just haven't gotten into the swing of things.
If the offense could come around the biggest missing piece would fall into place, as the coach sees things. "I think we're real close to leading the league in ERA, we're pretty good defensively." Actually the staff 3.41 ERA is sixth in the league, but not so far behind #1 Vanderbilt's 3.07. It all comes down to putting up the sort and quantity of runs to support the throwers and fielders. Without much in the way of longball threat in the order there naturally is some consideration of letting the Bulldogs force matters when they do get on the basepaths. And yes, Polk said, he would like to run some guys more.
"Unfortunately, we've got a leadoff guy with a little bit with hamstring problems," he said of second baseman Jeffrey Rea. "Jeff Butts has a shin bruise, (catcher) Thomas Berkery has a quadriceps pull, (shortstop) Bunky Kateon has a hip pointer, and (third baseman/catcher) Ed Easley has a hamstring problem. Hunter is the only one really hurt, the rest are nicks. But that happens when you play the same lineup every day."
In other words, the coaching staff has to pick running spots carefully and avoid taking some injury risks. One rookie redshirt is being taken off this week; Polk would rather not have to do that again, much less force others to have to take key roles in the coming clutch games. And realistically every date from now through May 22 is crucial, not just in terms of getting back to the SEC Tournament but in NCAA considerations. State is in respectable shape for both goals today, but as the Bulldogs know too well things can change very quickly and for the worse.
Certainly the coming weekend offers another opportunity to change things for the better, as an injury-plagued Kentucky squad coached by former Dog outfielder John Cohen comes to town. The Wildcats are not only hurting physically but at 2-12 are almost practically eliminated from SEC Tourney contention already. Yet Kentucky has put up a good scrap every league weekend and Cohen's club has plenty of potential to trip up his old school. Nor is UK, which has lost several players this year, sparing State any sympathy.
So the pressure is on the Bulldogs, who badly need to start the SEC-second half with a big weekend before facing, in order, Mississippi at Oxford, Alabama, Florida in Gainesville, and Louisiana State. Breaking even over those four weekends is a respectable goal, which means State needs to go into that last month a few games over .500. Regardless of who is available or not.
Or as Polk put it, "You have to pick up the pieces and get after it."