These Bulldogs haven't been sharing too many laughs lately. Certainly not for the past month. Since March 27, when State was off to a 4-2 start in SEC play and climbing the polls, the squad has been stuck on a plateau of sorts. Approaching the end of April the unranked Dogs are 28-12 overall, and more importantly 9-8 SEC and right in the middle of an absurdly tight Western Division pack.
That mid-pack could loosen up considerably soon, though. Because while the coming weekend features some interesting matchups, there is just one series between West rivals. And it is a rivalry indeed as State faces the Rebels, now 29-13 and 9-9 SEC. By Sunday evening one of the bitter foes will be at least one and maybe more rungs up on the other heading down the conference stretch, with all sorts of implications for not just these participants but the league as a whole.
Not that too many of the throng expected to pack Oxford-University Stadium will be thinking any farther ahead than the next pitch each day. The players certainly understand what is at stake. "It's real important," said catcher/third baseman Thomas Berkery. "Not only is it a big SEC West battle but it's out in-state rival. You have to make those games count when you get a chance."
These games definitely count. This is the most meaningful series the rivals have played since 2001 when both were chasing the West lead (State took two of three, also in Oxford, and both ended up 17-13 SEC and behind 18-12 LSU). That series ended the regular season, too.
This time the Dogs and Rebs meet at the end of April and both have three more SEC weekends in store. But that doesn't diminish the potential impact winning or losing or sweeping will have in the longer run, since each is playing for SEC Tournament seeding and NCAA Regional seed-and-site status. In fact, it is not overstating the case that this weekend's winner has a long leg up in the unofficial but very real scramble to host a first-round Regional, while the loser may need to re-evaluate their June ambitions.
For that matter, pending developments elsewhere in the SEC, a sweeping would leave the broomed bunch uncomfortably close to missing out on a berth in Hoover. Thus there is so much more at stake this weekend than mere bragging rights, even if Coach Ron Polk bridles at implications of pressure on his team.
"That should never be in the SEC," the State skipper said. But Coach…it is. Especially given how the Bulldogs have to finish out the league schedule against Alabama, at Florida, and against Louisiana State. State players understand. "We've got death-row coming up," Corley said after the Bulldogs rallied in the bottom of the last inning to beat Kentucky and, barely, take the series split.
Polk doesn't agree with such talk. "Everyone says you've got a tough row to hoe. I say well, who doesn't? There are no surprises in this league, everybody is good." Certainly the league is good and tight on this West side, with 11-7 Alabama (now that is a surprise) ahead of 10-8 LSU, State, and Mississippi. This weekend has the Crimson Tide hosting Georgia and the Bengals at Vanderbilt.
The Diamond Dogs managed to keep their nose above water, or at least .500, by taking two from snake-bit Kentucky. "We've got the tough part of the SEC coming up," said Sunday starter Jon Crosby. "We definitely needed to be above .500." True enough. Yet a more fundamental fact is State could be farther above break-even than they are. A lost series at Georgia and split with Kentucky meant the Dogs were only 3-3 against teams bringing up the league-rear. Instead of strengthening SEC standing, State merely held their place.
Which wasn't good enough as everyone acknowledges. "When you play weaker teams you want to get 2-of-3 if not 3-of-3," Berkery said. The Dogs might have wanted it too much against Kentucky, noted Corley. "I don't know if we added pressure to it but guys were up-tight." They still were in the midweek series with Southern Mississippi, which turned out a split as State won 5-4 and the visiting Eagles 6-1.
The Wednesday defeat (MSU's first loss to a non-SEC opponent since March 12 at Arizona, breaking an 11-game win streak) hurt more than it should because the Bulldogs played poorly all the way around. "The only good thing is we got a chance to work some guys that needed to get ready for the weekend," admitted Polk. "We're 21-4 at home so I can't say we've struggled at home. But three of the four losses we gave up runs early."
That's an uncomfortable fact of how State too often plays the game. Bulldog pitching as a whole has remained the team's strongest point with defense not that far behind. But there has been a recent tendency to allow opponents onto the scoreboard first. As the record shows, MSU has more often than not recovered in time. But in losses to Auburn, Kentucky, and now USM there was no comeback.
"Lately it seems like we've been down early," Corley agreed, "the first couple of innings down at least three. It's real hard to come back against good teams." Or average teams for that matter. The fundamental fact is that, as most expected before the season, the 2005 club can pitch and field well enough, often enough, to compete. Winning requires scoring and the Bulldogs are just too inconsistent for comfort here.
The boys with the bats realize this better than anyone. How to fix it, now… "I don't know the answer to that," Berkery said. "We're getting hits and getting on, but we're struggling to bunt them over or get that third hit to get them in." State is getting hits, though the .297 average is down from last year's .310 and the toughest part of the slate is still in store. On-base average is down somewhat too, but most notably is the drop in power with only 16 home runs in 40 games. Of course that 2001 club only slugged 38 homers and came out pretty well, so slugging is not an absolute measure of a batting order.
It's just that this team relies even more than usual for a Polk lineup on timely hitting, and their timing hasn't been exactly on of late. The Dogs know it, too, and that awareness isn't helping according to Corley. "It just seems everyone's getting frustrated right now, almost pressing," said the team co-captain who points to his own shortcomings—a .331 average and just two home runs. And that is with Corley currently in his hottest stretch of the season.
In fact, only outfielder/DH Mitch Moreland of the regulars is getting a hit every three-at bats, and the rookie was just activated a week ago. That doesn't include outfielder Joseph Hunter, who's broken thumb is why Moreland got into the lineup. Polk said x-rays show Hunter, a .373 batter when he took a pitch off the thumb at Georgia, is on schedule. "But he can't take the cast off until the bone growth shows. And it will still take 3-4 days to swing the bat. So we're talking another two, three weeks." That would be the last weekend of the regular season.
The rest of the current averages are an obvious late-April concern: Berkery .310, Brad Jones .308, Jeffrey Rea .292, Ed Easley .287, and so on. "It's not just the young guys, it's everyone," said Corley, who wonders how he might provide more leadership at this crucial juncture. "It's just tough to pick those guys up and the freshmen don't really know how to do that. I guess we just need to be stronger leaders and keep our heads up basically."
There is something eerie about State's situation. While Florida threatens to put a SEC title out of reach, the West and a top tourney seed (and more to the point, Regional hosting rights) are still legitimate goals and lots can happen in four weekends. Yet the Bulldogs appear more afraid of what could happen than optimistic about what might yet be achieved. "Everyone's playing like it's the end of the world if we lose," Corley noted after the USM defeat.
This gets to the heart of the matter. Polk will always keep an even emotional keel, though his attempts to defend players verge far too close to excusing team failures. Such as after the Kentucky series when, discussing the team-tension, he said, "I think if we'd played a team in first place or second our kids would be more relaxed because yeah, we're supposed to win but if we lose we're playing team with a good record."
That didn't set well with ticket-buying fans naturally. But the truth comes through with closer review, because after losing the Georgia series these Bulldogs tried too hard to sweep Kentucky. Thus they came away unhappy about ‘only' winning a SEC series and all the more anxious about facing four contending clubs the rest of SEC schedule. It's become a season of discontent all around, at least at the moment.
"Our fans are getting all over us when we're down, that ain't helping much," Corley said. "And people in the dugout are just hanging their heads. It's going to be real tough weekend so we need to get our heads up and come out and stay focused and do the little things to win."
And what little things is the co-captain thinking of? Not hits and catches and pitches, but attitude adjustments. "It's a team thing. It seems like the fun's getting taken out, our dugout is just dead, we're not chirping at all, not picking anybody up. Everyone's hanging their heads, so it's a mutual team thing. We all need to get our act together and start having fun again."
Certainly a competitor should find it easy, even fun, to pick it up for this weekend's matchup. The host squad will be under incredible homefield pressures of their own, too, and there is no way to predict which lineup will thrive in the intensity. Especially because an unusual portion of both rosters have been playing each for three and four years now. "We have a good feel for what they have, and they know who we have," said Berkery. "It's a known battle I guess."
"I know half their team right now," added Corley. "And half of them know us. They know our weaknesses and we know theirs, so it's going to be a good battle up there. I mean, it doesn't matter who's better or not, it's an in-state rivalry. Whoever comes focused to play is going to win that game."
And in turn the series, if Friday's loser doesn't take the setback to heart too hard. Yes, the Rebels are at home, are ranked, and have won a non-SEC matchup of the rivals already by taking the March 29 Mayor's Trophy game in Jackson. "Ole Miss is a great team this year," Corley said, "they've got three really good starters. They've already beaten us once so they're going to have a little momentum. We just need to come out and play ball."
Polk is figuring the Rebels will throw a rotation of Mark Holliman, Matt Maloney, and Eric Fowler—"so it will be right/left/left." And UM star Stephen Head is always in the bullpen for late inning dramatics. State will stick with the same righthanded rotation of Alan Johnson, Todd Doolittle, and Jon Crosby, and every proven bullpen arm on the team is available though only eight will join the starters on the 25-man roster.
And since everybody knows everybody on each side—rookie Moreland might be the only uncertain quantity either way—there will be no devious deeds from either skipper. These are games for the players to win, or lose. And if the Bulldogs do decide to go have some fun in Oxford, maybe they'll have reason to smile upon return Sunday evening. "We just have to shut all that out and get it done between the lines," said Corley.
"We've seen them a lot and they've seen us a lot," Berkery said. "So we'll just go at it again!"