Those honest words hit a metaphorical nerve as hard as a swat from an Easton. (Please, no bad jokes about our bats and wet paper bags; following two lost afternoons in Oxford I'm not in the mood, and anyway I have few complaints with the cuts State generally took.) Since exactly when did a Diamond Dog club have to show anyone, least of all an in-state rival, that they could compete?
But that's exactly the situation for Mississippi State here in 2005, having not only lost series to Mississippi in consecutive seasons but now suffering the first sweep since…well, since years before any current Bulldog was birthed. And forget the Mayor's Trophy—if you can even remember it by now--which hasn't been seen in Starkville for four years running. I don't question Ron Polk's Sunday comment that such things do go in cycles, though I do feel compelled to point out that it was one heckuva long cycle between broom-jobs by Them.
(And by the way, let me hasten to add what a fellow reporter echoed at Oxford; that baseball players are the absolute best in post-loss interview terms. Football and basketball players will often dodge mikes and cameras after a painful defeats, but as a rule diamond men and particularly Diamond Dogs will not only face but answer the tough questions.)
Ah, well, what's done is done and the scores are in the books for this year…though I also should toss in a kinda-throwaway comment Polk made Sunday while talking about bad luck on the league road this year. "That shows you how tough this conference is, you've got to have your ‘A' game all the time. We didn't and Ole Miss did. And we'll see them down the road."
Hmmm. Best I can read a schedule, the next chance to see UM down any road would be in tournament time. And unless the State skipper is thinking way, way ahead to the NCAA super regional round, he had to be referring to the SEC Tournament. And barring an incredible collapse the Rebels will indeed be taking B.P. at the Hoover-Met on May 25. But will Polk's 25 folks also be in the house that tourney-opening day? That is the issue of the day…make that the next 20 days as Mississippi State looks likely to be battling to stay in the eight-team field right down to the last date of the regular season (May 22 at home against LSU).
As of this day the Bulldogs are still clinging to the last berth at Hoover, sitting 9-11 SEC for fourth in the absurdly intense Western Division and eighth overall. That #8 slot is pretty darn tenuous though as Auburn and Arkansas are grabbing at State's cleats with matching 9-12 marks. Auburn has that meaningless #9 tiebreak if you're curious. What might be more important is that State also has the tiebreak on both of them.
And you can be sure that over the next three weekends we'll all have both eyes on the field and at least one ear on the P.A., waiting for score updates. If, that is, Mississippi State can pull out of this end-of-April tailspin and right the flight in time to save a season. Funny, how not all that long ago the Dogs were 20-8 and on track for 36 or more victories while we were seriously talking of hosting a Regional.
Now we're back to a baseline goal of making this SEC Tournament, no sure thing at all any more for State. That's why in Sunday's middle-innings when the Dogs had the makings of a rally I filled the cup with Dr. Pepper, official kidney-killer of the SEC, in a slurpy psychic plea for a big base hit. At least the drink tasted nice.
Would that State's batwork was as sweet. "We got five runs all weekend," Joseph McCaskill said. "I don't know, we just have to hit the ball better, but I think we will."
The obvious response is that State has to hit better because the batting surely can't be much poorer than a .163 weekend, even allowing for stout Rebel pitching and much better defense than expected. I know, batting average is a much-misused statistic overall, and those famous timely hits beat scattered safeties any gameday. Still you gotta worry about an order that ranks 10th in SEC average, 10th in runs, 10th in RBI, 11th in slugging, and (surprise!) absolute last in home runs. And yes, that is for all games, not just league contests. Compare State's 19 longballs in 43 games to the 63 dingers for LSU. Check that, don't compare them.
I made my personal peace with lack of power from State bats a couple seasons back, treating homers as nice little bonuses as long as the order hit for a decent average and with good timing. Trouble is, the Bulldogs aren't doing enough of either at the moment. "We're not getting the timely hitting," said McCaskill. "I mean we do hit it every now and then but when we do nobody is on base. You have to have timely hitting and drive people in. That's the main problem but I think it's going to come around. I really do."
It needs to because over the weekend Bulldog batters were 1-of-12 with runners in scoring positions. "Some of our hits were just home runs with nobody on base," shortstop Bunky Kateon said. "We've got to get stuff started earlier in the game and help out our pitchers."
Yes, the arms. While this is not a dominating corps State pitching has been the competitive half of the SEC roster. "I think we've pitched a lot better than we probably thought we would," said Polk. "Pitching has basically kept us in games. And for the most part we've played pretty good defense." Which brings the spotlight back around to the sore point for all concerned.
"We're struggling offensively, what can I say?" Saturday starter Todd Doolittle said. "Hopefully we'll come around sometime." I suppose this just violated some ancient yardball dictum, that pitchers don't comment on hitting and vice-versa, but the fact is that the whole Bulldog roster knows what is keeping State from strengthening its postseason position or just winning a series from quality competition.
"As a team everybody is pressing really, really hard," Doolittle said. "We're not scoring runs. The pitching staff is trying to keep us in the game and hoping our hitters come around and start hitting the ball well. We haven't produced a lot of runs so we have to keep it down as low as we can."
"I think it's in everybody's head," Kateon said, and Polk seconded that emotion Sunday. "The kids wanted to produce, it just didn't happen." Yet something good had best happen for this team soon or their collective confidence could shatter completely. There is no magic answer either, just the eternal chicken-and-egg idea of winning and confidence and confidence and winning.
"We'll just come out next weekend and try to get a few wins," third baseman/catcher Ed Easley said. "We're still in it, the West is real close with teams losing. We just have to keep battling. We have a big weekend at home and we'll see what we can do against the Crimson Tide." A Tide team that oh-by-the-way is leading the West at 13-8 and is by far the surprise squad of the conference. Alabama is not especially strong in any aspect and was projected to rank near the bottom of the Division. Instead they somehow manage to stay atop the West each weekend, presumably by making the sort of breaks the Bulldogs can't.
Just as a good skipper should Polk points at possibilities. "We're 21-4 at home, hopefully that is positive. And last year we won five of our last six SEC games. The positive thing is we're just 2.5 games (actually 3.5) out of first place, you'd think we were nine or ten games behind because we're 5-5 the last ten games. We still have nine games to go, three good opponents. But we have to play better."
Certainly better than in the current four-game losing string during which State has tallied six whole runs. More uncomfortably, the on-base average has slid lately so there have been even fewer RBI opportunities. Sunday, Polk shook up the lineup to get more righthanders in the order, as well as to rest a couple of kids needing breaks…though whether the timing of the day-off might've done more emotional harm than physical good is an obvious question. And the revised lineup still had just six hits, though that was up from only two on Saturday.
"But you have cycles like this where you don't swing the bat," Polk said, "then all of a sudden hitting becomes contagious. We just need a couple of well-hit balls and maybe things will come around. We're not doing anything different, we take batting practice, talk to the guys. It's just a matter of they've got to build up some confidence in themselves."
There's that word again. But maybe right now the Bulldogs could also use some calm, and they do have five days without games. Of course some of those days are due to final spring tests and that's not exactly calming for many kids. Others? "It'll help us a lot just to sit back and focus on hitting and think about what we've got to do as a team," said McCaskill. Who then, asked what he was likely to think more about this week, made the academic staff proud. "My mind is going to be on the rest of the season, I really don't care too much about the tests!"
"We're going to go get some studying done, practice a little bit, and come out next weekend and be real strong," said Easley. "It will allow our pitchers to have fresh arms and let some of our batters get their legs under them."
Yes, there are some shaky legs as well as heads these days. Kateon says his hip won't stop hurting, and second baseman Jeffrey Rea's hamstring is not improving. "This week off will help. We're going to try to get out there and start hitting, maybe take one day off and get out there. I've definitely lost my legs. I wasn't expecting this, I wasn't prepared for how tiring it really is mentally and for the fatigue."
Polk needs runners like Rea up-to-speed by Friday, and even the extra four hours between games one and two (the Saturday time is 6:30 to allow for graduation) will help. Besides, "It won't hurt for a couple of guys to kind of get away from the game." It will help when outfielder Joseph Hunter is able to get back in the game, though it appears he won't be back from the broken thumb before the LSU weekend. "He was our leading hitter and it makes a difference," Polk said, comparing it to when his basketball counterpart lost Winsome Frazier for a month. Besides, the coach added, "It would be nice to sit a guy down when he's struggling but I don't have that option.
"We get Hunter back in two weeks, that will help. For now I'm going to have to experiment a little bit and see what happens."
What happens in the next three weeks determines if the Dogs get to play in the SEC and/or NCAA tournaments, since last year showed the two don't necessarily go together. "I know a lot of things happened and we've got nine more games," said Polk. "As you get later in the season it gets more important, we need to play well this weekend. We have three tough opponents, but there are no gimmes in this conference."
Nope. But at least the Bulldogs are being given a short respite to slow down, take stock, and figure out what if anything they can do to get this season back on a better track. A tournament track, that is. "We've just got to fight through it and come out and play hard against Alabama," said Kateon.
"We're still in this thing," Polk said. "But we've got to hit the ball, and continue to get good pitching and make the routine plays." Do all that, and perhaps Mississippi State will get another chance to show somebody they really can compete.