And this year's revival of the rivalry matters more than most, impacting heavily on opposite ends of the post-season spectrum. While the Tigers play for a high Hoover seed and shot at hosting a Regional, Mississippi State is fighting just to remain a viable candidate for any sort of tournament berth. In fact, it's uncomfortably possible that when I do get back to Dudy Noble Field on Sunday the series finale might already be as meaningless in SEC Tourney-terms as a Hollywood wedding.
OK, enough Monday grumping. One does what one must…which come to think of it has been a reasonably accurate assessment of Mississippi State's recent results. The Bulldogs have, just barely, done what they had to do to remain, still just barely, in SEC Tournament contention. They were one more Florida double-play away from effective elimination, as the chances of scoring a sweep of the Tigers are only slightly better than that aforementioned nephew ever repaying all he has been ‘loaned' over the years.
Yet somehow the Dogs have stayed alive this long. They're still a slot outside the Hoover field, and only marginally (read ‘sweep) in control of their own fate, but they're in there swinging all the same. The fact that this is the best they could hope for at this mid-May point again is another issue for another day, when we look at the state of State after 2005 plays out. For now, the focus turns entirely to two not-entirely-connected questions: will the Diamond Dogs win their way back to Hoover after a one-year absence; and if not, will coming close (finishing ninth overall, say) be enough again to merit a NCAA berth?
Y'know, I almost liked it better when it was understood a team had to make its conference tourney to play in the national one. Much as I enjoyed the stay at Georgia Tech last spring there still a nagging discomfort about it all. But if the NCAA doesn't care, why should I? Certainly Ron Polk is setting the stage for this already, touting the team's R.P.I. at every opportunity for a few weeks now and expressing confidence in a NCAA bid, Hoover or no. Maybe it's meant to take some self-imposed pressure off the Dogs or something.
Forgive the impiety, but I'm not quite as confident as the coach. And I'd surely hate to test the selection committee's mercy by finishing tenth in the SEC and ending the regular season on consecutive lost series no matter how stout the competition. Remember, the '04 Dogs won five of their last six SEC games to make a late NCAA case. That won't happen this time, though winning a series against a conference contender might well tip that balance.
And speaking of ‘balance'…here we are with one weekend left and 11 teams still viable for eight slots. Well, make that eight-for-five, as by my crude math Florida, Tennessee, and LSU are locked in. Given who-plays-who, even Alabama and Mississippi at 15-12 each aren't sure things until they win one more game apiece. Amazing.
And agonizing. With so many wild cards involved I don't have the time nor temperment today to calculate every possible scenario, to figure whether two wins absolutely gets State to Hoover or if one win could somehow do the trick if a bunch of other factors fell into place. I'll let the SEC crunch those numbers and Chuck Dunlap issue an updated ‘Road to Hoover' breakdown. My concern at the moment is the state of State's mind heading into the last week of the schedule.
Give the Dogs credit for being a resilient bunch this spring. They could have tanked after getting swept at Oxford. They could have tossed in their last clean towel when Florida took the lead yesterday, or after leaving tying runs at third base twice. Or settled for extra-innings and risked a fatal sweeping. They didn't, making something out of nothing and winning with backbones leaving impressions on that proverbial wall.
They're still not out of the SEC-wall's shadow, though. And the consensus of the moment is that the Bulldogs still probably have to sweep LSU to lock up a Hoover berth; two wins assure nothing given, again, who-plays-who.
But two wins, along with hopefully taking both ends of Tuesday's twinbill with Tennessee-Martin, would certainly merit keeping the kids on campus during Hoover-week to practice for a probable at-large bid. In fact there is realistic discussion out there that the SEC will make more history this season with TEN bids. Not that I would count on it, of course. Besides, a ten-bid year would energize unofficial debate of just doing away with what would be increasingly seen as a meaningless league tourney and use that weekend for an 11th SEC series. I don't agree but do acknowledge the argument, as it would determine a for-real conference champion.
Anyway. These Bulldogs remain under all-or-nothing pressure for the one last week they have to determine their own postseason destiny. Of course we could also look at it as they've been in such situation ever since losing the pair at Tennessee (bringing up another calculation-complication the fact that State will have played one less game than most of the nearest contenders). The fact is that nothing has come easy for this ball club and it doesn't seem likely ever to. It's just the hard fact of league life for a team that simply will not put a lot of runs on the scoreboard.
I've been going through the stats again this afternoon, and it's a dolorous roll we're calling. There is not a single notable offensive category where the Bulldogs rank better than ninth, which is where they do stand in batting average, on-base average, and total hits. Hey, at least they're consis…sorry, bad joke. Tenth in RBI and runs, 11th in steals, and dead last in home runs and slugging. State has 24 longballs through 51 games, so few that Jim Ellis can recall almost every darn one. Move in the fences? Shoot, the way this program is tending we oughta move ‘em back even farther and leave more room for gap-doubles.
Yeah, yeah, numbers can be manipulated to say anything, but I defy even optimist Polk to find something positive in this stat: the Bulldogs lead the SEC in grounding into double-plays. Then again I guess it means we're good at getting folk on first base to set up all those twin-killings. But there was a good sign Sunday when a two-on, no-out bunt was executed to put the eventual tying and winning runs in scoring positions.
One just tends to seek any encouragement at this point of a stressful season, yet I keep going back to the way these Dogs have handled themselves in the utterly frustrating second half of the schedule. Oh, there has been the occasional comment from pitchers about lack of scoring help, but that has actually encouraged me further as proof the players aren't parroting party lines in public. Not a single Bulldog batter has shied away from hard questions about production or lack thereof. And where three weeks ago I was beginning to fear the squad might go into some sort of emotional shock, they've pulled themselves together and played just as hard each time out.
That doesn't mean they've played well each time; only that State puts out the effort necessary to compete. The rest is execution, especially on offense. And that is where the collective frustration comes in. This '05 team pitches and fields well enough to be, oh, I'd say fifth or sixth in the league standings. Not great, but pretty good in a very good league. Scoring is the weak point in a year where as it is there really doesn't seem to be any outstanding SEC offenses. Heck, I daresay if this team was hitting just .305-.310 instead of .291 they'd be first in the West and in line to host a Regional.
Instead we're seeing a mass case of Junioritis, which has rubbed off on some sophs and redshirt frosh. And, I might add, could be causing some tension in the coaching office. It's safe to say the scholarship money tied up in some of these draft-eligible juniors has been promised to incoming signees…but what if those vets don't get picked highly enough to turn pro?
Yet with all this the Diamond Dogs show up and play all-out. I'd really, really like to see what these guys could do in a tournament, especially playing on a fast track and in an even bigger yards where the longballs hit by foes in pulled-in parks would become long fly balls. The pitching staff isn't overpowering but is steady, deep, and versatile. The one strength of this batting order is driving balls that has a better chance of finding gaps in a wider outfield. Who knows what State could be capable of when all records go to 0-0 for the second season?
But the Dogs have to get there first. And getting to Hoover means winning at very least this final series, which is looking like enough to merit advancing to the next tourney in any event. Maybe. Nothing is certain any more in the game, save that Mississippi State still has their chance and we'll see how it plays out this weekend.
Well, those who aren't unavoidably conflicted for a couple of days, that is. If when I do return to town for the regular-season finale the game means nothing, well, about that wedding present…