Leave it to Ron Polk to pull out the classic cliché. "We've got to play them one at a time," the Mississippi State skipper said.
Passing up the obvious riposte, that few teams take on two contests at the same time, the Diamond Dogs indeed will take their regular-season-wrapping series with Louisiana State in scheduled turn and hopefully end each day still in the Hoover-hunt. The only sure way to do it? Win them all, one at a time.
With their 12-14 SEC mark, which sticks State (35-18 total) ninth in the overall SEC standings, the Bulldogs actually do have some remaining control over their league-tourney fate. Should they somehow sweep the visiting Tigers (16-11 SEC, 37-17) the Dogs will come in eighth SEC regardless of events elsewhere. This is because Mississippi and Arkansas play each other, and no combination of split, sweep, or even rainout there would offset three MSU wins. One of the two would fall behind State while the Dogs stay safely ahead of Auburn, Georgia, and Kentucky.
But of course even the most rabid Bulldog fan will not take a seat Friday night looking for a sweep of the Bengals, who have plenty motivation of their own this weekend. LSU can still catch both 17-10 Florida and 16-11 Tennessee, if the scores fall their way, and claim another conference crown. At the very least the Tigers want to lock up first place in the Western Division, a top-seed at Hoover, and likely win first-round Regional host rights.
So, while the participants' goals sit on opposite ends of the SEC Tournament spectrum, the motivation will be equally strong in each Dudy Noble Field dugout. The crucial difference is that the home team is playing for its post-season life. Along that line, Mississippi State might in a sense really be tracking more than one game at a time.
Because, failing a series sweep the Diamond Dogs are going to require aid elsewhere to finish among the Hoover-eight. Even two wins don't seem to absolutely assure a SEC Tourney trip, and two losses would almost certainly mean missing the Met for a second-straight May. There is a combination of events and weather that would still let the Dogs in with just one win, (i.e., having either Vanderbilt, South Carolina, or Arkansas get swept) but is a perilous approach to say the least with Auburn in the rear-view mirror.
Yet Polk sees the situation from another angle. "This is a big weekend," he agrees. "But it's big for a lot of people. LSU is trying to win the thing; Arkansas, Auburn, South Carolina, Vandy are trying to stay in, we're trying to stay in." ‘Get in' is the more accurate way to put it, but the thought is the same. A whole lot of teams are clawing at a couple of rungs on this ladder and including Georgia at least two will miss their grip by Sunday evening. Alabama and Mississippi each need just one win to lock up a berth.
Then again, just one win hasn't been a sure thing at all for much anybody over the course of this amazing SEC season. One way to evaluate the league's year is to point out that after nine weekends only Kentucky has been eliminated from Hoover contention, and that didn't happen until weekend #9. Another is that with three games left three clubs are playing to claim the regular-season crown.
Thus pressure-meters everywhere have been redlined for two months and there's little relief in sight. Polk is even a bit surprised by popular opinion of the 2005 State season. "I don't think we've having a bad year. Talk to everybody. Three weeks ago it was the end of the world for LSU after South Carolina, for Florida the last week. Ole Miss went through that. So every team goes through that, will have a bad week or two. Why? You don't get the hit at the right time and the chinkers aren't falling in. Make a good pitch and they hit it. There's a lot of luck involved in this game."
Luck must be in short supply in the Bulldog batrack, as a sub-.300 season average reflects. State did get to swing out some frustrations Tuesday, routing Tennessee-Martin in a DNF doubleheader with 25 runs on 29 hits. Certainly there is nothing like production at the plate to encourage a club's confidence, regardless of the competition's caliber. "LSU is going to be a little better," Polk said. "But we scored a lot of runs and got a chance to play some guys."
"It was good for us, to get our confidence back up and carry it over to this weekend," said Easley, one of the hotter Bulldog batters lately. "We've got a big series coming up and I feel these two games will help us out a lot. We came out and played hard and got the wins." Wins that helped push Mississippi State's unofficial R.P.I. a couple of notches higher (or lower depending on viewpoint) into the 20's. Even after losing two of three at Florida the Bulldogs were rated around 30 in private R.P.I. publications, having salvaged the split with a ninth-inning rally and 6-5 victory in game-three. "Sunday was huge," Polk said.
Winning a place in the SEC Tournament would be huger, so to speak. Because already Bulldogs are looking beyond Hoover, at NCAAs season. A couple of seasons ago such attention would have been misguided because only clubs making their league tourney were considered for at-large Regional bids. Then Florida in 2003 and Mississippi State in '04 managed to make the field of 64 without first playing in the SEC tournament. Both finished ninth in the final regular-season standings.
So Polk is setting the stage for further such speculation when he puts another slant on LSU weekend. "The good thing is if we can win this series we'll have won four of five against the West, that's huge when they start considering seeds and at-larges and things like that."
In fact, there is almost a sense of expectation that regardless of how the weekend goes the Diamond Dogs can count on a NCAA bid as long as they come in ninth. A dangerous way to think, of course, but not without some justification after most of the current roster played in last June's Atlanta Regional without routing through Hoover first. Moreover, there is even talk that the SEC might set yet another record for postseason participation with ten teams earning berths. Crazy? Not to Polk.
"It should (happen)," he said. "But political correctness comes in, too. And actually with Georgia it might should be 11." Now that would be crazy, not to mention unthinkable to the NCAA selection/seeding/siting folk who would face fresh fury from around the country about the respect shown the Southeastern Conference.
If the critics need ammunition, they can point to overall league records. Unless Tennessee, Arkansas, or Mississippi (and the latter two play) sweep their last weekend, no SEC team will go to Hoover with 40 victories. That also happened in 2003 when eight teams got bids. Yet Polk turns the argument around in the league's clear favor.
"Everybody's non-conference record is lights-out, right? Ours is 23-4, Arkansas was 24-1. Because no one has 40 the selection committee says well, there are other teams around the country with 40 wins, the SEC must be bad. No, we have 30 SEC games. It's impossible almost any more to get 40 wins playing in the SEC. Because no one is going to be 23-7 in this league any more. There are no bad teams any more." As shown by today's standings.
The Bulldogs are not a bad team either. But are they good enough to win this weekend against a Tiger team that might be peaking again in May? If pitching and fielding are the deciding factors Mississippi State is in good shape on their own field. The rotation and relief staff are comfortable in their roles and healthy. The defense is playing better than ever, save for some recent miscues by a tired shortstop. Tuesday Polk said that "We might stay with Michael Rutledge" at the six-spot after starting the last three games. "I talked to Bunky Kateon, he's a freshman going through that mental fatigue a little. And we've just got to go with a hot hand right now."
There might be a little mid-May fatigue right now as, to make up some early-season rainouts, State not only has played the SEC schedule but four non-conference games in just over a week. Still most of the regular lineup is in good shape save for centerfielder Joseph Hunter, who banged an ankle in a first-base collision Sunday at Florida. "It's got every color in the rainbow," Polk said, "but it's not serious and he's got three days of rest. He won't be 100% but I've got to have that righthanded hitter. We'll be facing three lefthanders against LSU." That would be Clay Dirks, Lane Mestepey, and Greg Smith. Polk said the same righthanded rotation of Alan Johnson, Todd Doolittle, and Jon Crosby will throw for State.
If the pitching and defense stay consistent—not spectacular, just the same capable efforts as all season—then as usual for 2005 Mississippi State's hopes of success depend on the stick-work. And ‘consistency' is not a word many apply to this offense. A more subjective way to look at it is that while some Dogs have had their high points in '05, a whole lot of batters are, as they say, due. Make that over-due. And there would be no better time in the regular season than here at the end for veterans to hit up to expectations.
Not that Polk would even entertain the idea publicly. At the same time the coach points around the league and big names who haven't put up huge numbers, by their standards anyway. "Florida has the best shortstop in college baseball and he's hitting .240. Why? He's pressing. Even (Mississippi's) Stephen Head would probably say he's not had the same year.
"Pitchers generally don't have that junior thing unless they're trying to overthrow, but it's tough for hitters when you know the cross-checkers are here and you're trying to make some money for myself. And they pitch you different, too, they know who you are or pitch around you. So Brad Corley doesn't get as many good pitches as somebody else."
Whatever pitches they see this weekend, the Diamond Dogs understand what is at stake. And, the absolute necessity to stay focused on the game underway—inning by inning, pitch by pitch—they will naturally still be listening to scores involving those teams trying to claim the same SEC slots. Barring the sweep, it all comes down to winning at least one more game than Arkansas, Vanderbilt, or South Carolina, and doing it against one of the league's top squads. The Dogs might be playing one game at a time but they'll surely be keeping scores on several other contests all weekend…or as long as it matters.
With all that is in the balance there should be plenty of pressure in the park starting Friday? Oh, what pressure? asks Polk "I've been coaching 37 years with pressure to win. I only feel pressure for the kids, not for myself. Never have. I just passed Ron Fraser (for 10th in NCAA career victories) and it's a longevity record. So why should I get nervous for myself? I get nervous for the kids."