Figuratively and factually that is where Mississippi State's post-season starts. The Bulldogs, having scraped into this May's eight-team field on the last possible day—and in the least enjoyable way—begin the road to…well, wherever they are bound at the Hoover-Met. State goes in as the #7 seed and is matched up with, by sheer coincidence, their season-finale foe and #2 seed Louisiana State. These State teams square off in the opening contest of the entire tournament, at 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday.
If anyone in the Bulldog locker room is annoyed at the prospect of an early arrival at the ballpark, they know better than say so after Mississippi State failed to appear at the Met last season at all. "I'm happy we're in the tournament," said Coach Ron Polk. "The kids last year missed it by a game." It was the first time since 1986 the Diamond Dogs had not played in one of the SEC's many tournament formats, and it left a foul taste that was finally washed away on the last day of the 2005 schedule.
So, "Being in is huge," outfielder Brad Corley said. "We worked all year for that. We get to start over now and go in with a clean slate and hopefully pull off some wins."
The Bulldogs don't even mind, much, how they secured the right of return to Hoover. They were not able to win their way in, coming out on the short end of a split with LSU and finishing the SEC schedule 13-16. In fact, State dropped three of their last four SEC series. It took a lot of losses around the league by the three clubs contending for the last available tournament slots for MSU to slide into the field.
"I'm just glad we didn't get into tiebreakers," Polk said. True enough as State nudged in front of Arkansas, Auburn, and Vanderbilt who all ended up 13-17. The Razorbacks did come out on top of the conference's tiebreaking system and will be the #8 seed at Hoover, so technically the Bulldogs weren't the last team to get through the gate before it slammed shut.
Of course there is some irony in the finish as it turns out the March rainout at Tennessee might have saved State a trip through the tiebreakers, as the Bulldogs played one less game than their counterparts. And just because the Dogs beat all three in regular-season series didn't automatically mean MSU would have gotten the bid, because all four tied teams would have to have played all the others for head-to-head to count first.
Fortunately the Bulldogs avoided the numbers crunch, and only when media mention the subject do they even consider that they ‘backed' their way to Hoover. As if that matters now, Corley said. "There's no downside going into the tournament, period. Last year we didn't get in so it's big for us just to be in."
Such last-day drama, or trauma, could have been prevented if the Dogs had won the last weekend. And Polk insists they could have, maybe should have. "It was three games that probably could have gone either way. Our kids played hard and we had opportunities. Friday we make a play, we win, and we won yesterday. So we had a chance maybe to sweep." OK, that might be getting carried away a bit, and LSU did come out as co-West champs and a Hoover top seed via, what else?, the tiebreaks.
Still the coach is correct that his team was oh-so-close to finishing the regular season on a roll, and to dismiss ideas of getting to the SEC Tourney via a back door. "We deserve to be in it. We make one play Saturday at Florida and one play Friday here and we're in. You say you're record is below .500, well you make those two plays and you're over .500, right?" Then again, State did not make those plays and everyone had at least one ear on out-of-town scores while playing Sunday's home game.
"We were listening to the scores every inning," Corley admitted. "Every inning is do-or-die for us pretty much, if those teams win we're out." Not until the game ended did the Dogs find out, for sure, that they are indeed in. "Things worked out!" said pitcher Jon Crosby.
It just so works out that State also faces an instant rematch with the Tigers. "Is that who we play?" Rutledge asked. "It'll be a good matchup! It will be an interesting game like all three of these were." The three games were decided by scores of 7-5 LSU, 5-3 State, and 3-2 LSU, and each truly went right down to the last at-bat. Such as Sunday when two Dogs were on base as Tiger closer Jason Determann struck out Rutledge.
So a rematch of these bitter West rivals should sell some morning-game tickets beyond just the expected crowds that always follow the Dogs and Tigers. "The Hoover people are ecstatic that we're in it, that LSU and Alabama are in it," proclaimed Polk.
State players don't mind playing LSU again, especially on a neutral field that might favor State strengths even more than Dudy Noble Field. Rutledge talked to a few Tigers frustrated after solidly-struck drives stayed inside the MSU yard. "They said they hit some balls that would have been way out of their stadium. But Hoover is a big park and we've got some guys with speed and hopefully we can spray the gaps, hit some triples, and drive some runs in."
"We're kind of a, I don't want to say small-ball team, but a singles and doubles team," said Corley. "Two-out hits are what is huge for us, we don't rely on home runs as much as those guys (from LSU) do."
"It's a bigger ballpark than ours, not a lot bigger," Polk said. "We've had some success there and some failures but I like the ballpark. That ballpark is kind of tailor-made a little to us." The coach is mostly talking of his offense, by far the most power-deficient in the SEC. Yet the fast and true surface ought to be equally good for the Dog defense, and MSU pitchers who have focused on preventing big flies all year definitely ought to be more comfortable. "Most teams have these bandboxes, so they get used to lofted fly balls," Polk said. "This is the way the game is supposed to be played."
At the same time the coach knows his team has to maximize any offensive opportunity, lack of which has been the bane of the entire Bulldog season. The .295 batting average for the season (and oddly, for the LSU weekend) is a glaring reminder of how few chances State gets to put runs on the board. So look for a continued reliance on the 2005 strengths of pitching and fielding. "I'm confident," Polk said. "We've got pitching depth which is a big factor, especially in the loser's bracket. You just have to win the first game, hopefully we do that."
Speaking of first game, as of Sunday afternoon the coach wasn't absolutely certain Alan Johnson would start Wednesday's opener, having thrown a tough game just the Friday-past. It's probable, just not certain. "We can go with A.J., we just need to look at pitch counts and make a decision. I'm not sure we'll be able to tell anybody until Tuesday." Along that line, Polk is figuring that LSU ace Clay Dirks might not be ready by Wednesday morning. "Because he's a max-effort guy. So we'll see Lane Mestepey, Jordon Fairbloth, and Determann." That would mean seeing yet another southpaw starter on the hill.
And that means putting as much of a righthanded order/lineup together again, such as using Joseph McCaskill as the DH. He hit .500 against LSU, a good sign. Polk wouldn't commit to how he will play shortstop for the tourney, having replaced Bunky Kateon with Rutledge a week ago without noticeably improving the left-side defense. Most expect Rutledge to stick at the spot as Kateon appears to have just worn down over the course of the campaign. More info on these questions should come Monday.
Polk did confirm Sunday that relief pitcher Jamie Gant has left the team, after he was not included on the last SEC weekend roster or designated for the postseason 25+5 list. Pitchers who were on the LSU series list were starters Alan Johnson, Todd Doolittle, and Crosby, with righthanded relievers Brett Cleveland, Josh Johnson, John Lalor, Mike Valentin, and Saunders Ramsey; and bullpen lefties Justin Pigott, Brooks Dunn, and Eric Ebers.
Final roster choices have to be made Monday for SEC submission. And barring injury, or ejection, at Hoover the same 25 will suit up should Mississippi State advance to the next stage of post-season. Polk would rather play a few more SEC squads before making out a lineup for the NCAAs, though. "I'm confident. We just have to win the first game, and we'd like to stay over there for a lot of reasons. One, to improve our seeding for the Regional, two to give the pitchers some work, and then three if you lose the first two you have to sit around until Monday and that's no fun for anybody."
Of course just getting to Hoover is more fun than staying home a week playing a waiting game, as the 2004 Dogs did. The ultimate goal of course is as Rutledge said: Omaha. Yet there has been a strange swing of post-season impression in the past couple of days. Going into the final series State really felt that just falling one slot short of Hoover would still leave them confident of an at-large NCAA bid. Now, with high-RPI clubs like Auburn and Vanderbilt falling so short, that assurance is a bit shaky suddenly.
And no, the presence of MSU athletic director Larry Templeton on the NCAA selection committee is no guarantee of a Bulldog bid. Polk knows the whole committee well and has faith in their fair play. "But their challenge is to pick the 64 best teams. What happens around the country depends a lot on upsets in conference tournaments. We've got 11 (SEC) teams that should be considered, I don't think it will be 11. But ten should."
Yet neither can the league completely count on getting nine in, either, and here the SEC's exceptional strength might become a downfall if picks are made purely on the in-confernce Ws and Ls. "Don't hurt a program or club because they happen to play in a tough league," Polk said. The last two years we've got a team in that didn't make the SECs. Now, say we go 0-2 and they bring in somebody that didn't make the tournament and take out somebody that did. Can they do that? Sure. But they've got good information."
And the Bulldogs—who made the NCAA's last year without benefit of playing in Hoover—have the great opportunity they've played a regular season for. "Everybody should be happy and have a positive attitude," said Corley, who dismisses the idea of being tired after three long months of play. "Once tournament time comes that all goes away. It starts all over and everyone is fired-up."
"You have to beat everybody to win it, and you just start over," Crosby said. "You put all the games behind you."