Still this is the coach who wrote the Baseball Playbook and does everything by his own book. Including game-planning, and especially when the game being planned has such potential import on the remaining post-season. The Bulldogs got their SEC Tourney off to a splendid start, defeating Western Division champ and rival LSU 9-2 on Wednesday. "The second game is more important," Polk said. "Tomorrow is a big day."
True enough, if Mississippi State intends to win this conference classic. The second game in a winner's bracket almost always determines what teams will make it to Sunday's championship round, since the loser on Thursday would have to play twice more just to reach the finals, expending all arms and exhausting everyone in advance of the NCAA Tournament.
No wonder Polk has retired to his favorite Met corner to puff over plans for Thursday's matchup with South Carolina, a 12-2 winner over Tennessee in the first round. "I'll make a decision," the coach said. "I'll smoke a cigar in rightfield tonight."
After Wednesday's win Polk confirmed what most could have guessed. Righthander Todd Doolittle will get the ball first against the Gamecocks. And with righty Saunders Ramsey the only bullpen Bulldog to throw against LSU there is all sorts of relief help available, at any point. "We've got Brett Cleveland, we've got Mike Valentine," said Polk, of the primary long-relievers. "We really haven't used our bullpen."
And since State has one win that guarantees a third starting job that will, again as expected, go to righty Jon Crosby. Just like a SEC weekend. "I'd say we're going to stay in the same rotation that we have all year and if there's a fourth game we'll make a decision."
Even if Alan Johnson didn't go the Wednesday distance, he might have done even better. Not only did the senior put in almost six frames in the win, he left just enough work to let Saunders Ramsey knock off some rust and tune up for the remainder of the tourney. The senior had thrown only 2.2 total innings since April 28; he got almost that much Wednesday in closing out the victory, though it wasn't pretty at times. "He missed a lot of pitches," Polk agreed.
"He wasn't wild. I asked (catcher Thomas) Berkery if the umpire was missing and he said no, Saunders is just missing a little bit. Which happens when you haven't pitched in a while." By contrast Johnson, who threw six-full against LSU five days ago, was still strong enough to give his team six scoreless innings. "Alan was pitching great," said centerfielder Joseph Hunter. "You could tell he was getting a little tired on four days rest but he did what we needed him to do. He threw strikes and got outs and did a great job."
Johnson gets more rest now, as even if State got to Sunday it would be a hard call to use the presumed NCAA-opening starter in anything more than one-batter relief. Doolittle and Crosby won't be called upon again so both can throw all-out Thursday and Friday.
Polk has a couple of fielding/hitting choices to make before filling out the lineup card. South Carolina has usually tossed Zac McCamie (8-3, 3.18ERA) in game-twos, but Jason Fletcher (5-5, 4.45) is an option. Both are righthanders, though, so the choosing is easier. "If it's a righthander going Brian LaNinfa will probably DH and Jeff Butts will be in left." LaNinfa swings from the south side, where Joseph McCaskill would hit against a lefthander. Butts, a lefthanded hitter like LaNinfa, is the superior defender and in a big park like the Met that matters. Polk said that Michael Rutledge will "probably" start again at shortstop, having replaced Bunky Kateon for the past seven games.
Whatever the lineup, Mississippi State can only hope for a repeat performance at the plate. A MSU offense that had hit just .277 in 29 SEC games rattled LSU pitching for 17 base hits Wednesday. All but one was a single, yet this might have been even more encouraging than any show of occasional power. "Sometimes you don't have to hit the ball hard to be successful," Polk said. A timely single…or for that matter errored grounder, or sacrifice-fly…can mean more to MSU's attack than a gapper to the wall or solo home run.
"Hitting is contagious and hitting is all about confidence," said Berkery. If so, the catcher/third baseman ought to be the cockiest Dog in the yard after batting out four base hits and reaching safely six times against LSU. "I didn't realize it," he said. "I'm not a four-hit guy, I'm one or two and get your RBI." He had two Wednesday.
And if his trends at the Met hold, Berkery can count on more ribbies. As a 2003 rookie he went 7-for-14 with five RBI, including a walk-off home run against Mississippi, in four SEC Tourney outings. So he is now 11-for-18 at the Met and has no clue why. "I can't pick out anything that is different about this place, I guess it's just a little extra adrenalin, I get a little hyped-up about being here."
So is the whole Bulldog dugout, in fact. Having missed the 2004 tourney getting to Hoover was a ‘05 goal, even obsession, and this contributed to the stress this club endured all season. They went right to the last day of the schedule before securing a berth, and then only with considerable help from around the league. There was some concern that the sheer relief over making the tourney might have set State up for an opening-day letdown.
The Diamond Dogs answered that question by ringing up four runs in their first turn at-bat against a team that had won a series in Starkville three days before. For that matter, there were no obvious jitters from the Hoover rookies. "We were riding the bus, looking around," said junior Berkery, "and it was only six or seven guys that had even been to the Tournament. I was impressed how J.Rea came out and wasn't flustered at all, he just did his job. It was something that we were really excited to be here."
"We played very well today," said Polk. "A lot of teams have trouble scoring runs Friday because you're facing the best pitcher. A.J. hasn't had four runs in the first inning all year. The good thing is we expanded the lead, sometimes this year we haven't done that. Our record right now is good but just think, we've lost close games because we haven't expanded the lead."
Not only that but State played errorless ball for nine innings, even as LSU stung some balls that could easily have been misplayed into big-inning beginnings. Hunter, Butts, and Brad Corley ran down everything hit their way and a few things hit away from them as well. "It's a little tough to see here," Hunter said, "and we had the wind changing so much. But we all did a good job communicating in the outfield."
Polk doesn't have to communicate what Thursday might mean, though of course he will in the pre-game meal rundown of final details. No matter what happens in SEC Tourney terms, the Bulldogs can just about relax in regard to a NCAA at-large bid now. As a #7 SEC seed they were already confident, but one more quality win should lock that item up…won't it? "I don't know," Hunter said, "that's something for the NCAA and who knows what they think? Coach Polk told us we needed to win, we couldn't go two-and-out and expect to get to a Regional." So presumably now they can expect to, and with every extra victory State's seeding should improve along with chances for being sited ever-closer to home.
"I think we all came with the confidence that when we're at our best we can beat anybody," said Hunter. "That's the confidence we need to have." Of course USC will be a confident club too, with a 38-19 record and certain NCAA bid of their own. A few Dogs would have rather played Tennessee, to whom they lost consecutive seven-inning games by 2-1 scores back in March. "A little revenge," Hunter said. "But it doesn't matter."
For his part Polk is pleased with this matchup, mostly because he doesn't have to take on Tennessee ace and SEC Pitcher of the Year Luke Hochevar on Thursday. LSU has that duty in store Thursday morning, and if Tiger star Clay Dirks does throw it means State needs not fear facing two of the finest arms in the nation. Polk even told Gamecock Coach Ray Tanner to win Wednesday. "I said I'll be ticked-off if he doesn't because I don't want to face Luke. And (LSU Coach) Smoke Laval walked by and told Ray he doesn't want to face Luke either so he wanted him to lose. So Ray got it from both of us."
Of course State might end up facing one of these Friday afternoon if the Dogs don't get by the Gamecocks. But that's a day and a few more cigars away.