Mississippi State ought to be in excellent shape for the weekend games of this SEC Tourney. With a pair of wins in the post-season account (9-2 over LSU and 6-2 against South Carolina), the Dogs enjoyed a mostly-free Friday while while awaiting their Saturday assignment. It will be Tennessee, which eliminated South Carolina 4-1 in the loser's bracket, and gametime is 10:00 tomorrow at the Hoover-Met.
A win would put State in Sunday's one-game championship playoff against the other bracket's victor; a loss only sets up a ‘rubber game' or sorts at around 5:00 Saturday. So Coach Ron Polk's club is in the best possible day-three position: watching the opposition wear itself out in a fight for survival.
"We're playing really good baseball, and I hope we keep doing it," said pitcher Todd Doolittle. "The game comes early Saturday so I hope we're ready for it." Of course Doolittle was speaking for teammates, as Thursday night's winning hurler is done until next weekend's NCAA Regional round. But the overall theme holds true. Mississippi State appears to be hitting some sort of peak here in tournament season.
"We're in the winner's bracket and that's what it takes," said third baseman/catcher Ed Easley.
To win the SEC event, that is. "This is a big tournament," Polk said. "The next one is bigger." True, as the ultimate goal is always the national title. But this takes nothing away from Mississippi State's current focus on coming out of Sunday with a conference crown. Because while Polk won't risk anyone who will be needed in Regional play—especially pitchers—the State skipper knows that continued success here puts his team in ever-stronger NCAA seeding/siting status.
And yes, even an off-day figures into Regional planning. "We're trying to use enough pitching to get ready for the next tournament," he said. "I'm happy we're not playing today, but we've got two more games to go." Or maybe even three if so required Saturday. So Polk and pitching Coach Russ McNickle have been plotting out every possible scenario for the weekend's work, even if the head coach admits calls might be made entirely "by feel" as he put it.
"It's just pitch-by-pitch, inning-by-inning. We don't want to have to play two tomorrow, and then play on Sunday. The whole key is try to win the first game. The edge we have is we haven't had to use too much pitching." Indeed, starters Alan Johnson and Doolittle put in priceless performances in the two wins, meaning bullpen men Saunders Ramsey and Mike Valentine could get some stay-sharp throwing done without win-or-lose pressures. And the rest of the Bulldog bullpen is completely fresh for Saturday/Sunday.
No matter what Friday's UT-USC result righthander Jon Crosby was ticketed to take the hill for State's third game just as in a normal SEC weekend. And after that? "We have to know who we play, we'll wait and see," said Polk. "But right now it's Crosby and go from there." Ideally Crosby will give enough innings that regular relievers Valentine or Brett Cleveland can finish out a victory with only modest tosses, leaving possible starters such as Josh Johnson, Brooks Dunn, and John Lalor ready for Sunday. An if-needed second Saturday game will call on one of those three.
Looking farther ahead to potential title game matchups State would likely want to start Johnson or Lalor against other-bracket leader Florida, and have Dunn prepared to start against Mississippi or Alabama if either comes out of the loser's bracket. At this point only the regular-season champs Gators seem to have as much available pitching, particularly in relief, as State. "But I don't care who we play," said Polk, adding "We hope Friday's games go 25 innings!"
The 18 winning innings recorded so far has State very hopeful of getting to Sunday's showdown. Because the Bulldogs have made themselves at-home at the Met. "The ballpark feeds a little to our advantage," Polk agreed. MSU's pitchers are comfortable throwing in a bigger yard that diminishes the threat of longballs, and Dog defenders have shown they can cover the spacious grounds quite capably. In fact, State's hurlers almost feel as if they are at home. "Dudy Noble is pretty much the same," said Crosby. "I've seen a lot of fly-ball outs this tournament, other teams haven't gotten used to it yet, but we'll see."
What Crosby & Co. hope to keep seeing is the sort of offensive output the Bulldog batting order produced in the first two wins. State rang up 17 base hits against LSU; 11 more against USC. And none of them left the yard, well, save for a ground-rule double by Brad Corley. Of those base knocks 24 have been garden-variety singles…but boy, is the yard ever blossoming for Bulldogs.
Not only is the yield bountiful but timely as well. State is rattling out the sort of clutch hits that create big innings. "Yesterday it was a two-strike hit by Corley, a chinker," the coach said, "and we get a hit-by-pitch and then find some holes." The result was a five-run second inning that sent the Dogs on their way to Thursday's win. The day before it was a four-run first turn that keyed Johnson's victory. "We put the ball in play and things happened," said Polk. "All of those balls could've been right at people. There's a lot of luck involved."
And with luck comes confidence to do it again, and again, and… "These last two days it's been amazing," said Rea. "We've been an early-inning team and I know it felt good for A.J. and Todd to have that cushion where they could throw fastballs and have control of the game. That's awesome for us to do that." So, can Crosby expect a similar starting surge in his turn?
"I haven't said much to the offense," he grinned. "They're doing a great job, I don't think they need anybody to say anything to them!" Nor will Polk, who has reason to think the contagious contact will continue after Friday's batting practice featured line-drives and ground-balls with surprisingly few routine flies. That is exactly how a power-short order like MSU's must approach the Met plate, he added. "It hurts teams like LSU and South Carolina who have a tendency to lift a little bit because their parks are so small. You have to make adjustments."
For that matter State's pitchers have adjusted to the Met better. Corley noticed that the USC starter, used to working in a bandbox, was lost in a bigger yard. "I think that was to our benefit. Especially in this big ball park, he didn't know what to throw us."
A twist to Saturday's matchup is that while Tennessee swept State back in late March, it was a pair of seven-inning Sunday games only after two days of rain. "We had four pre-game meals before we played a game," Polk joked. More seriously, while the Dogs lost 2-1 twice the coach thought his club had plenty chances against UT's aces. "If I remember we left 16 guys on base in two games, I thought we put the ball in play and it was two close ball games that could've gone either way." And now the Vols have thrown their best stuff just to get to the fourth day. "Tennessee has good starting pitchers but not much depth," added Polk.
As to the fact that Crosby did not get to throw against the Vol order, he's not concerned. "I'll go to the game and sit and watch them." Just as the coaching staff did, though Polk was seated farther away…out behind rightfield where he can burn a cigar in relative safety. His players are left to their own devices as far as resting and recharging, of course, and the skipper has noticed that all handle tournament tensions in their own ways.
"Some are more relaxed because we won two; some feel more pressure because we won two. Some would rather play with their backs against the wall. I'm glad we won two. In an elimination game you just manage different because of what you have in the bullpen to try to stay alive."
Fortunately Mississippi State isn't just alive, the Dogs are positioned to thrive as long as they stay with their current collective approach to tournament success. "We don't need to press," said Rea. "Just stay relaxed and do what we can and no more and depend on the guy behind you to help you out."