Diamond Dogs, Rebs Renew Rivalry For Tourney Title

Coach Ron Polk turned to the three Diamond Dogs sharing the press conference stage with him. The question had been who would Mississippi State prefer to play in the final game of the 2005 Southeastern Conference Tournament. Did they favor a rematch with regular-season champion Florida, or prefer renewing their in-state rivalry with Mississippi with a tourney title in the balance?

"I know who they'll say," the coach shrugged. "Go ahead!" To which leftfielder Jeff Butts grinned. "I'd like the Rebels!"

Butts and Bulldogs get their wish. Sunday will feature an intrastate feud for this conference championship as Mississippi State meets Mississippi at 3:00 at Hoover's Metropolitan Stadium. #7 seed State (39-20) wrapped up a three-win stay in one bracket by defeating Tennessee 3-2 in Saturday's early game, while the #4 seed Rebels (44-17) came out of the other bracket the hard way. Facing elimination, they thrashed top-seeded Florida twice and decisively so, by 14-1 and 4-2 scores.

The Bulldogs played only nine Saturday innings but needed them all, pushing a pair of runs across in the bottom of the final frame to avoid an in-necessary twinbill. "It was a great game," said DH Brian LaNinfa. "Tennessee gave it their all and we gave it our all. And we're ready for tomorrow. We're ready to bring a championship back to State."

That would be a first for all of these Dogs, none of whom played on the 2001 squad that claimed State's last SEC Tournament title. Since the conference went to a tournament, played in all sorts of formats, MSU has nine times reached the deciding day. Four years produced championships: 1979, 1985, 1987, and '01, with a shared crown in 1990 when lightning halted the extra Sunday game between MSU and LSU. Interestingly, there is a threat of weather hanging over tomorrow's final round. State is 1-1-0 in title games played at the Hoover-Met.

Of more immediate concern is State's recent record against Sunday's opponent. The teams have played four times in '05 and Mississippi has won them all. The Dogs lost 5-1 in the annual Mayor's Trophy Game played in Jackson back on March 29, then were swept in Oxford at the turn of May by 11-4, 5-0, and 9-1 scores. Small wonder State players want one last chance to get on that special scoreboard.

And if UM has had the better of the rivalry for a couple of seasons now, winning seven of the last eight meetings, the Bulldogs can call on one cautionary fact: State is 6-1 against Rebel teams when they meet in SEC Tournaments, including a 3-0 mark at the Met. They've also had four chances to scout how the opposition is swinging the sticks…though that might not necessarily be a good thing at the moment.

As to pitching plans, the coaches have an unexpected surplus of possibilities. Only the three standard SEC weekend starters have seen substantial action, and just two of those can definitely be ruled out for Sunday. It is not at all impossible that series-opener Alan Johnson would be available after three days to recover from his early-Wednesday stint. All other hands, right and left alike, are entirely available.

"We have a whole bullpen left," said long-reliever Brett Cleveland. "A.J. is probably coming back for relief or start if needed, everybody is fresh. We couldn't ask for anything more."

Polk had planned to start midweek regular Josh Johnson had a second Saturday game been necessary against Tennessee. After winning, watching the Rebels win, and talking with pitching Coach Russ McNickle, the decision was to match southpaw Brooks Dunn against UM's left-handed lineup. Had Florida come through either Johnson or John Lalor, both righthanders, would have gotten the ball.

Not that any starter would be asked to carry the load with an entire staff on call. "We're in pretty good shape pitching-wise really," said Polk. "Our kids have done a great job on the mound. Two runs today, and two against LSU and South Carolina."

"This tournament our starters are doing what they need to do to be able to survive tomorrow," Cleveland said. "Tomorrow is going to be give it all you've got for as long as you can go and everybody pick everybody up."

Holding a red-hot Rebel order to two runs would be a victory in itself. Mississippi has collected an eye-opening 125 base hits in their four games, and not just by spraying the ball around. This lineup has belted the ball every way possible.

Of course Mississippi State has been enjoying a productive run at the plate as well. The numbers aren't as impressive as UM's, particularly in terms of power, but compared to how the Bulldogs swung their bats most of the season the last few contests qualify as a torrid streak.

"That's nine games now that we've hit double-digit hits," said Polk after his team cranked out 10 safeties at Tennessee's expense. It's true, the Dogs have batted better for the past couple of weeks and through their three tourney games own a .342 percentage. More important than the raw rate is the increased confidence this batting order shows. Nor do they care that the only way State seems able to reach the Met wall is on the hop. This lineup learned to quit swinging for the fences weeks ago and be content with seeing-eye singles and gap-ball doubles.

It's an approach that has worked even better in the spacious expanse of the Met. At the same time a couple of Rebels have proven capable of batting longballs even here, so the Bulldogs ought not assume Sunday will be dominated by pitching…unless that means who has the most pitchers to toss into the fray.

Sunday's gametime actually sets the contest in a curious situation. Mississippi State would love to have a shot not just at winning the conference tourney but to receive host privileges for a NCAA Regional. Polk even said Saturday that State had to win this tournament to host. "We've put a nice bid in," he said. "Mississippi State always does." Except, the NCAA committee that selects, sites, and seeds Regionals will announce all 16 first-round Regional sites (and obviously one-fourth of the 64-team field).

"Call them and tell them to wait!" Polk responded. "Commissioner (Mike) Slive can do that!" Slive in fact was present to hear that, but is not on the committee. MSU athletic director Larry Templeton is, though he can't vote directly on or even lobby for his own school or team in such particulars. More realistically Polk is already thinking in terms of NCAA tourney seeding.

"We'll see. We just want to continue playing and we'd love to play at home. But we'll go on the road if we have to, and this will help us become a two-seed in the Regional. Last year we were a three-seed which is no big difference. And if we win maybe we'll be a one-seed somewhere else." Which, in fact, is what happened in 2001 when State won the SEC Tournament and was the last of the 16 top-seeds. That team was sited in Columbus, Ohio, and won the Regional but was then forced to play overall #1 seed Cal State Fullerton on the West Coast. Where State was two-and-through in Coach Pat McMahon's last games as MSU head coach.

Speculation on where the '05 Bulldogs will be assigned run the gamut, with nearby New Orleans the preferred destination of players and media alike. Austin, Waco, Atlanta again…all anyone can do is guess until Monday, though Oxford can be safely ruled out for at least the first round. All bets are off on the super Regional round, though.

"If we win it we'll be 40-20, but we're a seventh-seed (in the SEC)," Polk said. "I don't think we're a seventh-seed team but we are because this is darn good conference. If we win it, yeah, but how do you take it away from teams above us?"

All will be revealed Monday in the 10:30 a.m. bracket announcement, which ESPN will air. Before that, Mississippi State has one more conference contest to play, one which piles all sorts of emotional import on top of the already-high stakes. And there is no better way to keep the tournament momentum building than to come back to Starkville carrying a championship trophy…something that not all that long ago seemed like the longest of shots.

"It's been an up-and-down year," said Butts. "We've played great at times and just haven't been able to get wins in close games. I feel with a fairly veteran ball club this is good to build some confidence, get some team chemistry back. Everybody is gelling well going into postseason play."

NOTE: Late weather forecasts project scattered rain showers moving through the Hoover area Sunday. SEC officials will have contingency plans for how to handle any possible delays or interruptions of play.

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