From The Dawghouse

It's a slow day here in Starkville. Rainy day, too, forcing the Diamond Dogs indoors. Their luggage is loaded for departure today; the players fly out for Miami tomorrow afternoon. I've done a couple of interviews, one for a pre-Regional story and another for a summer magazine feature. But I also need to clean out the Hoover notebook and focus on NCAA items. So here's a sampling of stuff while we're in-between tournaments.

*Quote of the Week I: "If we can sneak in the back door again, let us do it! Throw us a number-four seed or something, we'll do it." – Jeffrey Rea, after Mississippi State won the SEC Tournament having qualified only on the last possible day, and as a #7 seed.

*A factoid for your consideration: in every inning at Hoover where the Dogs got two or more base hits, they scored at least one run. By the same token, State never scored in an inning without multiple hits. Yeah, Jeff Butts' solo homer was the first lick of an inning, but it was followed by a single so the stat still stands.

*The most impressive overall aspect of this SEC Tournament wasn't the bats or pitching. It was defense, from almost every team. Each game featured sparkling work with the gloves all over the field, with at least one true highlight play each contest. For State's part Rea was superb and the left side of the infield, a problem much of May, made all the routine plays and several tough ones along the way to the championship.

Though it must be added, first baseman Brad Jones might be the most under-appreciated part of this or any squad. He makes the throwers look good by pulling in just about everything thrown his way. And let's not forget Joseph Hunter. For all the talk of how the big park helped State's pitchers, it was Hunter's ability to race into gaps and snag line-drives that, to my eye, was key to beating both Tennessee and Mississippi.

*But if there was one key defensive decision of the whole week, it was Brad Corley's choice of throwing to third base for the absolutely crucial out in Sunday's seventh inning. While he conceded a UM run, Corley staved off a bit inning by gunning down the Rebel running into easy scoring position with what would have been only one-out. Instead UM was left with a guy on first and two down, and a promising big inning was forestalled. So, for those unhappy homefield fans in the LSU series questioning if Corley knew how to play rightfield, I believe we have an answer after all.

*Quote of the Week II: asked about winning Tournament MVP, Jeff Butts said "After we dog-piled I could have cared less. To have that dog-pile was something we'd been wanting for the three years I've been here." Well then, if Butts was so eager, then why wasn't he in the thick of the pile? That got a sheepish response. "I waited a little while, to make sure I got on top. I wanted to walk away from it, too!"

*And Quote of the Week III: "I'm glad nobody got hurt in the dogpile. You never want to tell a team don't do that, I kept my fingers crossed." – Coach Ron Polk.

*So see, it's not necessary after all to have a home-state team in the finals at Hoover to draw a crowd, as a gate of over 12,000 for an all-Magnolia State showdown proved. And had the weather forecast been better the Met would have been packed with Mississippians on the holiday Sunday. Though the biggest beneficiary might've been not the Met, but the Alabama Highway Patrol looking for easy visiting pickings.

And yes, I was really, really tempted to ask Polk in the post-game press conference what an all-Mississippi final game said about the importance of ‘hope' scholarships. In fact I'd threatened to bring the subject up when, on Friday, we reporters were chatting with #1 at State's practice. My peers laughed while Polk went into the ‘but you can't succeed long-term, it's a numbers-game, etc. and so on..' I do know some SEC folk got a kick out of seeing what we called a Hope-less Championship game.

*Quote of the Week IV: "It was pretty sweet. There were a lot of bragging rights on the line, everybody knows about the rivalry. They got the best of us in the season so it was kind of sweet to get a game back from there," Butts again, on beating Mississippi with a title on the line.

*I've got to think that the Sunday crowd caught the attention of folk running stadiums around the region, who might now consider making a more serious play at hosting a SEC Tournament. Next year completes a three-year deal with the Met, after all, and the conference would listen to other offers. We've heard for a few years that AutoZone Park in Memphis is interested but nothing's come of that yet; now, who knows? And that nice new Trustmark Park in Pearl might even take a swing. For sure, the crowd for a State-Ole Miss game in another city will offer further incentive for the new stadium to work on their own version of the current Mayor's Trophy Game. In fact I've heard that since Smith-Wills has locked in a couple more years of that event, we could have two such games each spring.

*Just how pumped were some Pups at getting to Hoover after missing the 2004 tourney? Check grizzled soph Rea's reaction, after two years of SEC road trips, a weekend at Arizona, and one NCAA Regional. "It's a little more overwhelming than I thought it would be. I came Wednesday night, they're bussing us in and there's nowhere to park. I was like, wow, it must be a huge crowd and it was. It was awesome."

*No Alabama team was playing for the title, but a local kid was pitching for it. State Sunday starter Brooks Dunn hails from metro-Birmingham and played at Vestavia Hills High School. In fact State used his old field for a Friday practice…though the team's nickname of ‘Rebels' didn't set well with a few. But Dunn was a real Bulldog in the title game, and most of his family and friends—about 20 total, he said—were sitting behind home plate. "If it was a close pitch called a ball I'd look at them and they'd just nod ‘that's OK'," Dunn said. "To have everybody in my family here to see it, it feels great. It really does."

Dunn also had a perfect answer when asked by a reporter (not this one) what his strategy for Ole Miss was. "Win," he said. "I wanted a ring."

*A week later I still have wonder about one thing. Would the Bulldogs have won the SEC Tournament without scoring four runs in their very first Wednesday inning? Seriously, did rattling out four-straight base hits to begin the entire tourney provide the emotional spark that carried the Dogs to four wins? Makes you think.

*Quote of the Week V: "We never really considered ourselves a seventh seed. We played a lot of tough teams good, we won a few games and lost a few we should have won. But we knew once we got in it could be ours if we just played together and did the job." – Brett Cleveland.

*How good is the SEC, really? Ask the #1 expert. "This tournament is as good as any Regional," Polk said at Hoover. "If we face a number-one seed they'll be a SEC-type club, but this shows we can compete with anybody." But the Bulldogs will have to do it on the road, as a two-seed at Miami. And while the SEC did get nine teams in the NCAA field for a third year, only four league schools are hosting.

"There's a lot of people out there jealous of our conference," Polk said. "Should we be a #1 seed because we won this tournament, yeah, but if we're a two-seed that's fine. Maybe they'll be nice to us and put with a one-seed they don't like much. Give these kids credit. They won the best baseball tournament in the country and went undefeated. We should go some place where we at least have the credit due us."

*Along that line, Quote of the Week VI: "I hope we can carry this on into a Regional. We're just going to have to go somewhere else and beat them. It's no big deal to us." -- Brad Jones.

*Look to the weekend matchups, Polk will stick with Alan Johnson for the game-one start. I agree, and not just because A.J. is the coolest hand and head on the staff and best-suited to get a weekend going. Because, if State can get by Florida Atlantic and run into Miami, the hottest arm on the staff is Todd Doolittle and he'll be primed for the game-two start. Equally, Doolittle is used to throwing on a pressurized second-day and would be the best chance of keeping State alive in a loser's bracket.

*How down was the Big Ten this year? Not only did just two teams get bids (one of them automatic) but look at the seeds. Michigan is a #3, playing at Atlanta in a field where a South Carolina team that finished sixth in the SEC is seeded #2. And Ohio State is a #4 seed at Oregon State. Miami of Ohio is at least a #3 seed. But lest we sunbelters gloat too much, know that such results only strengthen those rustbelt leagues' cases for some sort of balancing act; either ‘split' seasons on geographic lines or, as we really fear a shorter and later-starting season for all.

And yes, the consensus at Hoover was that legislation to trim the regular-season from 56 to somewhere from 48-to-52 will go through. Of course it will be disguised as an ‘academic' matter. OK, if you folk are so serious about condensing schedules for classroom goals, why not mandate a basketball season running from, say, December 15 to April 1? Ahh, but all that lovely TV money from November games would be missing, eh?

*Without delving too deeply into RPIs and such, my own meaningless quick take says the toughest Regional is at Long Beach State. Forget the records; west coast clubs always lose lots of games in the regular season ‘cuz they all play each other and, player for player, that's where the best talent is.

*Easiest Regional for a host? Corvallis, if we're talking hosting #1s. But Arizona State got a gift, hosting as a #2, especially if Coastal Carolina throws their ace against UNLV on opening day.

*Most likely host team to fail to advance? Actually there are several far-from-sure things in this first weekend. But if South Carolina gets the bats going, they will win at Georgia Tech.

*Skip this paragraph if praise of a rival aggravates you. Now, for those of more open mind, the SEC most capable of winning it all IF they get to Omaha? Yep, Mississippi. Having seen them play nine times this year, the Rebels have a team tailor-made for both the CWS format and Rosenblatt Stadium. Unless the wind is blowing in, that is. Hey, at Hoover their power hitters were taking what I call ‘Alex Box Cuts,' big looping swings for the fences, as if getting ready to play the Regional and super Regional rounds in their cozy park.

As the best all-around SEC club I still like Florida over the course of a season, but Mac's team has a few holes in the order that will bite them before Omaha. LSU should thrive at home and will pray to get the super there. South Carolina is my tourney dark-horse.

*By the way, is UM's coach trying to prove he's the next coming of the Skipper? By Sunday there was no way I would have let Stephen Head play in the field, much less pitch a single inning. He'd have DH'd at most, and rested the wing for the Regionals. Ditto for Mark Holliman.

*Now, for those looking ahead to the 2006 season, of the Sunday starting lineup UM graduates the second baseman, catcher, and centerfielder; while the first baseman and rightfielder will surely be drafted away. And all three of the rotation starters, leftys, are likely drafts. Talk about a rebuilding project… As to Bulldogs looking to have their names called in the upcoming draft, right now only Corley seems a sure selection though the rest of the outfield is eligible. Two-thirds of the rotation will graduate but there's plenty of arms grooming for '06.

*And our final Quote of the Week: "It's not like we the upset-champions of the world. We can compete with anybody, the kids can compete with anybody." – Coach Ron Polk.


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