The Bulldogs (40-20 and winners of the Southeastern Conference Tournament) are seeded second in this Regional and meet #3 seed Florida Atlantic (36-22) at 3:00 ET Friday. Host and top-seed Miami (48-17-1) plays #4 seed Virginia Commonwealth (33-20) in the other game. By Sunday one of these entrants will advance to next weekend's super Regional series.
"It's going to be fun," said designated hitter/outfielder Brian LaNinfa. "We're looking forward to it. We're excited to be there and hoping to win the Regional."
A few weeks ago the Bulldogs weren't certain they would even be playing in a Regional, and after losing four of the last six SEC games it took a whole lot of dominos toppling the right ways for Mississippi State just to make the conference classic. Yet once in a tourney setting the Dogs turned into a different team, knocking off four elite foes and finishing better than break-even in the land's best league.
"It was a great week," second baseman Jeffrey Rea said. "On the bus on the way back the guys were talking about that's a great team win, we were running on all cylinders with great hitting, great pitching, and great defense." In fact State had the best team batting, fielding, and earned run averages for the whole week. They also not only locked up a NCAA bid by winning a game or two, they scored the SEC's automatic berth by taking the tourney crown.
Having emphatically earned their place in the NCAA's post-season party, the Bulldogs believe they have what it takes for a long stay. "It helps us," LaNinfa said. "We knew going into the SEC Tournament we'd played probably the best ball we had all year, all we had to do was continue. And the way we played in the tournament all we have to do is continue."
Even if it means continuing to play ball away from home. State had some modest hopes of hosting a first-round Regional after making the SEC finals, but when sites were announced 20 minutes before the Dogs took the field for the championship game they knew they were headed for another destination, somewhere. Not that they mind much now, after an impressive run at the Hoover-Met.
"It was great for us," said Rea, "four-straight SEC wins and three of them we beat are hosting a Regional. So that's like beating the #1 team in the country if you ask me. But I believe we're playing great on the road right now."
State's first-day foe at Mark Light Field is also a visiting team, sort-of. Florida Atlantic, an annual NCAA participant out of the Atlantic Sun Conference, has played in the Coral Gables Regional for three-straight years now and played well. "We know FAU is pretty good," said LaNinfa, who knows this better than most Dogs. "I played with a couple of their players last summer and one of them was co-defensive player in their conference. It's going to be a fun series.
"They've got a great program, they've got a good coach down there. A lot of teams in Florida have good talent, there are no bad teams. So we're going to prepare for them right and go in with the same mindset we did the SEC Tournament."
LaNinfa, a native of Venice Beach, Fla., also has a little bit of inside-info on the host school and the tourney site as well. "I actually took a visit down there before I came here. It's a nice field, it's nothing from the SEC. You can hit home runs but it's a good pitcher's field, it just depends on how the wind plays and how we hit ‘em."
Of course the Diamond Dogs hit ‘em quite efficiently at Hoover. The .329 average over four wins might not open eyes in Miami, but for State it was a real step up after a tough regular season. For that matter the Dogs were showing signs of new life towards the end of the schedule, and going into Sunday's title game they had collected double-digit base hits in nine consecutive games.
Yet more important than the consistency with the sticks was just how timely Bulldog batting was at Hoover. In every inning State scored a run there were at least two base hits, and often the safeties came consecutively as runners first moved and then scored. The Dogs also got on the board early, giving priceless support to a longsuffering staff of starters. Only once all week did MSU trail in a game, and that for only a half-inning against Tennessee.
"I was very proud of our hitters," said Rea. "Our pitching has done it all year, we just hadn't been able to score runs for them." This strong show of support in one tourney setting should do State's rotation a world of good in preparing for NCAA pressure. This proven group is a bit deeper now, with righthanders Alan Johnson, Todd Doolittle, and Jon Crosby joined by Sunday winner lefty Brooks Dunn. Naturally the Bulldogs hope not to need all the available arms this weekend, but it's nice to know these guys are ready.
"Going in (to Hoover) we had faith in all three starters," Rea said, "and now we've got a fourth! I don't care who they run out there we've got faith in all four of them."
Don't confuse faith and confidence with cockiness, though. Especially not on day-one. State might be seeded higher and come from a better-known league than Florida Atlantic, but early looks at scouting reports have produced respect for the first-day foe. And the Dogs know now how crucial it is to stay in a winner's bracket to get all the way through a tight tournament.
"It's huge," said Rea. "You have to get that first win. I hear we're facing a great pitcher from Florida Atlantic and we just have to compete and hope A.J. gives us a chance." And then? Odds are that State will run right into the home team, in the first meeting of MSU and Miami in 20 years and the first-ever contest in Coral Gables.
"And it almost seems as if that second win is just as important as the first one," Rea said, "because you don't want to play Miami twice on Sunday. I heard Miami is struggling a little bit right now but I'm sure they'll be ready to play when it's time."
Whoever is in the other dugout, Friday afternoon means time for the Diamond Dogs to play tournament baseball again. Taking one tourney title, against opponents as good as any in the country, gave State players the best possible preparation to play for another. "It was a good experience for us," said LaNinfa. "The first couple of games we had no pressure on us, we came to have fun and perform. That's the same thing we've got going now, we're probably the underdog again in this tournament and we're going to handle business like we did in Hoover."
And if State does take care of this weekend's business? The Coral Gables Regional is pre-paired with Lincoln, Neb., and while the hosting Cornhuskers are a national seed and strong favorites this is tourney time. Seedings aside, all clubs start 0-0 and with the same ultimate goal. The Bulldogs like to think they a team that can get there.
"Everybody is so confident going into the Regional," LaNinfa said. "And hopefully we can win this one, and Nebraska lose, and we can have a super Regional here!"