But of course this is Mississippi State baseball, where standards are higher and mere ‘progress' is acceptable only if it means making moves on the big championships. And as Coach Ron Polk's program shifts into 2006 mode the obvious hope around Bulldog Country is that the fast finish to this past season set the stage for a really great campaign next spring. That after a couple of years rebuilding the roster and forging a lineup Mississippi State is poised to swing for it all again.
It certainly seems so, since Polk will have his most overall experienced team of this second coaching stint at State. The June draft did no damage to his recruiting class at all and barring a surprise summer signing or two the '06 Bulldogs will return more hitters, fielders, and pitchers than anyone in the SEC West and perhaps the league as a whole. Polk acknowledged midway of 2005 that he could no longer call State a ‘young' team; the skipper now appears to have more old Dogs than any time since, say, his 1990 squad.
That team made it to the College World Series. Can the '06 team do the same? It's a long way to another June but there is reason for optimism…as well as lingering concern about Mississippi State's continued competitiveness in today's baseball landscape. More on this in a moment.
How many remember now that going into February expectations for 2005 were maybe as modest as ever for a Mississippi State season? The '04 team, an obvious rebuilding job complicated by some early injuries, became the first State club to miss a SEC Tournament since 1986; and didn't take much advantage when invited to the NCAAs anyway. The 2005 Bulldogs were thought to be better, just nobody knew how much, and a eight-win debut didn't look quite as impressive when host Arizona took two-of-three in State's first serious test.
The SEC outlook brightened with series victories over Vanderbilt and at Arkansas, as for a month the Bulldogs got by on steady pitching, starting and relief both, and fielding. April exposed the hard reality, though, that the batting order was not up to SEC snuff, especially with the same lack of weekend power as the previous two years. A fourth-straight loss to Mississippi in the Mayors Trophy game didn't hurt in the league standings but hinted at heartaches to come.
The real turning point came at Tennessee, with weather cutting a three-game series to a Sunday twinbill of seven-inning games that perfectly fitted UT's pitching prowess and emphasized MSU's issues with clutch hitting. After matching 2-1 defeats the Dogs went from Division contender to just battling to stay in the West race the rest of the way. They didn't. First State failed to gain any ground by going only 5-4 in three winnable series. Then came a humiliating weekend at Oxford as, for the first time in Polk's career, State suffered a three-game sweeping by Mississippi.
From then on it was gnawing nails down to the last day of the regular season that ended with series losses to Florida and LSU, the respective Division champs. If not for a lot of help, or just plain collapses by other borderline clubs, the Dogs would have missed Hoover again; as it was 13-16 and tiebreaks went in their favor. State got to play at the Met and went from seventh seed to SEC Tournament Champions, as unlikely a run as imaginable (unless one happened to be at Athens in 1987). A spacious AA-caliber field perfectly fit MSU strengths of pitching and defense, and for four days in May the Dogs got both consistent and clutch base hitting that had too often been missing in the regular season.
Even had State not gotten in the eight-team SEC field Polk was reasonably confident that strength-of-schedule and 36 victories would have deserved a NCAA bid. Winning the Tourney solved that with an automatic berth, and since there was no hope of hosting any continued success hinged on Regional assignment. It turned out 40-20 State was worthy of a second seed, but sent to Miami. After battering three-seed Florida Atlantic the Bulldogs and Hurricanes played a lovely contest that came down to the home team's speed advantage and a superb starting pitcher in a 4-1 Miami win. State eliminated FAU on a hot Sunday afternoon that left the Dogs drained, physically and pitching wise, where the Canes could win their homefield Regional 10-4.
Still Mississippi State was able to end one season on an upsurge. But that fact brings the same question: was it only a short hot streak in a prime time, or was it proof the Bulldogs had finally put things together and were staking out a strong pre-season position for 2006? As with most anything in baseball, it all depends on which facts matter most to the observer. After all, State only won the same number of SEC games as the year before with one less loss. We now know there was never any real chance in '05 of claiming the program's first SEC crown since 1989. Is there in '06?
If combined experience matters, there is. The defense will miss only OF Brad Corley, a second-round draft pick despite a sub-par junior year at the plate, though OF Joseph Hunter is pondering turning pro as a late-round selection. Even that would not devastate the outfield where veterans Jeff Butts and DH Brian LaNinfa as well as May-activated Mitch Moreland will be joined by redshirts Matt Richardson and Jeff Flagg. And that doesn't count slugger Andy Rice and Nick Hardy, two jucos signed to play ball. Even senior starters will have to work to hold on to jobs as Polk looks to put a more offensive outfield together.
On the infield the lineup card will look awfully familiar and, in fact, is also somewhat overloaded with the expected return of Thomas Berkery. Polk is thrilled to have the catcher/third baseman/second baseman back for a senior season, playing every day somewhere. The specific where hinges on a few other developments. Soph Ed Easley is ready to be the primary starting catcher, Berkery's job in '05, so it's likely these alternating backstops/hot cornermen will flip their rotation around. But where does this leave Michael Rutledge?
A natural third baseman, redshirt Rutledge took over shortstop the last month of play when classmate Bunky Kateon wore down and struggled in the field. Kateon might have thought about transferring after a tough year but showed his own toughness by choosing to stick around, and the coaches expect him to regain his six-hole role. That's why they did not try to ink a just-in-case shortstop in spring, though lack of scholarship money was also a factor. Redshirted pitcher Chad Crosswhite will keep working at third base, too.
Where these third-year sophs must, must progress is at the plate after Rutledge hit .262 and Kateon .240 in their first full college seasons. Both are good enough athletes to sting the ball and run the bases, and Rutledge has some power potential yet to be tapped. Speaking of which, Berkery has the obvious ability to get to double-digit dingers as a senior and Easley should triple his trio of freshman shots. And at the very least State has plenty of multi-position depth on the left side and behind the plate for next SEC season.
The right side is certainly set, again. Jeffrey Rea's second season at second base showed improvement in every facet, despite nagging hamstring and wrist concerns. He's locked in for 2006, as is first baseman Brad Jones who has for two years been the under-appreciated anchor of the infield with brilliant glovework offsetting some pretty shaky throws. LaNinfa is able to play first as needed, and if Rea needs a rest Berkery can go back to his freshman-year job.
State has also recruited for the future with catcher/first baseman Ryan Duffy and first baseman/outfielder Cade Hoggard, and middle-infielder Brandon Turner. Righthanded pitcher Russ Sneed might also end up playing the field as well, but barring injury it would seem more likely all these high school standouts will redshirt. Unless, that is, they provide instant help with the bat to a team that hit .297. True, that was tied for fifth (surprise!) in the SEC, but it can be argued this was a ‘down' year in the entire league offensively.
What can't be argued is the 2005 Bulldogs not only failed to improve at the plate, they regressed; batting fell from .305 the year before; homers from 59 to just 34, the lowest power output in 25 years! Even RBIs were down by eight despite five more games-played. Hmmm, maybe some of those veteran spots in the batting order are not as safe as might be assumed.
And it's futile to ponder the possibilities for more base-taking. The '05 lineup was as athletic as any and State did appear to take more first-to-third and second-to-home chances. But Polk, always concerned about injuries to starters, remains wary about giving his runners the green light despite the continued lack of big-inning longball pop and the tendency of SEC foes to pull in their own fences. It's no use asking if that might happen here, of course.
Besides, Bulldog baseball has become reliant on pitching and fielding. The latter did improve with 11 fewer errors in a longer season and the SEC's fourth-best glove average. The former was the squad's strength with a 3.51 staff ERA, second-best in a good pitching league. It wasn't an overpowering staff yet posted better than a 2-to-1 rate of strikeouts to walks, and allowed just .264 hitting and .336 on-base average.
It's also a staff that lost the top two starters with undrafted seniors Alan Johnson and Todd Doolittle signing free-agent pacts. Lightly-used long reliever Jamie Gant turned pro after a 29th-round drafting, while closer Saunders Ramsey graduated.
The twist is that while pitching had more depart than the other aspects of State's game, these losses should not have as much impact as usual. Johnson and Doolittle—the best arm through the second half of the year—were more workhorses than stars, and for a second year there really was no team ace. It was a reliable group of starters able, more often than not, to turn in enough innings before handing the ball to a usually-effective group of long relievers. If anything the middle-men were too efficient as Ramsey threw only 17 innings, Gant 14, and Corley got to the hill just once all year.
Finding a late-inning arm will be the least of Polk's worries in fall ball anyway. The pitching focus is on resetting the rotation and midweek roles, and there is no shortage of arms again. Sunday starter Jon Crosby is an obvious choice to move up earlier in the weekend, maybe to Friday, while his tournament outings show Brooks Dunn has what it takes to start series games. Josh Johnson and John Lalor have put in their weekday time and will make rotation bids now. Dunn is the only lefty of the group so after two seasons this is Jesse Carver's chance to state his own case for a larger role.
Other than the fact that both are righthanders, Brett Cleveland and Mike Valentine can take care of any long-relief situation over the course of another SEC season. Righty Crosswhite has redshirted a year and wants to play and pitch in the next one. Justin Pigott figures to stick as the south-side guy in this group.
Polk recruited for seasons to come with his pitching signees, though a couple of the new arms will surely be given a fair look in their first fall. It certainly will be tough to sit someone like prep star righty Aaron Weatherford or juco righty Jared Koon. For that matter tall rightys Ricky Bowen, Drew Hollinghead, and Matt Lea have shown solid stuff in high school ball, and Hoggard, Rice, and Sneed have experience on the mound of their own. There aren't as many southpaws as hoped but it's obvious where Mississippi State's coaching staff has decided to invest their money the last few years.
Speaking of which, the return of Berkery and other drafted underclassmen creates an interesting problem for Polk. State is currently overdrawn against the 11.7 scholarship total. So unless somebody takes a late departure a lot of Diamond Dogs will have their expected aid trimmed a little bit to get the team total down to that limit. Naturally the subject pushes Polk into another round of venting ire over the fact that most of State's SEC rivals have access to extra aid, though to the coach's credit he was somewhat quieter on the familiar subject over the course of this season.
There also is little to say right now about the 2006 schedule, though it is known Arizona will fulfill their share of the deal and play a series at Dudy Noble Field prior to conference season. The SEC/Pac 10 matchup will serve as the National Bank of Commerce Classic. Baseball scheduling in general is uncertain now as the NCAA seems set on trimming the length of the regular season from the current 56 games to 52 or even 48, giving Polk another target for his verbal assaults.
An underlying topic in Bulldog Country these days is how much longer the 60-year-old college skipper will fire his shots at the NCAA as a coach. When Polk returned to Mississippi State on short notice in June, 2001, he did not set any absolute deadlines for his second tour but did occasionally mention ‘four or five' years in casual conversations. Naturally nobody at State would hold him to such statements, and since then Polk has forecast no further ahead than getting the next season going.
Still this will be his fifth team/second era. And if nothing goes wrong between now and February the 2006 squad has every opportunity to be the best all-around bunch of Bulldogs since 2001 (it must be noted that the 2003 team is the only one since to finish better than break-even in SEC play). Moreover, some pretty sharp recruiting in the face of scholarship limits these four years ought to mean that, unlike after the '03 season, there should not be a serious drop-off in total talent for 2007 and beyond. That is not to say Mississippi State is anything close to the SEC and national stature it held in the 1980s, of course, and Polk is absolutely correct that if the NCAA does nothing to balance the scholarship field there the chances of MSU returning to the annual elite are far-fetched at best.
But then a season can only be played like a series, one at a time. And whatever changes and challenges the long-range future holds for Diamond Dog baseball, for now there is abundant hope that 2006 can be a season to savor. Who knows? If the offense comes around and the pitching develops as anticipated, Mississippi State should not only take a hefty swing at SEC honors but make a serious bid at hosting a Regional again. Maybe even hosting the first super Regional at Dudy Noble Field.