Defending SEC Tourney Champ MSU Battling for Berth

[Premium article] Down to the final two weeks of the 2002 regular season, defending SEC Tournament champion Mississippi State could very well need a late-season surge to secure a berth in the eight-team field and make a return trip to the Hoover Met.

If the season ended today, the Diamond Dogs, off to a sluggish start in May, would get in by a whisker as the No. 8 seed.

The entire field would look something like this: No. 1 seed: Alabama (17-7 SEC), No. 2 - South Carolina (16-7), No. 3 - Florida (16-8), No. 4 - LSU (14-9), No. 5 - defending regular season champion Georgia (14-10), No. 6 - Ole Miss (14-10, No. 7 - Auburn (12-12), and No. 8 - Mississippi State (11-12).

Both Arkansas (8-13 SEC) and Tennessee (9-15) still remain mathematically in the hunt but would have to have help.

The annual Southeastern Conference Tournament will return to Hoover, near downtown Birmingham, Ala., May 22-26.

Mississippi State has as difficult a schedule as anyone over the final two SEC weekends with both Alabama (No. 5) and Ole Miss (No. 13) nationally ranked. The Bulldogs face the Crimson Tide, May 10-12, at Tuscaloosa, Ala., before returning home to close out the season, May 17-19, against arch-rival Ole Miss at friendly Dudy Noble Field, Polk-DeMent Stadium.

The Bulldogs, still jockeying for seeding in the tournament, could sew-up a berth in the tourney with four wins no matter how Arkansas and Tennessee fare over the final two weeks of the pennant chase. MSU is 5 1/2 games off the pace but can still move up.

Mississippi State coach Ron Polk, back in Starkville after a two-year stint at Georgia where he claimed a regular season SEC title and a trip to the College World Series, realizes the final two weeks are not going to be easy, if the Dogs are banking on getting back to Hoover.

"Alabama plays well at home," said Polk in regard to one of the final two SEC weekends the Dogs have remaining.

"Alabama's good. They're a veteran ball club very similar to Florida," he said in comparing the Crimson Tide of coach Jim Wells to the Gators.

No. 10-ranked Florida, led by former MSU coach Pat McMahon, swept the Bulldogs 5-4, 5-3, 4-0, May 3-5, the first such sweep by an opposing team at Dudy Noble Field since the 1997 campaign, also by the Gators.

In a well-pitched SEC series by both Florida and Mississippi State, neither team "stung the ball" as Polk pointed out in retrospect.

In a battle of left-handers in the finale, MSU junior Joey Collums held the high-scoring Gators, averaging over 10 runs a game, to three hits and three runs, only two of which were earned, in 5 2/3 innings.

"We knew it was going to be tough, coming into the last three weekends (Three top 15-ranked teams)," Collums said in agreement with a reporter's postgame assessment.

"We've really got to get a bunch of wins in a row to have a chance for the postseason," he said. "It's really going to be tough. We've got to regroup and get after Mississippi Valley and then Alabama this weekend."

Over the past three or four seasons in which Mississippi State has advanced to an NCAA Regional, two of which included "Super Regionals" (2000, 2001), it hasn't been anything unusual for the Diamond Dogs to have to fight it out during the month of May to get into the SEC Tournament.

"It's good have so many guys back from last year," pointed out Collums. "We were in the same situation last year with our backs to the wall and we had leaders step up and get things turned around."

In regard to the tough losses against Florida, two of which were either one or two-run games, Collums said there were "so many little things" that could have turned any of the games around.

"It was almost unbelievable in the first two games," said Collums, thinking back. He pointed out a diving catch by the Florida right fielder Matt Goss, robbing Jason Burkley of perhaps an extra base hit and getting the potential tying runners on base with no outs.

"There are so many little things that make the difference between whether you win or lose and unfortunately all the breaks seemed to go their way especially in the first two games," added Collums, who has pitched well enough to win in the majority of his starts.

"I was trying to keep us close and give our offense a chance," he said. "I think I did alright, but whenever you lose you never feel good about it."

It'll definitely be a battle with Alabama with the Dogs having to travel to Tuscaloosa for the annual showdown with the Crimson Tide.

"Alabama has played very well at home," Polk acknowledged. "They've been pitching very well. But they have a small ball park (Sewell-Thomas Stadium) and you have to pitch it very well there and you have to keep the ball down.

"It's another challenge we have," he said. "We knew the last three weekends would be the most challenging weekends we have because of the nature of the opponents we play.

"That's the challenge we have playing people above us," added Polk, in reference to the nationally-ranked trio.

Don Foster, a 31-year veteran newspaper writer, is the Sports Editor for the Starkville Daily News. He will be writing regular feature articles for Gene's Page, the unofficial source for Mississippi State sports and Mississippi High School sports on the internet.

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