Diamond Dogs get 'Hot' in Nick of Time

Not taking anything away for the rest of the coaches in the power-laden Southeastern Conference, they're an elite group, but not many, if any, can match the sizzling record of Mississippi State's Ron Polk.

Not only is the "Dean of the SEC coaches" the winningest skipper in the conference, but he will be making his 14th appearance in the SEC Tournament in as many tries when he takes the suddenly "red-hot" Diamond Dogs to the Hoover (AL) Met for the annual event, May 23-26, near downtown Birmingham.

Making the cut for the 2002 SEC Tournament, no doubt, brought out the best in the Battlin' Bulldogs who have waited until the last minute on more than one occasion to land a berth in the eight-team field.

Needing all the "W's" they could muster on the final weekend of the regular season, Mississippi State may have reached back into the past in search of a little extra incentive, anything to give the aroused Diamond Dogs an added boost.

Mississippi State had its backs to the wall again this year and responded with resolve not to be the group responsible for breaking the string of an SEC-best 16th straight trip to the SEC Tournament.

Talk to any of the Bulldogs and they'll readily admit they didn't want to be remembered as the team that didn't make it to the SEC Tournament. That's pride.

"We didn't want our season to end," said Mississippi State shortstop Matthew "Manny" Maniscalco, fielding flawlessly in the series, while chalking-up a dozen assists. "I came here to go to the SEC Tournament."

The Dogs got a tremendous shot in the arm, literally, from the starting hill trio - Paul Maholm (9 innings, 1 ER, W), Tanner Brock (7 innings, 3 ER, W), Chris Young (7 2/3 innings, 1 ER, W) - with Brian Owens (2 innings, relief), and Jonathan Papelbon (1 1/3 innings, relief) closing out the final two games.

No. 26 Mississippi State, ranked again for the first time in nine weeks by the NCBWA (College Baseball Writers Poll), swept the Rebels, 12-2, 14-5, 10-5, outscoring their SEC rivals 36-12.

Following Maholm and Brock to the mound was no easy task for Chris Young, the Stow, Ohio right-hander who one year ago (May 20) was selected as the SEC Tournament MVP with 5 1/3 innings of scoreless relief as the Dogs defeated LSU 4-1 in the championship game.

The final score from Fayetteville, Ark., a 4-1 Hogs' triumph over Auburn, was flashed on the Dudy Noble Field scoreboard, reminding the Diamond Dogs and the nearly 5,000 partisan fans that the season was on the line.

Often throwing heat on a cool day, unseasonably chilly and breezy as it was in the Sunday finale, Young was equal to the task at hand.

"It was definitely a big game, but actually, I was just trying to have fun out there," said Young, adding, "I was taking in the National Anthem from the pitching mound. Warming up, I was just trying to take in everything and just enjoy the atmosphere with the fans."

In addition to Young, selected the SEC Pitcher of the Week following his masterful outing in Sunday's must-win finale, Mississippi State also got a big lift from sophomore first baseman Matthew Brinson, who slammed his 13th and 14 home runs of the season, the latter a three-run blast into the wind in right-center that just cleared the fence where the signs of two of MSU's greatest hitters, Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro, hang. He crushed a solo shot off Ole Miss starter J.R. Pickens in what is still known as "Clark's Corner" in memory of the Dogs' slugging first baseman Will "the Thrill" who finished up a stellar career in the major leagues with the St. Louis Cardinals. Palmeiro, who recently hit his 452nd career homer, tying him with Boston Red Sox great Carl Yastrzemski for 25th on the career home run list, is still active with the Texas Rangers.

For Brinson, it marked the fourth time in his young career that the Brandon, Miss., product has hit two home runs in a single game. He hit two homers in the NCAA Regional against both Delaware and Kent State, followed by a pair this year against Auburn and now Ole Miss.

"I turned on two fastballs on the inner half," said Brinson, one of the reasons for the Bulldogs' late-season surge. "Our backs were against the wall and we had to take care of business. We knew what we had to do. We said in our team meeting before the series started no messing around. We know what we have to do. Let's go out there and do it."

Not only does the return trip to Hoover by the defending SEC Tournament champions keep the Dogs record intact, but it also marks the third straight trip to the annual tourney for Polk, although with a different club. Overall, Polk has been to 14 straight SEC Tournaments, 12 with MSU and two with Georgia with a two-year lapse when he was not on the sidelines.

Serving his second tour of duty with Mississippi State, following his brief retirement and re-entry into the SEC wars, Polk guided Georgia to back-to-back appearances in Birmingham before again taking over as the "Top Diamond Dawg" in Starkville. The Georgia Dogs clinched a berth in the tournament last year after wrapping-up the regular season title.

Mississippi State (33-22-1) advances to this year's playoffs as the No. 7 seed, thanks to the series sweep, the Dogs' first of the campaign. The Bulldogs dominated from the first pitch until the final out, putting up some imposing numbers, swinging the bat at a robust .330 clip (34-of-103) in the series. MSU's pitching staff held the Rebels well below their average. Ole Miss brought a .320 team average into the series, but was limited to a .243 mark in the three games (25-of-103).

Polk acknowledged the Bulldogs made most of the plays defensively, had timely-hitting and pitched it well.

The veteran coach did not get to stick around to see his 1,000th SEC win in the finale. He got the boot in the eighth inning, the first time he'd been ejected since last year in the SEC Tournament, then as head coach at Georgia and ironically against Mississippi State.

"I keep telling people I also coached at Georgia Southern for awhile," added Polk, who has 1,155 career wins. "But I think this is the SEC.

"I don't think any football coach will ever catch that ... so Jackie (Sherrill) more power to you," he said with a smile.

He added we're not going to even talk about the 1,000 wins ... that's a longevity record.

"But it was a great weekend for out ball club. We swung the bat good. We had timely hitting and great starting pitching. It's a credit to our ball club.

"We had kind of a championship atmosphere out here with our crowd and the Ole Miss crowd. I'm proud of our kids," he said.

"This gives us new life, an opportunity to go to an NCAA Regional. You know the kids want to go to the Super Regionals, and to Omaha. The SEC is step one," said Polk, who won his first SEC Tournament championship with MSU in 1979 and added SEC titles in 1985, 1987, 1989 and 1990 (co-champs).

Mississippi State takes on No. 2 seed Alabama, the Dogs' SEC West neighbor in the first round. Game time is 1 p.m. Wednesday at the Hoover Met.

Hopefully, the Diamond Dogs will keep swinging a "hot" bat in the postseason, and continue their championship caliber pitching and air-tight defense.

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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