Now, it's time for them to prove it by playing ball. Following is the transcript from Saturday's press conference.
Opening Statement: We're glad to have our new office complex. There's still a lot of work to be done with hanging plaques and pictures, dressing up the Hall of Champions room, but that's going to happen in a short period. Plus we have a very nice plaque coming in to put over the entrance-way for the seven guys that gave us the money to build that office complex in a first-class manner. Same thing with the Palmeiro Center, we've used that already quite a bit for our camp and preseason workouts. These buildings have been put to great use. The first public function, other than our winter camps, will take place next Thursday with our First Pitch Banquet, we have 600 people who will be in attendance and Jay Powell will be the speaker. We had over 900 young men come to our winter baseball camp, the Palmeiro Center worked it's wonders to allow that. The coaches enjoyed the heaters in that building.
I think our players are looking forward to playing our first eleven games at home, starting with the three-game series with Marist. Marist has appeared in some NCAA regionals as of late. We do play 13 non-conference games before we play our first SEC series with the Vols of Tennessee here at home. We have 32 home games, and a neutral-site game with Ole Miss at Smith-Willis Stadium. We also play Louisiana-Monroe in Jackson March 5 in Pearl at the new Trustmark Stadium. This is their home game but the Trustmark people brought them out, so this becomes a game we don't travel and our fans can watch. But we will be the visiting team at that particular game.
For the last several years our conference has been the leader in RPI rankings and we don't think that will change at all this year because again we are a very tough conference. At the same time other conferences feel strongly about their representatives, but I still think the SEC is best and we hope it remains the best for years to come.
We enjoyed a fine fall practice season, the weather was very conducive. Thankfully we have a lot of veteran players that made fall practice easier. Other than the new players that joined the program this fall, the veterans I'm sure felt more comfortable knowing the system. And that helped the new guys blend in quite well. Our off-season program went well with or skill development and our weight training and conditioning program. We started practice on February 6 and we're finishing up week-two, we'll practice again tomorrow—probably in the Palmeiro Center, we bring them in in segments.
The only SEC school we do not play this year is Vanderbilt, that will be the case next year because in the SEC you play ten sister schools and one is left off. Thus once again we'll play 30 of our 56 games versus SEC opponents. All 12 SEC baseball coaches return this year, which is probably the first time in many years that is the case. I'm excited about that. We also expect to sell over 5,000 season tickets by game-one. All the outfield spots have been sold, I don't know if Mr. Templeton knows but one of his vehicles tipped-over and is blocking our entrance-way to the baseball office. I'm hoping he'll take care of that as soon as possible. Our Dugout Club is closing in on 900 members, which makes it we think one of the largest college baseball support groups in the country.
Now we'll talk about the team. We did lose some key players off last year's team. Brad Corley will be going to spring training March 2 with Pittsburgh, he signed his contract with one year remaining. And we had three key members of the pitching staff that graduated, two of them signed pro contracts.
We are a veteran club this year, which is the reason I think we have been ranked quite high. And the expectations always are high when you have a veteran ball club. We have a lot of challenges ahead because of the nature of our conference, and also because we lost some key players.
The only new position player right now that would be in the starting lineup if we played tomorrow would be Andy Rice, as a potential rightfielder. The strength of the position-player club would be their veteran status. Last year two of our better runners were handicapped a lot, thus could not run well, with Jeffrey Rea having hamstring problems just about all year and Joseph Hunter also nicked-up a lot. So we expect our stolen-base totals will rise a little bit this year, but we'll be more as a hit-and-run, run-and-hit, and 3-1, 3-2 count put the ball in play type of ball club, rather than a straight-steal type of offense.
We do play in the biggest park now, Ole Miss and Tennessee moved their fences in last year. There's no question we lead the league by far in dimensions in the outfield. But I think our power potential is a little bit better this year, because of the nature of the strength program we have and the influx of new players. But our hitters always have to understand we have to use our park to our advantage, and it's very much a gap-type ball park, doubles and triples rather than home runs. We don't want to get into a fly-ball contest and balls just hitting near the warning track.
I feel our pitching staff will be just fine, even though there's no one right now that I would consider a first-round, second-round, maybe third-round draft choice. But at the same time we've got some guys that have gotten better, because of that you never know.
Let me give you a squad breakdown. With Thomas Berkery moving to the starting shortstop position he will only be used behind the plate in emergencies. Edward Easley returns for his sophomore season, he'll be the starter behind the plate. But also Edward plays third base. We have 28 position players and 16 are dual-position players, and we work them as much we possibly can in both positions which protects the ball club from injuries, illnesses, or if someone goes into one of those horrid slumps. It gives us that much more depth to make sure we field enough players, Because with the scholarship restrictions we have in college baseball it makes it very difficult to have depth at every position through the lineup.
Behind Edward in the catching position, we have a returner in Joseph McCaskill who swung the bat very well for us last year in some roles. Wynn Diggs who we redshirted and Joseph are listed as secondary outfielders, but I don't expect them to play in the outfield unless we have a lot of outfielders go down. That's a good depth position we have in the outfield. Brooks Lewis, a redshirt freshman, is also eligible to play behind the plate. And we really like a freshman, Ryan Duffy, who is a catcher/first baseman. He's got great potential with the bat, we'd like to think Duffy could possibly be a redshirt this year. But no decision has been made.
I'll meet with 11 guys tomorrow after practice, then we'll discuss it Monday in meetings with me individually to make sure it's a good decision for them more so than it is for the team.
We have a veteran infield with Michael Rutledge at third base who can also play shortstop. Thomas Berkery will now be starting at his fourth position in college at shortstop. Jeffrey Rea is at second base and veteran Brad Jones will be the first baseman. The middle-infielder that provide depth are veteran Bunky Kateon and Brooks Tinsley. Brooks can also come in and pitch for us in a pinch, he can come in on a 25-man roster and fill in for a guy that is down or maybe give us an opportunity to finish a game we're comfortable winning or losing. Which means he's an inning-eater.
We have two fine young infielders we'd like to redshirt, in Russ Sneed and Brandon Turner. Eligible infielders also would be Ryan Wiser and Mark Muzzi. We have eight guys who play first base, primary and secondary. Jeff Flagg is a redshirt freshman, also an outfielder; Mitch Moreland who we are counting on to help us on the mound and is also listed as an outfielder, he's a triple-position guy. Ryan LaNinfa will be a key player for us again with his bat, as a potential DH. He's also an outfielder. Alex McIntosh returns to help at first base. And Matt Lea, a freshman pitcher who will not redshirt can also play first base, but he'll help us more on the mound. Cade Hoggard is a true freshman outfielder/first baseman is also a fine young player but he's a redshirt candidate.
Other than Andy Rice we have a veteran outfield core. Jeff Butts and Joseph Hunter return for their senior years being in the outfield for four years. And the key to winning in this conference is who has the most veteran players with quality and who stays away from injuries. Matt Richardson was redshirted last year and provides us a nice right-handed bat with power. Tyler Bratton, another JC transfer, is available. An we really like a JC outfielder, Nick Hardy, but he could be a redshirt candidate also with the number of outfielders we have. We'll make that decision this week. We do have several secondary outfielders. And Blake McAdams, a punter on the football team, has been working with us. He's a very athletic kid, runs well, his arm works good, but at the same time he's a potential redshirt this year.
Winning championships requires not only quality starting pitching but pitching depth. The last few years we've been able to keep most of our pitchers healthy, I think that's due to our rehab, strength, and conditioning and flexibility program, and we hope that that happens again this year. Key returners (in relief) would be Brett Cleveland, Justin Pigott, and Mike Valentine. Starters returning and potential starters are Brooks Dunn, Jon Crosby, John Lalor, Josh Johnson. A rising pitcher in the program is redshirt Chad Crosswhite. Other experienced pitchers we have are Jesse Carver, Trent Hill, Mitch Moreland, and Andy Wilson who is recovering from a hernia operation and has not pitched at all in the preseason. A true freshman who can possibly help us would be Aaron Weatherford, and we think he will not be a redshirt candidate, he's got too many skills on the mound in addition with Matt Lea who we've talked about. We'd like to redshirt two freshmen pitchers in Ricky Bowen and Drew Hollinghead. And Jared Koon, a junior college transfer, we think has a bright future but he's a possible redshirt also. And Brooks Tinsley can also assist us on the mound.
I hope you got all the names and spellings. Questions?
Is this the most experienced team you've had since you returned here? "Yeah, since I've returned. We've had some as experienced or maybe more in years past, but yes, no question. Two years ago was I think the youngest team I think I ever had in all my years of coaching, I think we had 44 guys on the roster, 33 of which were freshmen or sophomores, with three seniors. That's what you call a very young ball club. But this is a veteran ball club with a mixture of some fine youngsters. And it makes it tough for the new guys coming in to get a chance to play very much. We anticipate of the 11 guys that I'll visit with probably seven, eight, even nine will choose to redshirt. It's their decision to make, I just give them the advice they need. With 56 games and 30 in the SEC, if they're not on the SEC roster that just gives them 26 games to potentially play. And I don't want to end a year with a kid who has a chance to be really good that has 10 at-bats his first year or seven innings on the mound."
Talk about the decision to move Berkery to shortstop: "He wanted to do it late last year, but I didn't want to do it. Because I like to think we spend a time with a boy and all the things he has to work on. Thomas could have handled it. He wanted to do it and he's asked to do it, and I think it will be a benefit to the ball club and he'll prove to be an outstanding shortstop for us. I'm excited about it and I think Thomas is very excited about it." Does a veteran ball club change up practices? "Well, the guys who've been here five years are bored to death at practice sometimes because they hear the same thing. Baseball hasn't changed that much. But I don't ever treat a practice as pass in fall or spring that since we have so many veterans we pass over things. I go through everything that we possibly need to in regard to baserunning, defense and offense, and signals. You can ask Brad and Thomas, they're tired of listening to me talk! But at the same time I try to cover all the bases, our coaches do a good job. We want to make sure when the players step on the field they understand what the game is all about and what the system is all about and what the standards are all about. And our coaches do a good job getting them ready for the first game. But it's easier when you have a veteran club. And I think our veterans as they always do have helped our youngsters. Like we went through double-steal defense the other day and a couple of freshmen were just lost out there because it's a new system to them and they don't adjust quickly. It just takes time, when Thomas and Brad first got here I'm sure they'll attest to the fact they had to think too much about various things instead of just playing. So that's the luxury of having a veteran ball club, that hopefully the game is easy. It's never easy but it's easier because they don't have to think about too many things. I always use the phrase, when things happen in a game a player says I've been there before over and over again, I know what my job is. That doesn't mean they won't make an error but at the same they're comfortable because they've been put in that position in practices and scrimmage games. It's fun to coach an experienced team. I also enjoy coaching teams that are young because it's refreshing to see how quickly you can develop kids in a short period of time. But this is a veteran ball club and it's easier because they know the system."
Talk about the rotation. "Well, we've got those 13 games before the first SEC game. Everybody talks about the rotation, I and Russ McNickle our pitching coach, we don't make any final decisions (yet). But Brooks has a chance to be the Friday guy, then we've got so many options in Josh Johnson and John Lalor, and Jon Crosby and Chad Crosswhite and others. Aaron Weatherford and eventually Matt Lea. We lost two SEC rotation guys, those two kids ate up a lot of innings last year and kept us in ball games. But we're going to make those decisions in due time. And thankfully we have the luxury of playing several non-conference games before we have to make those decisions."
Does Dunn have the potential to be a Friday shut-down guy? "Well, yeah. Friday pitchers are huge because they're matched up with the best from other team. Some teams I've seen in years past, say they're just trying to come out of a series with a win they may save their #1 for Sunday to try to match up with a #3. Some years our 1-2-3 have been interchangeable which means it's not much difference between Friday-Saturday-Sunday. And some years it's just lights-out, #1 is just way above. To use an example, Paul Maholm. I think we've had six first-round pick pitchers here and some have been relievers. But this year the pitching staff, there's no clear-cut #1. Brooks Dunn was voted by the coaches and players as the #1 after the fall evaluation and because of that he deserves that opportunity to pitch. And I think he'll be very competitive, no question about that. Sometimes Brooks is too competitive, at the same time he's got enough moxie, he's been around the league a while. I just think it's his time."
Was his performance in the SECT Championship game what he's capable of? "I think that helped him become a #1 by the players and coaches. He had good games and bad games as most pitchers did last year. But we just don't have any clear-cut guy to step into that Friday role, based on performance. So he's won that right, and unless he has an injury or gets bounced around in games prior to Tennessee he'll have that opportunity. And then Saturday and Sunday, we'll kind of wait and see, we have a lot of choices there."
You must have an idea of how the two freshmen pitchers will be used. "Generally in the SEC we take 9-10 pitchers. A lot depends on how many we use on the weekend before we make decisions on mid-week. But both those guys have enough ability to help us on weekends but if they don't pitch on weekends they're Tuesday-Wednesday guys as starters or middle-relievers. Basically we're going to make those decisions as we play these non-conference games coming up. We've got some very capable opponents and they'll be challenged early. But they'll get really challenged when we play a fine Tennessee team, and go to LSU. So we hop right into it real quick."
Is playing a lot of home games the best way to start a season? "That's pretty much what most SEC teams do, play a lot of home games early. And that's going to help our ball club. If it was a real young ball club it would help even more because the comfort level is better at home than on the road. But I've had some teams play real good on the road and some that didn't. I think it's good to play home games early, the only bad thing is the weather. You're not going to have conducive weather often so the crowds get hurt a little bit. And if you play a lot of home games early that means you're on the road a lot during the time when the sun is out and it's 85 degrees and everybody is hoping you're at home. We've got 32 home games out of the 56 and two neutral-site games, so it's a pretty good home schedule."
What are the expectations you have of Andy Rice? "Andy is a fine player. He's gained 20 pounds since he's been here. Most of our guys we find they really add a lot of poundage and strength between their first and second year, because of the fact that many of them play three sports in high school. A Russ Sneed is a good example, and he's gained almost 20 pounds since he's been here. But Andy is a JC guy who's gained 20 pounds, and it's good weight. I don't think it affects his speed at all. He's a strong kid, and he's got a little pop in his bat and I think he's a very capable outfielder. And he was voted by all the player and coaches the starting rightfielder after the fall, and deserves that opportunity to test himself in Division I baseball."
Do you like to have the pressure of a high ranking? "I don't know. I never feel pressure. When I first started coaching I felt pressure, I feel more pressure for the guys than myself. This is my 38th year coaching college baseball and I don't get nervous at all before games. I used to when I was young. I got more nervous coaching USA Baseball teams having to play against the Cubans in Havanna, in front of 160,000 people. I was not nervous so much about the games as whether or not we'd survive and get back to the hotel. I've been in Nicaragua twice, and Japan and South Korea, I've been everywhere. But I felt more with the USA Team than here. But we don't have to have armed guards at the games or in the dugouts.
"But pressure in regard to being picked, Mississippi State baseball in years past has been often times the team to beat. And this is by the coaches, which is more important--not to take anything away from the media or Baseball America or Collegiate Baseball which is hit-or-miss. I think that shows respect for our ball club, and a lot of it is because we did so well at the end of last year, and a lot of them feel a veteran club deserves to be picked #1. We'd like to stay in that role but at the same time we've got a lot of challenges ahead of us and other teams are awful good."
You mentioned your dimensions are larger than anyone else. Have you thought about moving the fences in? "It would give us some more outfield Lounge area, I'm sure. No, I like the ball park; you hit it good, it goes out. I like doubles and triples, I think that's exciting. I think some of the other teams just felt they wanted to move them in because they wanted more home runs. But when we go on the road we get the advantage of playing with a short field in most places. And some really too-short fields. I'm not criticizing any of the 11 sister schools for the nature of their ballparks, but some of them are just hitters ballparks. I think recruiting pitchers is very important at Mississippi State, and that's one of the selling points we have; you make a good pitch and you may not get hurt here as you would someplace else. But no, I'm not interested at all in moving the fences in.
"When I came back from Georgia our players were saying since we put up the sky-suites the ball doesn't travel as much as before. I'm not an expert on jetstreams and all that, maybe it did cut it down a little bit on the wind blowing out. But most SEC schools that come in here practice on Thursday, just about every one of the coaches remakrs to me how their players are saying boy, the ball doesn't travel here at all. That means when they're home the balls get out more easily because of the nature of the fences. It's a pitcher's ball park. But if you hit it good and get it out, if you don't get a double or triple. We're not going to make any adjustments in our fences, that's just the nature of Mississippi State baseball. At one time we were not the biggest ballpark in the league, I think Ole Miss was. Now their's is very fair, but they decided to move their fences in and that's their right to do it. I can move my fences in right behind shortstop, there's no regulations in the NCAA book about minimum dimensions, you can have a porch to left, right, center, you can have 800-feet to left field, the NCAA doesn't care about those things. They don't care about a lot of things, but they don't care about fence dimensions."
But think about Palmeiro and Clark and those guys…: "The fences haven't changed. And both those guys played at 174-175 respectively. And Del Bender, Bruce Castoria, we can go on with guys hitting 24-25 home runs. The pitching has gotten a lot better since those days, too. I think the power pitchers have come in, and more off-speed and control. Pitchers have gotten better since those days. We don't hit as many home runs as other teams but at the same time I'm not going to lose any sleep over it as long as we win games."
Who else in the West is good? "They're all good. The West is tough. Well, the East is tough, too. When I first started coaching here you'd play a team like Kentucky or Vanderbilt and feel you've got to sweep ‘em because you're that much better. But there's no gimmes any more, that's the strength of this league. It's top-to-bottom, one-through-12. Last years nine schools went (to the NCAAs) and I think all nine schools got into the championship games of the regionals. So if anybody criticizes the NCAA selection committee—which by the way is chaired by our athletic director!—just look what they history has been and how teams have done. Now if we had nine schools go to regionals and we all went 0-2 that's another story. But that's not happening. The West is a bear. Ole Miss is going to be good, LSU, Arkansas, Alabama, and Auburn. Everybody is going to be good. There's no weak teams any more.
"And the whole key is who has injuries. Sometimes it's a big drop-off between starters and your second tier as a result of 11.7 scholarships. We signed seven in the fall, other schools signed 19-20 guys. Now are they running them off, I don't know what they're doing. But they're able to sign more because they don't have to spend any money on in-state kids and that makes it tough for us. The playing field is not level in the SEC, and the SEC knows it. They just don't have anything they can do about it, they say. If it was a football issue or basketball issue they'd find a way to do it. But they say you guys, just do the best you can."
You mentioned more stolen bases this year, does everybody have freedom to steal? "We have a semi-green light, which means I tell them they can steal and they continue to have that read until they can get a good jump. So it's not just on your own, I like the batter to always know what's going on because we can protect him that much better. I've always been that philosophy, I've never had a green light. I had a couple on the USA Team because they'd been doing that all the time. But I like for the batter to know what's going on so we can protect him."
Does momentum carry over one season to the next? "I'm not a momentum guy. Football is a momentum sport, maybe basketball. Yeah, kids get confident. You know, the game is an individual game. I tell our guys often, it's pitcher-against-hitter and hitter-against-pitcher. It's not a team game. Football is a team game, one guy miss a block and a guy gets tackled. Or if a guy doesn't block-out or screen well the play doesn't develop. But in baseball the only time it becomes a team game, you know, a ground ball goes to short and he goes second-to-first, 6-4-3. Or tandem relay where the outfielder throws it to the front guy, the third baseman communicates and you throw it to three or four and it's a cut-off man at four. It's and individual game, it's a concentration game, a game of intensity but at the same time not too much intensity. Momentum is important I guess if you get a winning streak going. If you start losing and start doubting yourself, your teammates, your coaches.
"Hitting is contagious, I've always felt that way. If a guy hits a well-hit ball the guy on-deck feels good about himself. If the guy in front of him strikes out looking like a fool up there the next guy walking up says boy, he didn't look good swinging at that pitch, it permeates through your mind a little bit. But for the most part it's an individual game, one-on-one, so momentum is basically an individual thing. Sometimes it does permeate through a team. I think in Hoover that field was very conducive to us, a big field, and we got off to a good start with LSU winning 9-2, then South Carolina, Tennessee, and Ole Miss. The thing is the weekends before that, against LSU here if we make one play in the infield we win two of three. Go to Florida and make one play at the end of the game we win two of three. So we were playing very good at the end of the year with a semi-veteran ball club. Momentum certainly looked like it happened in Hoover. But I'm not a momentum guy."