Well, the Bulldogs get to test their nerve tonight and tomorrow, as Mississippi State leaves home for the first time in 2006 for a couple of midweek contests. State visits old rival Alabama-Birmingham for a 6:00 Tuesday game; then heads on up the interstate for a Wednesday 6:30 matchup with Jacksonville State.
"This will be a big test," Polk said. "We've got two on the road and Tennessee coming in this weekend. So we'll know more after this week."
What is known about this team is encouraging enough. With eleven-straight wins these Bulldogs are off to the second-best start in program history, behind only the 14-0 debut by the legendary 1985 club. More than that, State hasn't just piled up early-season Ws at the expense of lightweight competition. They swept weekend series with Marist and Arkansas State, well-regarded clubs around the country, then whipped Louisiana Tech and Louisiana-Monroe in the first weeknight action.
But it was a brooming of visiting Arizona this past weekend that has been the clearest confirmation of what the Diamond Dogs are and can be. "All three games were close and we were happy to win," Polk said. It was an outstanding inter-conference series indeed with State taking 3-2, 9-2, and 5-4 victories at Dudy Noble Field. Even that middle-game was much tighter than the final margin as State rang up five runs in their last at-bat to seal the outcome.
And Sunday's success was purely dramatic, as the Dogs rallied from 4-1 down with a pair of runs in both the sixth and eighth innings to remain unbeaten. The tying score came on a bases-loaded grounder kicked at first base; the go-ahead and ultimately winning run on a passed ball. So it's fair to say State has already passed some intense tests.
But, not on the road, reminds Polk. "It's tougher You've playing in another environment. And often you're facing one of their rotation guys." Which is what State expects on this trip as both UAB and JSU reportedly have saved top arms for these matchups, at least for the opening few innings. Meanwhile, "We used a lot of pitchers to win some games," Polk said. "We have some nice guys to throw against these two teams, but if they throw their #1 guy and we've got #7 going it's going to be even."
Things would be even enough already as UAB is 12-4 and on a seven-game winning streak. JSU's Gamecocks are the defending Ohio Valley Conference champs, coached by former MSU aide Jim Case. So the opponents won't be intimidated to play a top-ten Bulldog team; just the opposite.
Nobody in the MSU locker room should take baseball rankings too seriously, of course. Realists understand what matters more is who is standing on the mound for each side. Polk has booked Jon Crosby (1-0, 1.29 ERA, 7 innings) to open a second-straight Tuesday, with Matt Lea (1-0, 3.60, 5 innings) scheduled for Wednesday's start. Whether or not these midweek men are facing the opposing ‘aces' or not they're almost certainly going to match up with guys who have thrown a few more innings. This is due to MSU's traditional late-opening to campaigns. "We're always the last to start," Polk agreed.
But now that it's mid-March the pace picks up for the entire pitching staff. "It's gonna start pretty good right now, we'll give some guys who haven't pitched a lot of work. Most of the guys who aren't redshirting have been on the hill." This leaves the possibility for a couple of hurlers who have yet to throw—such as Jesse Carver and Andy Wilson—to see some action in the coming weeks. Meanwhile others—Jared Koon, Ricky Bowen, and Drew Hollinghead—appear to be redshirting for now.
Basically, Polk said, "We're going to keep 11, 12 guys going." And in fact a dozen pitchers have gotten work so far, though thanks to excellent weekend starting by rotation men Brooks Dunn, Josh Johnson, and John Lalor a couple of relievers have been under-utilized. Mitch Moreland and Chad Crosswhite are the middle-men State will count on when starters falter, yet they have just 2.1 and 7.0 innings on their '06 account.
Not that this is a complaint, of course. With the rotation starters regularly turning in five and six frames in winning causes there is nothing to criticize here. "I'm not totally surprised," Polk said. And as a whole, State's staff has recorded 99 innings with a 2.09 ERA, 90 strikeouts, and only 19 walks. "That will give you a chance to win games," the coach said.
And when the starters have turned games over to relievers those arms have gotten it done. "Our bullpen has been outstanding," said Polk. Indeed, as set-up arms Justin Pigott and Mike Valentine each have perfect ERAs, as does closer Brett Cleveland who might be the most impressive moundman of the early season. Polk jokes that the goal in SEC play is to get into what he calls the "book scholarship bullpen," but in State's case the bullpen has been closing the books.
Polk added that the real reason State is 11-0 is defense, with just nine errors in 99 innings. "Our defense has been outstanding." At the same time the coach is encouraged by the offense's first three weeks. Not so much because the Bulldogs have been great at the plate, but that they have been good enough and should improve further. "We still think we can swing the bat better than we have. We've got a good average (.317), we haven't knocked some runners in and it's made for some close games like we had with Arizona."
There are some Dogs spanking the ball consistently, such as shortstop Thomas Berkery (.432) and catcher Edward Easley (.375). Others are off to slower starts, such as first baseman Brad Jones (.262) and second baseman Jeffrey Rea (.286). Yet those are proven performers over the long haul of a SEC season so nobody is worried. And what is easy to overlook is how everybody in the lineup has delivered a clutch hit here-and-there already, with occasional shows of power even.
And for that matter Polk is expecting close competition all week, especially when the Volunteers arrive at DNF to open SEC season. Though several conference clubs have rung up impressive numbers against lesser competition, from his vantage point the coach still believes the league will be dominated by pitching in 2006. "Except on Sundays."
So even as Mississippi State hits the road at last, and puts the perfect record on the line, Polk is looking at how his Bulldogs are shaping up for the entire season. "I think we've done well for the first 11 games," he said.
"We've played some good teams, but give me a call in a few more weeks."