Because the first order of today's business ought to be the Diamond Dogs successfully settling atop Baseball America's weekly edition of Mt. Ararat. The genesis (OK, OK, I'll stop) of the newly-bestowed #1 ranking is obvious enough as Mississippi State reached the venal equinox undefeated. Yes, I know. Baseball polls are about as meaningful this time of the year as a rain-check in Oxford, and anyone seen strutting around claiming "we're number-one!" is clearly suffering first-day-of-spring fever.
I doubt that wiser Diamond Dog fans—and all the moreso State players themselves—would claim being top team in the rankings means this is the best team in the country. Nor should they care. After all, nobody will refer back to who was ranked number-one on March 20 when the NCAA assigns number-one seeds on May 29.
Still it's a rather nice bit of recognition for what Mississippi State has done through the first four weekends of the 2006 season. And whatever the pollsters realistically believe about how the Dogs measure up, as of today, with the pacesetters in other leagues, it's kind of hard to argue with the record. Especially given who State has beaten, even beaten-up. Marist, Arkansas State, and Arizona were legit pre-conference competition and MSU swept ‘em all away. Now taking two from a well-regarded Tennessee team has tipped the tabulating State's way. For now, at least.
What all this should lead to are more thoughtful questions. Just how good is this team, really? And can it, will it, get better through this SEC season?
The answer to the first isn't as easy as it might seem, though for a very encouraging reason. There is no single facet of the game State plays so outstandingly well as to call a true ‘strong' point. It's all good, or maybe more accurately good enough, to get the W. It's been an OK offensive club, and the defense has certainly been adequate backing up steady starting pitching. In fact, up to Saturday we'd have said the single remarkable point was relief pitching…then the previously-perfect bullpen ace nearly let one get away.
But not all the way, which kept the record perfect. And as Ron Polk said, "Any time you win 15 in a row you have some close ball games." State has had some a few other close calls in this opening run, such as that comeback Sunday decision over Arizona. Now that was a challenge and State got that one more by not-losing than anything else, tying it up on an error and winning on a passed ball. Which only re-affirms the point to my mind.
By no means should this be read as a critique of any aspect to State's game. I think it's pretty darn wonderful to be winning, winning, and still winning without some hat-hanging feature. It says this is a team that should be relatively immune from serious slumps, for one thing. It should certainly do good things for collective confidence that they don't have to count on one pitcher, or a couple of hitters, to get it done if the team is going to succeed. Then again, what else ought we have expected of so veteran a ball club? Most of these guys have been everywhere, done everything, seen every SEC situation, and know how to respond…both on and off the field.
Which is why I'll also say this team can get better. The offense in particular, and in run-production most specifically. I don't need to consult the stat sheet to know too many Diamond Dogs are being left un-scored, often in double-digit quantities. I recall at least four stranded on third base in Saturday's game alone. A few of those could come in handy in future league weekends.
I only point that out because this is a batting order that probably won't have any huge single-player stats. I'll be surprised if more than two, maybe three, Dogs are hitting .350 or better by mid-May. But I'll be more surprised if the whole order isn't averaging over .300. Which means all nine slots in this order ought to be RBI-providers. Will need to be.
And parenthetically, I'm more and more impressed by the potential this group has for power. Seriously. You had to be at DNF for those two games, see the wind for yourself, to appreciate how well-struck some balls were that stayed inside the fences. Then think back to how a team with six homers in 11 home games banged out four more in just one night at UAB. If these guys keep the same ‘approach' at the plate and don't get silly swinging for road-game fences, they are going to belie scouting reports by knocking a lot of balls out of other people's yards. They'd just better not TRY to swing it that way, you understand, and get out of the gameplan.
It's hard to adequately express just how impressive Brooks Dunn has been getting the four winning weekends started right. He isn't overpowering, he doesn't come at hitters with spectacular stuff, and Polk even said the senior "needs help" from umpires who like low strikes. Yet the lefthander keeps outlasting close calls and early challenges and winning decisions. And, getting balls his defense can handle. If Dunn keeps this up all season it's not just a great story, it's the best thing that can happen for the whole pitching staff. Because it means Josh Johnson can stay in day-two duty where he ought to match up best more often than not and never worse than even.
By the way, we did ask Polk if in retrospect J.J. should've been allowed to open the ninth Saturday. "It's still early in the season, his pitch counts were up, and with weather you'd hate to lose a game with our closer in the pen," the skipper said, just as you'd expect. Yeah, it would have been fun to watch a route-win, and Brett Cleveland's ninth-inning issues were startling after a 0.00 stretch. Oh, well, the closer got out of his own jam and probably needed a challenge anyway. I'm not worried about the pen. Nor the rotation. John Lalor has earned his game-three slot, and as much as fans would like to see one of those talented freshmen given the ball I'm liking how the lanky soph is throwing down the ‘plane' and hitting the bottom of the strike zone at a tough angle. And so on.
Still those younger arms are right there, getting weekend relief innings and midweek starts, which is the best aspect to State's staff: the competition continues. Why, at times it's hard not to get overly excited about what sort of staff we'll have in 2007 and '08, and we're only a month into the current campaign and the undefeated Dogs.
I don't guess I answered my own question about how good this club really is, because it's not the nature of baseball to settle such things this early. So for the moment we'll gladly settle for a 15-0 record and 2-0 SEC start. Though, one insistent reporter (not me, I'm too old) kept pushing Polk to compare this team to the club that until Friday owned the program record for best start.
"It's nice to win 15," Polk said, "but the '85 team was pretty good! Are we better, I don't know. The league is better, the competition is better than it was in '85 I'll guarantee you." Okay. So the coach of both teams doesn't have an answer, either. Guess we'll have to wait into June to settle this one, eh?
Though it might offer a clue to how much stock we media folk are putting in this State squad to report that several of us daily reporters will be passing up Saturday's first spring football scrimmage to follow the Diamond Dogs to Baton Rouge…Noah kidding. Sorry, couldn't resist one more.
As we wade into the lingering issue from the weekend washout, let's get this straight to start: the University of Mississippi did not pull a fast one on the SEC, nor did the league cater to a back-channel request from O.M., when permission was given for a Saturday doubleheader in Oxford. I know, I know, that won't keep the purposely paranoid from believing so, any more than facts affect those, umm, interesting people Art Bell converses with on weekend radio.
The more we learn about what did, or didn't, happen over the weekend, the more it becomes evident—not to be confused with clear—that this was just a classic case of mis-communications, misunderstandings, and maybe missed opportunity. There is no villain here, but there were a lot of folk not touching base, as it were, with each other.
For those few who don't know the back-story… Friday evening officials from Ole Miss contacted the SEC office asking permission to move up Sunday's game for a Saturday double-header, due to the near-certainty of bad weather Sunday. Which proved the case. The SEC gave it's OK and they played two in Oxford with a split-decision, giving Vandy the series win.
Here in Starkville, word of the re-scheduled twinbill caught everyone by surprise. In fact no MSU official in the press box had yet heard of it at 1:00. Polk had found out a bit earlier, but not much, and he admitted later he did not know such an option existed. Nor, according to Polk, did the Tennessee head coach.
I was certainly caught by surprise, having gone through the half-page of weather policy printed in the SEC's media guide. But I did note Friday on message boards that these policies didn't directly address re-scheduling games threatened by weather in-advance, either. I could only go by what I'd been told for the last few years, that the SEC just didn't allow for such things, and for obvious reasons. Thus my own editorial ire on some Saturday postings, that this was "un-freaking-believable."
Well, upon further review…it's very believable. And entirely legitimate, if not clearly defined in print. It turns out because there was no WRITTEN policy forbidding moving up a threatened game (with both coaches and the umpiring crew in agreement of course), that there was no absolute rule against it either. Ole Miss asked and got permission late Friday. No rules were bent, because there was no written rule to bend!
There was only what most coaches and officials thought they knew were a rule, that games can't be advanced before they are actually washed out. In fact the policy that got interpreted to allow the Oxford doubleheader only refers to the earliest starting game for a Sunday game, which is noon. Nothing said about Saturday at all, but this left enough of an opening. This, I'm told, appears in the 2006 operations manual issued by the SEC to coaches, umpires, and game management. But it is not linked to the inclement weather section.
Now here's where it gets sticky on State's part. The SEC Office tried to contact somebody in the new MSU baseball office building Saturday morning enquiring if MSU planned to play two with Tennessee, by email. Apparently nobody got back to the league office until later in the day, after the game was played. So, it's not as if this option was being kept secret from State; just the opposite. Yet contact was never made…and of course by that morning it would have been too late anyway. Polk was not going to meet Rod Delmonico at home plate prior to first pitch and say, "oh by the way, we're gonna play two today." Not only would it be unsporting, UT wouldn't have been logistically prepared. Though, I'm reasonably sure State fans in the Lounge would have gladly helped with a between-game meal for the Vols, just to get another game in.
Polk said afterwards had he known the option existed to move up Sunday's game for a Saturday set, he would have tried. Or at least considered doing so if Tennessee was agreeable. (By the way, before anyone asks, there is no such option for playing two Friday; that's specifically addressed due to class conflicts, the 10:00pm game-start deadline, etc.) But really…should #1 have known?
As of now, I tend to think so. Polk said Saturday he was aware of the option in regard only to the last weekend of a SEC season to prevent weather from playing havoc with teams competing to get into the league tournament or win top seedings. "We're a Friday-Saturday-Sunday league," is how Polk puts it, and he made it clear he thought Ole Miss had made a smart move. Why then did State not try the same move?
It turns out this subject was indeed discussed at one of the regular SEC baseball coaches meetings. Polk even admitted Saturday that the subject does come up occasionally, though he did not recall there being any vote on it at the most recent meeting. Still apparently the possibility for special exceptions—that is, Saturday doubleheaders—did come up and was discussed.
Well, it's over and done with for now. And as much as some fans today are proclaiming with absolute gospel certainty State would won a third game from the Vols, no doubt about it, well…perhaps. This is baseball. I've seen a lot of sure things fall apart over too many years in this game. Maybe not playing game-three will come back to haunt in May, maybe not. As it is I'm entirely content to have gone 2-0.
And I'm also glad State is wiser about what the options are when weather threatens in weekends to come. Though it's going to require the same sort of certainty just referred to about forecasting accuracy before you'll see many other such pre-emptive moves. I'm talking bearded prophets building boats beside the ballpark, not to mention the visiting team being willing to accommodate in the first place. Some will have good reasons to say no, you know.
But I can't let this end without one all-too-ironic note. That SEC meeting I mentioned, where the topic was discussed but not voted? I'm told the minutes, as well as the 2006 operations manual, were sent to all league coaches. And just how were they originally sent?
You guessed it.