If ever a ball club took such stature un-seriously, it is these Diamond Dogs. Instead of celebrating the perfect start to the 2006 campaign, a number-one ranking in one national poll, and first place in the early SEC standings, Mississippi State players just shrug at the subjects. Sure, they enjoy being 17-0 and on top of the world at the moment. But what does all this really mean, as the Dogs prepare for a weekend slugfest at old rival Louisiana State?
"It just happens that we haven't lost a game yet," third baseman Michael Rutledge says.
So, there. Or perhaps so far, so good.
As the record reflects Mississippi State has been very good through the first month of the 2006 schedule. No team goes unbeaten through any 17 games without proving itself a quality club, much less the slate these Bulldogs have played. Weekend sweeps of Marist, Arkansas State, and Arizona stated the case against clubs from three time zones, then taking two from Tennessee affirmed the non-conference preparations.
And still the winners wear their March reputation quite lightly. "It's something that comes with playing good," shortstop Thomas Berkery said. "That's all we're trying to focus on, just playing good night-in and night-out. The wins will come if we do that."
Obviously the wins have come, and in a program-record streak at that. The '06 Dogs have already written their names in MSU annals with both the best start ever to a season and the longest winning string of any year, any point. These benchmarks and the #1 ranking in this week's Baseball America poll have their fans in a state of near-hysteria.
The players? They clearly have absorbed the mantra of their notoriously low-key skipper. Getting one of the regulars to comment on their ranking or record is a waste of their time and reporters' tape.
"We hear it around us," Rutledge says of the top-ranked topic. "Within the team we don't really talk about it. We've been playing well and we'll try to keep doing it well, but the ball can bounce the wrong way one day. We're glad we're off to this good start and we're going to try to keep it up."
State did keep it up with a couple of midweek wins, beating Alabama-Birmingham and Jacksonville State at Dudy Noble Field to continue their record-run. Wednesday's win was not an easy one, though, as visiting JSU scored first and kept things tied into the sixth inning before the Bulldogs did what they do best. They won another one. "It wasn't pretty," Rutledge said of the 6-1 victory. But then this isn't a ball club playing for style points, the third baseman added.
"We're finding a way to get it done at the end and that's all that matters, winning the games."
Which should be enough to satisfy everyone. None the less, Diamond Dog fans can always find a dark cloud behind any silver lining and some are even concerned State has ‘peaked' too early. Others scour the stat sheet looking for potential flaws that would probably go unnoticed if the Dogs had suffered some relaxing losses along the way. They point to some defensive lapses of late and a .970 fielding average.
Or, to offensive production. Not the .318 batting average itself, solidly among the league leaders, but the troubling tendency of leaving lots of unscored runners. Through 17 games 168 Dogs have been left on bags. Or perhaps it is the league-last tally of total strikeouts for MSU pitchers. A benefit of baseball is how the numbers always offer something to worry about.
For their part, the Bulldogs are no more concerned about such stats than they are bragging about any ranking. It's a middle-path that has paid off handsomely so far, and a reflection of the roster's mentality. "I think the group of guys we have is veteran enough to just come out and play another game and do what you're supposed to do," said fifth-year senior Berkery.
Third-year soph Rutledge agrees that the unusually veteran nature of this 2006 varsity contributes to club-calm. Such as when they got halfway through with JSU and did not tighten up at the prospect of—gasp!—having their streak snapped or ranking damaged. "We knew we would come through and that's what it takes. That's why we've been playing well lately."
At the same time no one should confuse that confidence with cockiness, or believe the Bulldogs always assume something will turn the game their way eventually. They know very well that most breaks are made, not given, which means sticking to the gameplan and playing every pitch as a game-decider. Expand this attitude and it's easier to understand why Mississippi State players give so little attention to the publicity brought by record and ranking.
"Personally it comes down to you play another game," Berkery explained. "I think sometimes the younger guys get into that kind of stuff more than the veterans will, just because we've been through it a number of times." Well, alright, these veterans have never experienced a #1 ranking or 17-game win streak. But the point is still legitimate as the older Dogs who have been through harder times keep the younger pups from taking themselves too seriously. "We'll get in our huddle before the game and say the same thing every time, just get after it, the game starts 0-0 and we have to go play," Berkery said. "That tells them nothing comes easy, just play hard every day."
Yet would not there also be increased intensity every day to keep the streak alive? To stay first, either in the national rankings or more importantly in the SEC standings? Here is where the low-key approach actually pays off best. The Diamond Dogs aren't playing to protect anything, Rutledge explains.
"We're trying to win. We don't really feel any added pressure because we don't ever go out not to lose, we try to win the game. Thankfully so far it's been coming together pretty good."
Now that things have come together so well, State is taking its unbeaten act on the SEC road for the first time. Not only that, but to a most hostile setting as the Dogs visit Alex Box Stadium for a three-game series with the L.S.U. Tigers (17-3, 1-2 SEC). Maybe it wasn't quite as easy staying focused on midweek matters last night as usual. "We know we're going down there!" Berkery grinned. "But you take it one at a time."
State will stick with the same rotation that has swept the first four weekend series. Lefthander Brooks Dunn (4-0, 2.36) opens Friday's 6:30 game with LSU starting lefthander Daniel Forrer (1-0, 4.40). Righthanders Josh Johnson (4-0, 1.42) and John Lalor (2-0, 3.38) round out MSU's weekend lineup, while the Tigers have not announced their Saturday and Sunday starters.
Lalor missed his Sunday turn when game-three with Tennessee was rained out, but he tossed some Tuesday night in middle-relief to stay sharp. State's staff began the week with the best ERA in the league, having allowed the fewest hits, runs, and earned runs alike. MSU pitching has also given up the fewest home runs of any SEC staff, though playing mostly home games has certainly been a factor. LSU's homefield is far more longball-friendly but then this could also end up benefiting Bulldog batters.
Not that the offense will change its approach any more than the entire team will alter their attitude. This is just the next stage for a bunch of Bulldogs who remain relentlessly realistic about what is ahead and how much remains to be done. And won.
"It's a big series," Rutledge said. "We'll be psyched-up all the way down there and have a good practice Thursday night. It will be a fun series, especially in Baton Rouge with 8,000 people screaming at us. I just hope we play as well as we have lately, and we should come out with two of three."