Bulldogs Look To Get Season Back On Track

Back when the Diamond Dogs were 18-0 the bandwagon was creaking from the strain of fans leaping aboard, certain it was headed to Omaha. Barely three weeks with a 7-6 worksheet later it's a lot lighter, with jumpers breaking their metaphorical ankles and reservations for Rosenblatt Stadium being cancelled en masse.

At least there is one calm voice left amidst this mid-April panic. "We knew there would be a bump in the road," Coach Ron Polk said Sunday. "Everybody is going to have it."

Mississippi State has officially hit that bump. Now the Diamond Dogs and their skipper will try to get back on a faster track for the second and decisive half of the 2006 schedule.

"I think we're all old enough to know that we have to get the job done," senior shortstop and co-captain Thomas Berkery said.

The job just got harder after losing a weekend series to visiting Georgia. State blew the other Dogs away in Friday's opener 15-5, but dropped the rest of the series by 6-1 and 4-2 scores. And though the scores were closer, State actually was dominated in game-two by crafty lefthanded pitching and unable to bunch enough Sunday offense to take the rubber game.

With the losses State fell farther off the SEC pace, though not so far behind as it might have seemed to downcast fans after consecutive lost series to Alabama and Georgia. The Tide followed up their home wins over MSU with an even more impressive series win at South Carolina and is now 9-3. "I told you they were good," Polk said of Alabama Sunday. Meanwhile the Rebels and Arkansas are nipping at MSU's heels at 6-6 apiece.

Polk, ever the Mr. Even Keel, had said all that season-opening and record-setting win streak that things were not as ideal as they seemed. Now the coach reminds that despite two lost weekends, and a still-inexplicable Tuesday night collapse at Louisiana Tech, things are nowhere near as gloomy as perceived. Even losing to a previously-struggling Georgia club was shrugged off as standard SEC baseball.

"Since we were 18-0 we're what, 6-5 (actually 7-6)? That's not good but at the same time we're still in the hunt," he said. "I was just disappointed we didn't score more runs. But we faced two good pitching staffs the last two weeks, maybe two of the better ones. The margins in this league are sometimes very small."

Non-existent, even, as the weekend showed. State slugged out 22 hits in Friday's win, only to be held to 15 hits in the next two matches. Explaining such turnabout usually falls back on "that's baseball" which is of course true. But Berkery put his finger on another notion. "Friday was the game we were hyped-up about," said, as State was facing a highly-touted UG pitcher. After pounding on him the senior suggested that either the offense took the other games for granted or they failed to remain motivated. Or both, even.

"I don't know what happened the other two games," Berkery said. "It was just bad baseball on our part."

Yet not terribly bad baseball, just as when the Dogs were winning every game they did not always play wonderfully well. And to their credit all along the veterans knew the downturn had to come at some point in the long season. It just happened to come in the third and fourth series out of ten SEC weekends, which leaves plenty of schedule to return to the winning track. If, that is, the Dogs can fix their own problems.

"We need to make some adjustments, that's obvious," Berkery said. "We need to figure out what people are trying to do to us pitching-wise, and maybe figure out different ways to get hitters out. It's just how quickly we can respond and make the adjustments we need to."

In fact, Polk says his team can use the other Bulldogs as an example. Georgia came to Starkville after being swept, at home, by a Mississippi team that itself was struggling before going to Athens. The Rebels broke out of their slump, as did Georgia a week later. "They regrouped," Polk said, "as we'll regroup as we play Ole Miss on Tuesday and go to Auburn this weekend. There's still 18 games to go and we're I think two games behind first place."

Make that three wins, though of course the SEC goes by winning percentages and not games-up or –back. Besides, at the moment the percentage of concern to State is the batting average, or more to the point the average with teammates on the bases and in scoring positions. The team average after 31 games, .315, is respectable enough and stacks up well in the league. Berkery leads the hitting parade with a .424 average, as well as a .510 on-base average.

Those fine figures are reflected in the piece of program history the fifth-year senior just claimed. With a sharp single in the fifth Sunday inning he hit safely in a 28th-straight game, breaking the single-season record of 27 set by Ron Brown in 1993. Ironically, the old mark was also set the same year Rex Buckner set the overall MSU mark of 31-straight games with a hit, including the last 13 games of 1992 and first 18 games of '93. The SEC record is 39 games, in the 1999 season by Alabama's Andy Phillips. Berkery is tied for the 6th-longest one-season streak in SEC annals.

Five more regulars are hitting .333 or better in this lineup. State's problem has never been getting runners on base; it has been bringing them all the way home. In 31 games, 303 Dogs have been left stranded, a numbing figure. And going into the Georgia series State was a composite 13-of-74 batting with bases loaded. By going 3-of-6 in such situations over the weekend they raised the average to a whopping .200. That statistic alone reflects the offense's greatest failing, one which appears to have gotten into the team's mindset at the plate to the point of becoming self-fulfilling.

Polk does note, though, that the batting order—which has been shuffled quite a bit 5-through-9 of late—has a couple of unexpected holes due to injuries. A hurt right wrist has crimped senior first baseman Brad Jones's career-consistency at the plate and made him vulnerable to hard throwers. He can play the field as well as ever now, but his season average is down to .248 and Polk gave the three-year starter Sunday off "because he's been struggling. The wrist doesn't bother him but he just lost some bat-speed." Jones did crush a two-run homer in the midweek at Pearl's AA-size park so hopefully he's getting back to speed. Brian LaNinfa, another left-handed hitter, has alternated with Jones.

State also hopes to have rightfielder Andy Rice back in the swing again. A diving catch against Tennessee resulted in an injured shoulder muscle which ultimately took a toll and put the hard-hitting soph out of the order. Rice was to get a shot Sunday to ease some of the irritation.

"It's a slight tear in the labrum," Polk reported, "thankfully not the throwing shoulder, but every time he hits the right shoulder it really pinches. The doctors indicate it won't do any damage for him to play and at the end of the year it's not a serious operation, he's got to have that thing taken care of. But we need him in the lineup."

Mitch Moreland has usually started in right in Rice's place and with a .355 average has done his part very well, to the point he has been batting cleanup. The soph crushed a grand-slam over dead-centerfield in Friday's romp and his .548 slugging percentage tops the team. Still this is a mixed blessing to Polk, as Moreland had been a prime reliever on both weekends and weeknights. Playing full-time in the field limits his availability. "Mitch has filled in very well but we need him to pitch a little bit, too, and we can't do that until Rice comes back. We're basically two hitters out of the lineup right now that we were really counting on."

The pitching staff has gotten through the first half physically unscathed, though their records have been damaged lately. Still Polk is satisfied on the whole with the mound-work, which posts a 2.97 ERA and .246 batting average-allowed. It's also hard to complain about a strikeout/walk ratio of 3-to-1, and until Sunday the State starters had all put in at least five full innings every outing.

Yet SEC season is showing some chinks in the armor, or more accurately some inconsistencies on the mound. Even Friday's blowout was somewhat misleading, as it was a 4-4 deadlock through five innings. LH Brooks Dunn (6-1, 3.06) and RH Josh Johnson (4-2, 3.35) have provided reliable innings on Fridays and Saturdays respectively, they just aren't quite dominating as in the first five weekends when everything bounced State's way and the Dogs were unbeaten and seemingly unbeatable.

Even when his Sunday stint stopped in the fourth inning, ending that run of ‘quality' 5-to-6 inning starts, RH John Lalor (2-1, 3.82) was hardly getting shellacked. The quick change was more a matter of having a bunch of ready relievers, Polk explained. Still, pressed on the question of whether change is in store for weekend rotations, the coach left the door open. "It's possible. I think Brooks and Josh haven't done anything to come out, and John is a good Sunday guy when he throws strikes."

The perceived impetus for making moves after four series comes from the impressive work by a couple of freshmen righthanders. Aaron Weatherford (3-0, 0.56 in 10 appearances) has been increasingly impressive in relief work to the point he seems ready to get a start. Meanwhile Matt Lea (5-0, 2.40) is perfect in five midweek starts. That fact, and the value of adding non-SEC wins to the total, makes it reasonable to leave Lea in this role for the moment.

Except, there are just seven non-conference dates left on the schedule, and proven performers such as John Crosby and Jesse Carver to toss at midweek foes. The opportunity would seem to be there to give Lea a shot in conference competition. Weatherford has already shown he can get SEC outs in relief. In fact that is why Polk hesitates to promote this rookie. "Weatherford is valuable to us right now as a bullpen guy, as (lefty Justin) Pigott is.

"But," the coach added, "everything is up for grabs. We never say this is the rotation for the rest of the year and you guys who've been around us a long time know the rotation has changed many times." Could there be a change in the making this week or this month? Polk wouldn't predict that Sunday, other than to say "We'll go with the hot hand. But we have enough pitching depth, which is good, and we'll make good decisions hopefully. But right now we're not going to give up on our rotation unless we make some decision this week."

Lea will definitely have the ball in his right hand Tuesday evening when Mississippi State travels to Jackson for the annual Mayor's Trophy game with Ole Miss. This is the only game of the midweek for MSU, so all arms but the three weekend starters are available. Who those arms are seems settled, yet another Polk comment showed change was a consideration come Wednesday morning.

"We'll center our attention on Tuesday's game. Then going to Auburn we'll get information. We played so many games in rapid-fire, I haven't had time to look at Auburn yet, the left-right matchups with them, who is going to pitch, who is hot, combos. So we'll make that decision sometime midweek, but for the most part I think we'll probably stay on course."

The Bulldogs themselves are glad to slow the pace a bit after playing nine games in ten days. "I think that's going to be good that we can have Wednesday off, just relax, and get our legs under back us," Berkery said. "And we're just looking forward to getting the Mayor's Trophy and getting things turned around."

Speaking of that Trophy, Berkery and his fellow upperclassmen have never seen it first-hand. State has lost the last four games and the series is now tied 13-13. Since he returned to MSU for 2002 Polk is 0-for-4 in Mayor's Trophy games, a real irony as he was responsible for starting the extra game between the arch-rivals back in 1980. "I just called (then UM coach) Jake Gibbs one year and said next year let's play a game. We found a common date, we decided to call it the Mayor's Cup, and started it. And I think it's been great for the people down there. I've enjoyed the game."

Bulldog fans and players want to start enjoying some success in the game, which once upon a time was perceived as a MSU benefit. No longer, so they are taking Tuesday seriously for sure. "It's an honor to hav the Trophy," Berkery said, "and the fifth-year guys have never had it. So maybe we can break the streak."

Speaking of streaks, 2006 might well be the last time the game is at Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson where all 26 previous contests have been played. Last Wednesday the Bulldogs made their first-ever appearance at Trustmark Park in Pearl, the home of the AA-Mississippi Braves and a splendid facility for fans and teams alike. Polk went to Pearl a couple of times in 2005 just to watch games. "Yeah, it's a better ballpark than Smith-Wills," he agrees. And there is a consensus that the Mayor's Trophy game will and should move to the new park, even if it isn't in the City of Jackson itself.

Polk said any such decision is up to the respective school ADs, "who make more money than I do." Such a move seems inevitable, yes. "But the Smith-Wills people have been good, they've supported the game, they've had some changes in management and we want to see how that goes this Tuesday. If we were to poll our kids I'm sure I know where they probably would want to go, but Smith-Wills has done everything we asked. It's not a bad facility, but it's old and kids want to have better facilities.

"I'm not worried about that. I just want to play another game."

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