With the Tigers struggling at 4-8 SEC, tied with LSU for fifth-West, and the only conference club with a losing record overall, this weekend would seem an ideal opportunity for Mississippi State to gain some real ground in the league standings. Polk is much more cautious. "Auburn is a dangerous club," he said Thursday morning. "They've played well at times and seem to win a game each week. So this ain't going to be easy."
Of course nothing has come easy for the Bulldogs the last three weeks. Back on March 24 State was on an unprecedented roll with a 18-0 record to open the schedule and a 3-0 SEC mark. Since then the Bulldogs have split 14 games evenly, losing both their top national ranking and more importantly their Division lead. This makes the trip to Auburn, which will complete the first half of the conference schedule, a crucial series for a MSU team that still has aspirations of a regular-season championship.
Of course the skipper downplays any such pressurized talk, especially the suggestion that considering who State must face in the last-half of the SEC schedule a sweep at Auburn is nearly necessary. "No," Polk said. "I mean, we could get swept over there and still win the SEC. But we'd have to play a lot better those last 15 games."
As State packs up to depart Thursday for Auburn, the coach wants his team put their most recent 14 games behind them. It's been a frustrating and even painful mid-season stretch. To their credit the Bulldogs themselves never misunderstood that brilliant start or claimed they were the best ball club in the land. Yet it's been a bit harder for them to maintain the same balanced perspective now that things aren't bouncing, or more accurately falling, their way all the time. That's only natural. And in fact so was a rough stretch, according to their coach.
"This was kind of a bump in the road that I predicted," Polk said. "Hopefully we can score some runs at Auburn and have a chance to win a game or two."
That points to the area where State's season has turned sour. The Bulldogs have not scored runs, or not enough of them at the right times, in SEC games. Yet on the statistical surface this looks like an excellent offense, ranking at the top of the league in both batting average and on-base percentage. True, this is not a banner year for batting in the SEC; no league club ranks among the nation's top-30 for average with State starting the week #35. By contrast six SEC teams are in the NCAA's top-22 in pitching ERA, with MSU at #11.
"Our pitching has been good and defense for the most part," Polk said. So that again puts the spotlight on the team's crucial weakness. "We lead the lead in on-base percentage but are last in knocking them in."
Thus the frustration up-and-down the MSU order. After all, getting on the basepaths so efficiently is reason for pride showing both skill and patience at the plate. Polk likes the discipline Bulldog batters have shown all season. "But we're not able to knock them in. That's been the problem the last 14 games." And why State has lost seven of those games by a total of 14 runs.
"It's can all be attributed to we haven't knocked anybody in as of late. That happened Tuesday night vs. Ole Miss. We left two innings with bases loaded." Polk was talking of the first and ninth frames when State left a total of six runners unscored. Meanwhile the Rebels scored only one run, on one hit, with a solo homer in the second inning providing the margin of 1-0 victory in the Mayor's Trophy game. It was the most painful possible contrast to State's struggles in bringing runners home.
"We've hit the ball pretty well," Polk said. "Its' just a matter of doing it when the game is on the line. And sometimes it's on the line in the first inning."
First or ninth, the Bulldogs have stranded enough runners to change a season's worth of games. In fact they are averaging close to ten left-on-bases through 32 games, a staggering stat for a squad that is already hitting for average. Then again that might be the core of the problem. Other than senior shortstop Thomas Berkery there is no top-ranking hitter in the lineup; all others bat for respectable averages, which means when they come with men on bases and two outs they have to beat the odds, or averages, to get that timely knock.
Of course the easiest aspect to focus on is the incredible problems cashing in on bases-loaded situations. The latest tally shows State has stuffed the sacks 82 times in 2006, and only gotten 16 hits. That's a .195 average, well below what would be expected. Polk doesn't entirely agree that inability to produce in such situations has become a self-fulfilling matter, but…
"Sometimes what happens is kids hear about it too much from fans and media, and even coaches, and they over-swing and that leads to problems," the three-decade coach noted. "Some kids get too juiced-up with bases loaded and try to do too much." The fix? Nothing technical or radical. "Back off and get relax and get up there and put the ball in play." And given the mostly-veteran nature of this lineup that should be something old Dogs have experienced.
"We just need some contagious hitting with guys in scoring position," said Polk. "It happens in big leagues all the way down to tee-ball. We saw that at Louisiana Tech when they got eight rockets in a row." That road game, when Tech rallied from 12-7 with two outs in the ninth to win 13-12, has been replayed by media and fans in the week since. Yet it was not when the current woes began; in fact it began a stretch where State scored double-digit runs in four games, including a 15-5 rout of Georgia.
Unfortunately the contagion didn't stick and MSU has managed just one, two, and no runs in the three-games since. Polk still thinks that the fever can be caught again and would solve State's only real problem. "We're in every ball game," he said of the season's seven setbacks, "the widest variance is five runs. That shows our pitching is outstanding and will keep us in ball games."
After considering the subject for a couple of days following the Georgia series, during a welcome week with just one non-SEC game, Polk has decided not to change his pitching plans for the Auburn weekend. "Right now we're going with the same rotation." This means lefty Brooks Dunn will start Friday's 7:00 game, righty Josh Johnson at 4:00 Saturday, and righty John Lalor Sunday at 1:00. And the light week-load means every pitcher but Tuesday starter Matt Lea could throw this weekend, though of course only nine or ten hurlers will make the 25-man travel roster.
The figure varies partly depending on how southpaw Mitch Moreland is counted. He began the year as a prime middle-reliever but since an injury to RF Andy Rice he's been playing the field. Polk is confident Moreland can handle defensive duties, but would prefer to use him as a left-handed DH in a ‘power' slot in the order and have him ready for relief. This depends on Rice's health, which is improved to the point he was able to start the Mayor's Trophy game.
But a shoulder injury back on March 18, which became a slight muscle tear, has cost the lefthanded hitter his effectiveness at the plate since. "Rice has not swung the bat much in game situations," Polk said. At the same time senior first baseman Brad Jones has been struggling since the LSU series with a wrist problem. It's not a coincidence that when these two lefthanded hitters were hurt that State's RBI-slump began.
"We had two guys in Rice and Jones who we thought would drive in runs, they were our four-five guys coming in." Jones still has some tendinitis in the right wrist and will be dealing with it all season, as will Rice with his injury. "It's almost like spring training for Andy because he hasn't played much the last three weeks," Polk said. "If those guys were healthy we'd have won a few of those games and our record is astronomical."
Even if not 100% both will play, and Polk expects them to get back to speed with more at-bats. Besides, "Defensively I need them," the coach said. Still he isn't ruling out substitutions during games or changes to the lineup and order over the weekend. "It depends on Friday. We have other people we can play, it's just that we need them to knock guys in."
What the coach won't be saying is that State simply needs to win this series and probably to sweep if the Bulldogs are to remain serious contenders for the Division title. Polk is right not to put such pressure on players who clearly understand the situation anyway. And the ironic twist is that had State sprinkled the seven losses all through the schedule, instead of taking them in a bunch here, the public consensus would be that at 25-7 the season is an ongoing success.
State does have another reason for optimism about this weekend, too. "It seems road teams have done a tremendous job this year," Polk said. His own team won a series at LSU, and indeed home teams have lost more series than usual. But as always, State's skipper will not use the ‘S' word as his team leaves Dudy Noble Field. He will only talk about trying to win another series. "That's what your goal is," said Polk. "And we have Arkansas coming in next week, then go to South Carolina…"