State Opens SEC Second-Half Hosting Arkansas

First the record was bruised, and then several of the bodies as well. The result has been some painful weeks in all aspects for Mississippi State. Yet while his regular lineup still isn't 100% physically, Coach Ron Polk sees some signs that the Diamond Dogs may be in upgraded emotional shape as they start the ‘second half' of SEC season.

State opens the decisive half of the 2006 league schedule by hosting Arkansas (28-11) in a weekend series at Dudy Noble Field. This matchup of Western Division foes has major mid-year implications for the whole loop as the Razorbacks come in second in the West standings at 8-7, with State only a win behind at 7-7 in third place. So while both will still have a month of SEC games left, the weekend's winner will be in a much-strengthened position in this year's frantically tight Division race.

Interestingly, this will also be Arkansas' first Division series of the season as their previous five series were all against East teams. State comes in 4-5 in West play.

"So we've got our hands full with a fine Arkansas team this weekend," Polk said Thursday, not many hours after coach and team rolled in from Memphis around 1:30 a.m. While the Diamond Dogs trudged to morning classes, Polk and staff were turning full focus on the weekend's matchup and afternoon practice plans. And, to the latest round of reports from the baseball training room.

"We'll be almost full-strength, and we need to be to face Arkansas," Polk said prior to the day's workout. ‘Almost' being a relative term and subject to hourly updates, that is, because the ball team that returned from Memphis has a significant quota of hurting and rehabilitating pups.

The latest name to join that list is righthanded pitcher Matt Lea, a midweek regular who had just been added to the 25-man SEC game roster after six impressive freshman-year outings. Lea opened Tuesday's game at Memphis, only to leave the game after two innings. "He had shoulder discomfort," was Polk's update Thursday, the coach adding there doesn't seem to be any serious problem other than possible tendinitis and Lea looks to be available again.

How soon, of course, is the question, and Lea is likely out until next midweek at the earliest. Though, since he only threw two Tuesday innings if he were to bounce back faster than forecast it's not impossible Lea could throw a bit by the weekend in a real pinch. State has been impressed enough with Lea's efforts that he made the Auburn trip even after throwing eight frames on Wednesday. With the non-conference schedule winding down fast Lea would be all the more available for larger roles on weekends, for sure come tournament time.

There are no other health issues on the pitching staff. In the field it's another matter now as regular starting third baseman Michael Rutledge has a bruised hamstring that sidelined him Wednesday night at Memphis. "He has a chance to play Saturday and Sunday," Polk said Thursday. Polk also updated the health of lefthanded DH and alternate first baseman Brian LaNinfa, who has a hamstring ‘stretch' according to the coach. "It's not a pull," Polk said, but "we have to guard that."

Fortunately regular starting first baseman Brad Jones is not only getting his right wrist, hampered by tendinitis for a month now, back up to strength but also getting his left-side swing up to speed again. "Brad had a good game at least Tuesday," said Polk, which was at least an understatement of Jones' two-home run, six-RBI evening in a 12-8 Bulldog win at Memphis' usual home field. The next night it was LaNinfa, batting DH while Jones fielded, providing the power and knocking two balls out of AutoZone Park in downtown Memphis in a 5-3 win..

Meanwhile rightfielder Andy Rice continues to work, or play, around a small tear in a labrum muscle that happened five weekends ago. Polk repeated that there will be an off-season surgery to correct the problem in Rice's non-throwing shoulder, and the soph transfer will continue to play the field as much as possible. Batting will remain a problem as the irritation impact Rice's swing. "We're just trying to mix and match him right now."

"We have been banged-up," Polk said. And to the coach it is no coincidence that the team's struggles on the scoreboard and worksheet began just after Dogs started hurting. But, with the program-record, 18-game winning streak that opened the campaign now a fast-fading memory, Polk is also able to put things in perspective. Past and present things, that is.

"The first 18 wins, most of those opponents are .500 or below," he pointed out. "Even Arizona (who MSU swept in three games) is struggling now with young players. I don't know if we were that good at 18-0, or that bad when we had the slide."

The slide is of course State's 8-9 record following the starting-streak, during which the Dogs have split their 14 conference contests. It's been a humbling stretch to say the least, and while the players were able to keep composure the fan base has practically panicked. Leave it to Polk to point out the big picture, noting that the ‘slide' came both as did the injuries and a much tougher lineup of opponents…as well as series of SEC road trips.

Some numbers do back up the case. State is 18-2 at home overall and 3-2 in SEC home games. For that matter after taking the pair at Memphis the Bulldogs are 21-2 outside the league. "So the kids have done really well in non-conference games," said Polk. "We've done just OK in the SEC games."

‘Just OK' is still good enough for a close third in the West and by winning this weekend's series State would take over second place. At the same time it's equally true that MSU is coming off consecutive lost series to Georgia and Auburn teams that are not conference contenders, and the schedule only gets stronger the rest of the way out as the Dogs still must go to South Carolina and Kentucky while hosting Florida and Mississippi.

The slide Polk referred to was triggered by the combination of injuries and scheduling, and by State's inability to take full advantage of offensive possibilities. Fans and foes alike are well aware of how these Bulldog batters, whatever the lineup, tend to leave lots of teammates stranded and too many runners not batted-in. In particular State's average with three men on bases and one or two outs has been miserable. Even Polk now admits bewilderment. "I've never had a team with bases-loaded situations so many times," he said. The coach could have amplified that he's never had a team leave bases loaded so many times, either.

The latest SEC stats show State ranks third in overall batting average, sixth in slugging, and second in on-base percentage. Those numbers are actually a bit down from the previous week as MSU has led the league in batting and reaching much of the season. Yet this week also has a stat that is either further proof of frustration, or perhaps a sign of progress. State is now third in the league for runs batted-in. That might only mean that so many Dogs get on the paths a number of them have to score…

…or, that run-producing swings are now starting to show in the stats. True, in league play it's been feast-or-famine for State's offense lately. The Bulldogs blew Georgia and Auburn out in 15-5 and 17-10 routs, only to lose the tighter games. Yet after scoring just three runs in a four-game losing streak a week ago Mississippi State is more often coming through in RBI situations. "It's not so much slumps as we've just had a hard time driving in runs in," Polk said, adding. "And other teams in the SEC have the same problem." That's a fact, as the league is clearly dominated by pitching again this year. But now that more runners are getting driven in, there is at least some reason to think State is starting to get a grip on offense. Maybe. Possibly.

Besides, it's not just MSU batters that run hot-and-cold. Arkansas is coming off a winning split with Kentucky in which the Razorbacks scored 25 runs in three games. They followed that by scoring just four runs in splitting two games at home with Northern Colorado. "Maybe we need to call Greely, Colorado, and get a scouting report," quipped Polk. More seriously, "That's baseball. It's an individual game, but it gets in kids' heads when the guy in front struggles. It's up and down."

Certainly State will be glad to have Thomas Berkery back up at the plate, and at shortstop, this weekend. The senior and team hitting leader missed the Memphis series to attend a relative's funeral; he returned to campus Thursday. In his absence other Dogs stepped up with timely hits, if not great averages, such as Jones and LaNinfa, while walk-on Brooks Tinsley played the field and even got a Wednesday night base hit.

This doesn't necessarily mean that with Berkery back at short the lineup returns to normal. Rutledge's health, as well as his struggles in the field the last couple of weeks, means starting catcher Edward Easley can expect to open at the hot corner again at least one game with either Wyn Diggs or Joseph McCaskill behind the plate. And Rice's problems swinging the stick will force some decisions about who to start in rightfield against which Arkansas pitcher, either lefty Mitch Moreland or righty Matt Richardson. Or, does State stick with Rice's superior defense and arm strength in a series that might well turn on making plays in the field and holding hitters to just one base?

Keeping LaNinfa in the order is an easier call because the lefthanded hitter is about equally effective whichever side the opposing pitcher comes from. "He's always been a good hitter," Polk said. "When he uses the whole field and keeps the bat in the zone he has a little pop-power." And that hamstring isn't a huge issue anyway. "He never was a leg-out guy," Polk says. "Hopefully he'll be healthy this weekend, when he's swinging good he's a tough out." In fact it was LaNinfa who had the key at-bat Tuesday against Memphis with a RBI single putting State in front 9-8 after the Tigers had rallied to tie things up.

As to the weekend pitching plans, Polk said the same rotation of LH Brooks Dunn, RH Josh Johnson, and RH John Lalor will start the series. Dunn is coming off his shortest stint of the season in last Friday's 9-4 loss at Auburn when he couldn't protect a lead…though two defensive miscues opened the door first for the Tigers' comeback. "He didn't have a great outing at Auburn, we got out to a 3-0 lead and Brooks struggled," Polk said. "Some balls just found holes, got his pitch count up. But he's a competitor and has good stuff, we need him to pitch well Friday."

State needs good stuff from the righthanders, too. Johnson has had his own struggles, and State has now lost on four-straight Saturdays as well as the last two Sundays. Just as with the team in that record-setting start, Polk points to one reality about this rotation-staff that was overlooked during the initial successes. "All three have never started in the SEC (regular season) he said. "We talk about this being a veteran club, and it is position-player wise. But they never pitched in that role in the SEC. They've had good days and average days, like everybody does."

The real letdown of late has been from the relief staff that in February and March looked unbeatable. Not now, though here again Polk says all is not as it might seem. State's reliever throw strikes. "That's the whole key. Sometimes they give up a bomb but there haven't been a lot of guys on base. For the most part our bullpen has been pretty good." Good enough that closer Brett Cleveland was not getting enough work for a few weeks, so the senior has put in a lot of long-relief innings Friday at Auburn and Tuesday at Memphis. No, Polk said, this does not mean Cleveland is changing roles. "We're not stretching him out our any reason other than we need him to throw pitches."

The Bulldogs will need to throw very good pitches this weekend. Arkansas isn't an overpowering offense, with 31 home runs through 39 games. Though, UA slugger Danny Hamblin has ten of those longballs; no Bulldog has more than four and only two, Jones and Berkery, that many. Also, of State's 33 home runs this season, only seven have been hit out of Dudy Noble Field. This is clearly a club that feels freer to swing for other team's fences than their own.

In some ways Arkansas is State's SEC peer, a team featuring lots of veterans, steady pitching and defense, and depending on timely offense. "Arkansas has a dangerous club," Polk said. "They've got some experience and good pitching, we're going to have to play real well this weekend to win."

Which means if the Bulldogs play like an experienced defense and pitch as well as expected, it will again come down to knocking the ball around if State intends to make any moves back towards the front in the Western Division.

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