Odd as it might sound hoping to be in a slump, the veteran knows what he's talking about. Because the alternative to a slump would be a serious slide, one that appears to be accelerating after four-consecutive SEC series setbacks. Dropping two of three to the visiting Razorbacks means for the first time this season the Bulldogs have slid under .500 in league play, at 8-9 now.
This puts State fourth in the West, and seventh in the overall SEC standings. It's a tenuous grip on that seventh rung, too, with 8-10 Auburn right behind and a pair of East teams owning seven wins. Put plainly, the Bulldogs are one more wrong weekend away from sliding out of the top-eight in the annual ‘race to Hoover.'
Of course veteran Dogs, and their coach, are quick to turn attention in the other direction and remind that one strong weekend on their part, and sudden slumps by some key competitors, could shove State up two or three rungs before the calendar changes to May. "It's still anybody's," Jones said. "We've still got four series left so it could go either way. We're not completely out of it by any means yet, so we'll get back in it."
Such optimism is admirable, and probably necessary given the nature of the game and how State has played it of late. Besides, most of these Dogs have been through such situations before and know how best to handle in-season stresses and mid-season slumps. The first key is don't take weekend losses—not even four-straight losing weekends--into a new week.
"You give all your worries to God," senior centerfielder Joseph Hunter said. "It's one of those things, you can't dwell on it. And tomorrow is another game. We'll go to Southern Miss and take it from there."
State does take it on the road all this week, playing Tuesday and Wednesday evenings in Hattiesburg before moving on to the next SEC series at South Carolina. And while individuals can unload their worries on a higher power, collectively they understand how crucial every game left on the schedule is in both SEC and post-season terms.
On the face of things it looks as if Polk is attaching special import to the midweek games. Sunday he said State will likely give weekend starting pitchers Brooks Dunn and Josh Johnson turns at Hattiesburg. But there are other considerations involved, he explained. Dunn only got in 2.1 innings in a rain-delayed Saturday start against Arkansas and needs "50, 60 pitches" to make up for missed work. Plus, Polk noted, Tuesday is Dunn's normal day to throw bullpen tuning up for a Friday start. Johnson, who had a short stint at Auburn and six innings against Arkansas, could use the same number of Wednesday tosses to prepare for his Saturday start at USC.
Besides, State's Tuesday plans were going to have to adapt no matter what happened over the weekend due to a sudden shoulder problem with regular midweek starter Matt Lea. The freshman experienced tightness' early in an outing at Memphis and had to come out abruptly. Lea is 5-1 in seven midweek starts and was making a case for a promotion to weekend work before the injury. He might still move up now, Polk said.
"He won't be ready for Tuesday-Wednesday, which is disappointing," the coach said, before qualifying his comment. "I mean he could be, we can throw him, he feels good and doesn't have any more pain in there when he does his exercises. So we don't think there's any tear. He could be a factor also at South Carolina."
Whether or not Dunn and Johnson would actually start the USM games, Polk and pitching coach Russ McNickle were to decide Monday. Polk said usual Wednesday opener Jon Crosby might start one of the games, but it won't matter much who takes the hill first in either contest. "It's going to be a mixture of pitchers. We're going to have to face 18 innings of Golden Eagles and maybe nine guys throwing. Brett Cleveland needs some more work, we've got to get Mike Valentine another inning, and Justing Pigott.
"We've got enough pitchers. We don't want to expand somebody Tuesday-Wednesday that we want for the weekend. It's going to be kind of piecemeal the week together." At the same time Polk acknowledges the need to keep adding midweek ‘Ws' to the overall record. State is 21-2 non-conference play and both losses were by a lone run. State's coach knows one run is no sort of safe margin when playing at compact Pete Taylor Park, too.
"We've had pretty good success there," Polk said. "But you've got to pitch good there in order to win."
The record shows State has pitched well enough against non-SEC opposition, though lately the stats have trended in an uncomfortable direction with the staff ERA climbing on weeknights and weekends alike. Bulldog hurlers had a 6.33 ERA, and allowed a .302 batting average, against the Razorbacks, who are are not an offensive powerhouse by league standards. And Auburn scored 26 runs in 25 innings against MSU. Thus Polk's comment when discussing midweek pitching plans that "Then we'll make a decision what we're going to do this weekend."
There have been no decisions to make about weekend startings since the season opened, with LH Dunn, RH Johnson, and RH John Lalor opening every series. Polk still hesitated to commit to any changes, and said Sunday that "Dunn and Johnson are in good shape, Lalor we'll see. But I don't want to throw names out there, let them read that they're ‘out of the rotation.' Because they're not."
Maybe not. Or, maybe so. Freshman righthander Aaron Weatherford has thrown 13 times in relief with a 4-0 record and 1.38 ERA. Does the rookie get his first college start this week, or weekend? Polk sent mixed signals with his Sunday remark. "Weatherford I think now for sure is going to move into some capacity for the weekend. Whether it's Sunday I have no idea, we'll wait and see what happens Tuesday-Wednesday." That's because Weatherford might be needed to secure a non-SEC win, which would impact his ability to open a conference game just a couple of days later…maybe. Or, maybe not.
"So we've got a lot of questions," Polk said. "And it's good playing Tuesday-Wednesday, some guys are going to be marched out and see how they compete and we do."
The real issue isn't so much that these weekend starters have not thrown some solid innings; it's that lately their rough patches have come right at the start with State giving up early runs or even falling behind. "We're just trying to get the game under control," Polk said.
Of course State could always try taking control by scoring early and more often. Evaluating MSU's offense can be challenging as each weekend the Dogs have one big-scoring game that influences the overall stats. But when the offense struggles, the pitching and defense isn't able to make up the difference. Sunday's 6-4 loss to UA exemplified the problems as State fell behind 6-0, got four runs in one big inning and nothing else. "We should have started putting pressure on in the first six innings instead of waiting," Jones said, "that's been our problem."
Again on raw stats, a .303 season average and .396 on-base average look competent enough. But as MSU fans know now, the real telling number is State's average of 9.2 runners left on bases every game. Only one Dog in the order, leftfielder and usual #9 batter Jeff Butts, has 30 RBI after 40 games. So the .420 average of shortstop Thomas Berkery, or the hot streak by DH Brian LaNinfa with five of his seven homers coming in the last eight games, haven't been used to full advantage.
Polk has one obvious answer. This isn't the same batting order that began the season, and even when some names are the same the bodies aren't. The slide/slump began about the time Dogs started getting hurt, and after some of these kept trying to play through the pains unsuccessfully the lineup had to change. Often.
"You can't really fault anyone," said Hunter, "it's just one of those things that happens."
"It's like we've got new guys out there every game," said Jones. "Which isn't a big deal because we practied all fall with them, but you like to have some kind of order in the lineup. It's tough, but there are no excuses and each of us has to carry our own load and get through it."
Polk isn't making excuses, exactly, but… "If (rightfielder) Andy Rice was back and (third baseman) Michael Rutledge 100% we could probably score one, two, three more runs and it (pitching inconsistency) is not a factor."
Rice was actually the first injury, with what was later found to be a labrum tear suffered in the Tennessee series. A week later Jones developed tendinits in his right wrist. Rutledge now has a hurting left hand. He could have played over the weekend if absolutely necessary, though the cortisone shot produced puffieness in the left hand. "He couldn't even move his thumb," Polk said. "But long-term it will help, it's just one of those bruises hitters get, all you need is to get jammed one time."
Rice can field and throw with no problems now; swinging a bat all the way through is another issue. At least Jones is nearing 100% again. "I had to change my whole swing pretty much," he said. "My wrist is definitely not as strong as it was so I actually dropped down to a 33-bat from a 34 because I could handle it better. And sitting out that week didn't help my timing. It's starting to feel better so it shouldn't be an issue."
"But Rutledge hasn't swung the bat in a game in over a week," Polk said. "It's like Rice, I'd like to get him back in there but he hasn't hit. And he's a key guy." In the interim either lefthanded hitter Mitch Moreland or righty Matt Richardson have started in rightfield, and while DH LaNinfa (who has a tender hamstring himself) is able to hit against any pitcher this does limit the pinch-hitting matchup options, as well as Moreland's chances to throw the ball.
"If Rice was healthy Moreland would be pretty much just a pitcher, that's a no-brainer," Polk said. "I guarantee if Rice was healthy Moreland would have a heck of a lot more innings under his belt."
State has a lot of innings to pitch, and bat, through in this week's five road games. Once into May the schedule eases up a bit with only two remaining midweek games, which means more arms are available for weekends against Florida, at Kentucky, and Mississippi. And as batters get healthy, or healthier, Polk is now optimistic. "I think we're going to be alright offensively. My gosh, look at South Carolina, they have one of the better ERAs in the league and just get annihilated. It's a strange game and things happen."
Of course the Gamecocks were thrashed three times by Kentucky at Lexington; they're a different club at home, and one State has not played the last two years. So scouting USC is going to be an all-week job. "It's kind of a mystery team to us," Polk admits.
But there is no mystery to State's situation. Ironically, these Bulldogs are almost exactly where the 2005 team was after forty games. They are one win better overall at 29-11, and actually one loss worse compared to last year's 9-8 SEC mark after six league series. So, yes, they've been here before. And if seventh place in the ‘Hoover' standings isn't where they planned to be, senior Dogs can find some dugout humor in the situation. "Maybe we're trying to get that seventh-seed so we can win the (SEC) Tournament again!" quipped Jones.
More seriously, though, the first baseman said "We should know how to handle things. At the beginning of the year we said this was a veteran ball club so we should know how to handle it a lot better. It's tough right now but as it goes on we should be able to get out of it."
OVERALL SEC STANDINGS:
3.South Carolina 11-7
4.Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Mississippi 10-8
7.Mississippi State 8-9
11.Florida, LSU 6-12