Now the emphasis shifts as does the locale. The Bulldogs are looking to end a miserable month, spent mostly on the road, with something to give them May momentum. Or as Coach Ron Polk put it, "We just have to turn it around. And it has to start Friday at South Carolina."
State would love to turn back the calendar and play April over. They are 8-11 for the month, and more importantly just 4-8 for four SEC series (counting the March 31 loss at Alabama) in this span. That has dropped the Dogs to 8-9 in league play for the season, which stands State fourth in the Western Division and seventh in the ‘race to Hoover.' A bad month, indeed, and made all the rougher because MSU played just six times on the home field…all league games.
"The road (SEC) record has not been good and we have to understand that," Polk said. "Now it's time to move ahead, play three games and get back home."
Playing three games at Sarge Frye Field is no easy proposition even in good years, of course. And State catches the Gamecocks in a foul mood themselves after a three-game sweeping at Kentucky. So, South Carolina sees this home series as their chance to get back in front of the East pack and position themselves to host post-season play.
The Bulldogs? They are trying to break out of a sickening slide that has dropped them perilously low on the Hoover ladder and in-turn in the post-season pecking order. It's a radically different situation than how State ended March. But as Polk says, April was an entirely different proposition all around.
"We've had a lot of road games, tough competition, a few injuries," he said. "The kids are down a little bit and we've got a few guys pressing, that's the reason we're under .500 since we started off 18-0. But we still have plenty of the season left. And South Carolina is a good challenge." As if the Bulldogs needed more challenges.
What Polk now thinks is needed is some change, particularly in pitching plans for this challenging weekend. Thursday he confirmed his Tuesday and Wednesday comments, saying freshman Aaron Weatherford will get the ball first Friday at USC. It's not just the rookie's first SEC start, it is his first college start period. Weatherford has thrown in relief only so far, 27 innings in 14 games—most recently the ninth inning Tuesday at USM. His stats have been exceptional to say the least, as he's averaged less than a hit per-inning and boasts a strikeout-walk ratio of 10-to-1. He's also a perfect 4-0 in decisions with a relief win at Auburn.
Polk thought he would be matching a freshman with a freshman Friday, but Thursday South Carolina announced junior righty Wynn Pelzer will start the series-opener. It won't change MSU's plan as Polk thinks Weatherford is ready for the responsibility now. "Aaron has been really good. If I had to second-guess myself about anything, we'd have done this earlier."
‘This' is more than changing game-one starters, though. "What we're thinking about is taking the bullpen and making them starters, and the starters become bullpen guys," Polk said. "That's a pretty dramatic thing to do."
And likely inevitable, though Polk is still pondering any other dramatic differences. Depending on how game-one goes, he said "more than likely" usual Friday starter Brooks Dunn would open the Saturday game, while usual game-two starter Josh Johnson was the tentative call for Sunday. The coach was a lot less certain-sounding about that latter item, though. Polk tossed out the names of Mitch Moreland, Chad Crosswhite, and Justin Pigott as also being considered to start Sunday. "A lot depends on what we do the first two games," he noted, since all three might well be working in the preceeding games if the starters can't keep games under control.
Polk did say that freshman Matt Lea would not make the trip to USC. The righthander, who has been outstanding in midweek starts, was being considered for a weekend opening job just when he developed a tight shoulder April 18 at Memphis. He has not pitched live since and in Wednesday bullpen work the shoulder was still stiff.
The official SEC pitching schedule released today showed ‘TBA' for the second and third games, something Polk rarely does. "But sometimes you have to. We have an array of pitchers we can do. That's one of our strengths, the depth is pretty good and our bullpen numbers have been outstanding. But we haven't been able the last several games to use the bullpen much in close situations." Because, the Bulldogs haven't kept games in control to that point. Both times at USM, they scored first; both times the one- and two-run leads vanished in one inning as starting pitchers Dunn and Johnson gave up multiple runs.
The irony was those two weekend arms opened midweek games precisely to try to keep games in check. So, Polk is giving the bullpen men their chance to start things off and show what they can do. Regardless, though, "We've got to throw strikes. We used to be the big strike-throwers." Now State starting pitching is either giving away walks, giving up hits, or both. South Carolina is not one of the league's more potent offenses, but the Bulldogs have to regard every opposing run allowed as a mortal sin.
Of course the moundsmen would welcome more support. Or perhaps more timely support. State has scored a reasonable quota of runs since their lone shutout of the season on March 11. Then again this offense is prone to having one really big day at the dish, with two or three less productive outings. And as a left-on-base average of over 9.0 reminds, Bulldog batters haven't taken full advantage of their ability to put men on bags.
Such as the Wednesday loss. "We had some opportunities the middle part of the ball game," Polk noted. "But we left 11 guys on base and we've got to knock them in." Which would be of immeasurable aid to the pitching, giving them more than just a run or two worth of margin. Certainly this is not an offense able to put together big comebacks, the coach said. "Playing from behind there's not much you can do but hope to get a key hit with guys on base."
There were hints of better batting during the week, as the Dogs did make more consistent contact and tallied double-digit hits in both losses. Even the fly balls weren't routine floaters but more often real drives. With just a bit more effort, or maybe confidence, in those swings, and suddenly State's offense is getting those key hits and driving guys in. Or that's the hope.
Polk also hopes to have a healthier lineup for the seventh SEC weekend. Third baseman Michael Rutledge, who has missed the last two weeks with a hurt left thumb, is on the travel roster and should be able to participate at SC. How much? "Hopefully we get Rutledge an opportunity to maybe play one game this weekend," Polk said. "We'd like to get Edward Easley back behind the plate." Easley, the usual starting catcher, has played almost entirely on the corner lately. And while his defense has been better than Rutledge's, it has come at the cost of reliable backstopping.
Joseph McCaskill and Wynn Diggs have filled in for Easley behind the plate and played well enough most of the time, though neither is as effective against runners as Easley. Besides, there is just the comfort factor for pitchers having the top mitt-man receiving the ball, especially now that the rotation is undergoing a transition.
In the field, first baseman Brad Jones is as far recovered from his right wrist tendinitis as he will be without a month of rest. His glove at that corner has been welcome again, and now the senior is getting back into his old form at the bat. "Brad is starting to swing better," Polk said, "he's staying back better." But rightfielder Andy Rice is in a tougher situation with his shoulder injury, which only surgery will fully fix. It doesn't affect his catching and throwing, though the soph simply dropped a routine fly ball Tuesday night that opened the door to a seven-run inning for USM. Where it bothers Rice is at-bat, as there is no way to avoid the physical and mental effects as he takes a hack.
"Andy Rice is the one you were counting on (in an RBI slot), and it's tough," Polk said. "There is a tear in that labrum and it makes it tough to swing." Rice is still able to sub-in late for defense, with either LH Mitch Moreland or RH Matt Richardson starting in rightfield depending on the pitching matchup.
As the record shows—State is 11-13 since getting off to that record-setting start of 18-straight wins—the Bulldogs have come out on the wrong side of too many matchups. In every aspect April has been an agonizing stretch. And a tiring one, too. Polk only this week realized that from the LSU series in late March to this weekend's trip to South Carolina, the Bulldogs will have played 20 of 28 games away from home. "I didn't realize that," he said. "We're paying the price for a lot of home games early, and at the end."
Indeed, of the 11 scheduled May games eight are at Dudy Noble Field. And, "Our home record is as good as we've had since I've been here." But away from home State has just struggled, and as a result gone from a top-ranked club to one that must seriously worry about what it will take to secure their post-season position. "Good teams have to find a way to win on the road, be at least .500. We haven't been able to do that," Polk said.
"I'm disappointed we haven't done a better job, but the guys are competing. They're playing hard, the best they can. But the road is tough, the schedule got a lot tougher after those first 18 ball games. I understand what happened." The key to the coach is getting his players to both understand what went wrong and put it in the past; to not drag those losses into upcoming contests. "This is a mental game," Polk said, "it's endurance, a run to the finish in the toughest league in the country.
"The kids understand where we're at. In fact they try too hard when things aren't going good, they start thinking too much. You can't think and hit at the same time, sometimes you can't think and pitch at the same time." So essentially State's coaching staff is telling the team to quit thinking so much and just play the game as they are capable of. And the best way to put a bad month behind is to close it out with some much-needed SEC success.
"We'll compete," said Polk, "hopefully we can come out with two wins."