Diamond Dogs Rest, Ready For SEC Stretch Run

And on Wednesday, the Diamond Dogs rested.

Well, not entirely. There was the morning matter of attending classes here in the last full week of the spring semester. Attendant to that was ongoing preparations for upcoming final exams. Then there were the players making trips to the training room for various aches and pains. And of course a goodly portion of the roster will still stop by the park anyway, if only to stay in some sort of season routine.

So it's more accurate to say that for one May day Mississippi State players were un-burdened with playing a game or having a full practice. And if they weren't entirely resting, the Bulldogs were thankful for the chance to relax a bit.

"About this time it's good you can get an off-day here and there, just rejuvenate you," said senior outfielder Jeff Butts.

These Bulldogs could use some May rejuvenating, bodies and spirits alike. Both have been worn and in a few cases torn by a grueling April that is thankfully now over and hopefully soon forgotten. And State was able to get the last month of the regular season off to a much better start by thrashing Mississippi Valley State 21-2 Tuesday afternoon. Afterwards the whole roster was looking just a bit revived by the win, the change of calendar page, and change of venue.

"It's just nice to not be traveling!" outfielder Matt Richardson said. "And school is almost over, too, that's good!"

There hasn't been a lot of good things happening to or for Mississippi State lately, certainly not in April. For the month the Bulldogs went just 9-of-22, a fine batting average but a lousy winning percentage, and they ended April with just one win in the last six games. Those results leave MSU at 31-15 after Tuesday's rout of the visiting Delta Devils.

It's been a long, hard, and humbling fall for a team that entered April atop some national polls. "It was a bad month," said Butts. "Everybody will admit to that. But it's a new month and every day is a new day. You play a lot of games and we're looking forward to getting back at home a little. And a new month definitely."

The Dogs definitely need a much better May scoresheet, having gone from first in the SEC's Western Division to eighth in the overall league standings and at 9-11 clinging to the last slot in the SEC Tournament field. With three series, nine games, left on the schedule State has no margin left for error or much for more losses if they are to defend their 2005 tourney title in Hoover. The stretch run starts this weekend as Florida visits Dudy Noble Field.

The Gators have their own May issues. The 2005 league champions and College World Series runners-up are a startling 24-23 overall and last in the league at 6-15. Not that the Bulldogs are making any assumptions about this matchup. "I think they're a lot like us," Richardson said. "They were ranked real high at the beginning. But everybody knows they're dangerous and have as good a chance as anybody to win the SEC Tournament and go pretty far. You can't take anyone for granted."

Especially not a team that is both dangerous and desperate. "My gosh, they've got seven of nine guys back," Polk said of Coach Pat McMahon's club. "It's amazing, Florida and Tennessee were in the College World Series last year and they're last on their side. That can't happen in the ACC, in the SEC you can have a good program in last place." And speaking of the rival conference, Polk notes that Florida was able to sweep Miami early this season.

Of course few are more familiar with State, or State's staff, as McMahon, the longtime aide to Polk at MSU head coach from 1998-2001 before taking the Gator job. Three members of the current Bulldog roster were signed his last season, fifth-year seniors SS Thomas Berkery, 1B Brad Jones, and RHP Brett Cleveland.

That trio, as well as other veterans, recall how State was able to just slip into the 2005 SEC tourney with a 13-16 league record. It was a March rain-out that made the difference, barely tipping the win-loss percentage in MSU's favor on the last day of the schedule. This squad would rather not cut things so close. And the twist is that while their 9-11 record barely has them in the Hoover field, the league race is still so close even State is in mathematical contention to finish first in the Division. Not that they are talking so optimistically, but the point remains that nothing is set in the league yet. In fact, officially no SEC team has yet clinched a Hoover berth either.

"That's just the SEC for you," said Richardson. "Any one can win any given day, you have no gimmes for sure."

The Bulldogs thought they had given themselves a big one Sunday at South Carolina, taking a 7-4 lead in the top of the 11th inning. Two home runs and five RBI later they were leaving with a fifth-straight lost series split. It was an all-too-typical end to an agonizing April, yet somehow State came away feeling very differently than after the previous four weekends. "You had to be at South Carolina to understand how well we played, and to lose it on a pop-fly…" Polk said. "It was a tough one to take."

And still, the coach added, "Kids bounce back sometimes better than coaches do. Yeah, they're resilient. I think they'll bounce back good."

Pounding out 20 hits for 21 runs against Mississippi Valley State looked like a strong rebound. Yes, victory was entirely expected as State has never lost to Valley. At the same time the Bulldogs weren't just taking out frustrations Tuesday. They were carrying-over some of their successful aspects from the weekend. "Maybe it's a spark to get us going," Richardson said. "I mean, we hit the ball well this weekend at South Carolina, it was just bad luck on Sunday in extra innings. We just want to put the past behind us and get going. We lost two out of three but I felt it was a good weekend. The other weekends were weren't in a lot of games but we were in all three and hit the ball real well."

Well enough to keep the team's season-average just a point over .300. And there was more of the ‘timely' hitting State missed most of April, or for that matter even in March when things bounced the right way for the Bulldogs. It didn't get a lot of mention last week but after five games in cozy parks (Hattiesburg and Columbia, S.C.) State now has 45 home runs for the season and has powered by the 2005 total of 34 longballs in 64 games. And perhaps the muscle shown on the road was brought back as Butts, C/3B Edward Easley, and 3B Michael Rutledge all hit homers out of Dudy Noble Field Tuesday. Yes, it was against SWAC pitching, and the breeze was blowing out. Still it was another sign of offensive progress by a lineup with only 11 homers in the previous 23 home games.

"It was good to see our offense working, people kind of getting in some grooves," Butts said. For the weekend it will be even better if the pitching staff gets back into their early-season groove…even though several arms are now throwing on different tracks. For the USC series State made the first change in rotation assignments since league play began. Rookie RH Aaron Weatherford got his first college start and in the series-opening game, while six-Friday starter LH Brooks Dunn waited for a Saturday turn. And on Sunday LH Justin Pigott, having thrown relief 25 times in two seasons, also got to throw a first pitch.

Both the new starters had their struggles and didn't last, yet Polk sounded fairly confident the same trio should be starting another weekend. He just couldn't say quite yet who would throw which day. "I'm sure Dunn will be a factor," Polk said, "Weatherford, and Pigott. We'll make good decisions."

As the late-season pressures increase, the schedule actually slows down. State has only one remaining non-SEC game, next Tuesday evening against Tennessee-Martin. Otherwise it is all-conference, all the time from now through, hopefully, Hoover. Polk is pleased with a 21-4 mark against non-league foes, though he still regrets a loss at Louisiana Tech just as much as Sunday's defeat at South Carolina. The coach really hopes those games don't come back to haunt the Dogs come NCAA selection day.

"The gist of the thing is two games that we just gave away, that makes us 33-13. The margin between being praised and un-praised is two ball games, and 33-13 puts us right with everybody else in the league. And I think our schedule matches up with anybody, non-conference and conference." True, but it is the record that will determine if the Dogs gets to play at the Met in May. A SEC tourney berth, combined with the schedule's strength, would then essentially promise State a post-season berth, though the 2004 Dogs did receive a bid without playing at Hoover.

They'd just rather not take the chance this year. Not after all the bad hops and worse breaks of the past month. "I mean, this whole season has been up-and-down," Richardson said. "With the hot start, then we fall off and lose a few one-run games where we could have won all of them. We knew in SEC play it was going to be tough.

"I think we're still together as a team and I think we'll be successful. It's going to take everyone, more than just the nine starters. We haven't cracked and I think we're going to be successful."

Old Dog Butts, a fourth-year senior, has ridden out his share of ups-and-downs as a Diamond Dog. April was no fun, he agrees, but he and State have been there before and still enjoyed some big days in May. He thinks the slower schedule is coming at the right time. "Because it's a grind, especially when you struggle a little bit and the team's not winning. It's not easy. But it's in the past. You have to set the tempo yourself and not get too excited or too frustrated."

With the semester winding down Polk will be trimming the roster to 30 players. All the redshirted players--RHP Jared Koon, IF Brandon Turner, C Ryan Duffy, RHP Ricky Bowen, IF Russ Sneed, OF Nick Hardy, 1B Cade Hoggard, RHP Drew Hollinghead, and SS Blake McAdams—will be released after finals, as will a number of reserves who have made limited appearances during the regular season. Only 25 designated players can play any weekend and all must be declared in-advance, but Polk likes to keep five or so extras around for the following week in case one of the 25 dress-outs gets hurt, ill, or suspended.

Polk expects to have the regular roster available this weekend. RHP Matt Lea has taken ten days off to settle some shoulder tightness; OF Andy Rice is still somewhat limited by the right (non throwing) shoulder muscle tear, though he crushed a home run at USC; Jones will play out the year with a tender right wrist; DH Brian LaNinfa can't run hard with a hamstring pull but will still swing; and Rutledge will play with the hurting thumb. "But at least we've got them back," Polk said. And, hopefully, relaxed and ready for a crucial weekend at home.

"We'll give them Wednesday off, practice Thursday and get ready for the Gators."

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