So the Diamond Dogs and their coach will do as best they can to stay focused on the ball and on their business as Mississippi State visits Kentucky for a weekend SEC series. A crucial one for both, too. The host Wildcats are playing to defend their slender and surprising lead in the overall conference standings. The Bulldogs? They are battling to improve their league status if possible, and defend a fragile grasp on SEC-eighth place if necessary.
Which means both ballclubs will have one ear turned to the P.A. for updates, which the coaches don't mind as long as they keep all eyes-forward. "That's part of the game," Polk said. "You see how the guys in front of you and the guys in back are doing. That's the fun of it, the competition."
Competitions in Lexington are at (CT) 5:30, 6:00, and noon, with the Friday and Saturday contests changed for regional telecasts on Fox Sports Net affiliates.
With two weekends left on the conference schedule the stakes and pressures are quite different for the competing clubs. Kentucky is not just playing for a SEC regular-season championship; the Wildcats (16-8) are swinging for their first-ever league title. In fact Kentucky is the only league member that has never won a SEC baseball crown, and their lone Division pennant was back in 1976. Yet in his third year in Lexington former Bulldog outfielder and Polk player John Cohen has his team on top of the standings after eight series, if by a very slender margin with six SEC games still to play.
"They were 7-7 at one time in the SEC," Polk said. "Now they just seem to be putting things together."
For their part the Bulldogs are at the other end of the SEC Tournament ladder with a 11-12 mark. They are in the eighth and last slot to make the field for Hoover, only one ‘loss-ahead' of resurgent LSU. Mississippi State also has plenty of current-company with several programs scrambling to get into the top-eight and others trying to battle them back. While the past two seasons have shown that making the SEC tourney is not a prerequisite for earning a NCAA regional bid, playing at Hoover all but guarantees a postseason berth. Thus the frantic competition here in mid-May.
"Everybody wants to get into the SEC Tournament, everybody knows what they've got to do," said Polk, adding that while all wins and losses count the same at the end…here at that end they just appear bigger. "Nothing changes now, the first weekend is as important as the last. But it looks a little different now because you know where you're at with two weekends to go."
The Bulldogs have to go on the road this weekend, and to a tough place to play. The home team's offense presents some interesting—or as Polk put it, "Amazing"—challenges, and State players are impressed by the scouting report. "Kentucky leads the SEC in home runs, and leads the league in walks," noted third baseman Edward Easley. "We're going to have to pitch well and try to make them hit the ball on the ground because they have a small park."
Polk said Thursday morning there was nothing new to report about State's pitching plans for this weekend, which remain incomplete. Senior lefthander Brooks Dunn (8-4, 4.12) will open again on Friday evening; and sophomore lefty Justin Pigott (5-0, 0.94) will make his third career start in the Saturday contest. "And Sunday it's T.B.A. right now," Polk said.
"We just have to see how we match up with Kentucky and who we might have to use in relief…and hope we don't need anybody. But we do have various people we can call on." Such as righthanders Chad Crosswhite, Aaron Weatherford, and Josh Johnson; or possibly lefthanded reliever Mitch Moreland who has been otherwise occupied the last month as the starting rightfielder. For that matter all these arms are on-call in relief every day of the weekend. What State coaches naturally would hope is that Dunn and Pigott repeat their complete-game performances of last weekend and keep the bullpen roster intact for Sunday.
More realistically? Pitching Coach Russ McNickle thinks 18 outs from the starters is a good goal considering both the opposing batters and the setting. Kentucky's ballpark might not quite play the ‘smallest' of any in the SEC, but it is still a very friendly venue for hitters in general and sluggers in particular. Certainly the home team has benefitted from reachable fences, rightfield most of all, to pile up those longballs.
Yet that stat belies the fact that Kentucky's offense can't be explained entirely by numbers. Yes, the Wildcats will swing big and as a result they also lead the league in striking out. The team average is, well, average; in fact UK is getting out-hit for the season. But not out-slugged, Polk points out. "They're not giving up any home runs," he said. "They lead the league in assists so they're getting a lot of ground balls."
So how are the Kats doing it? "It just seems they've been able to generate a little home run offense. Their hitting in the league is nothing extravagant, but timely hitting is a factor. If a guys gets on base via a walk it's a chance for a two-run homer." Which only means every Bulldog hurler has to approach each offering knowing it could change the game…for better or worse.
"You have to pitch them a little different, try to stay down in the zone and change speeds," Polk said. "You can't be too fastball/slider oriented. You have to pitch different there and pound the strike zone." Kentucky's staffmen have taken that approach with good results in their own park. State expects to see a couple of lefties the first two games in freshman Aaron Tennyson (4-2, 3.91) and senior Craig Snipp (4-3, 3.39), with righthanded soph Greg Drombrowski (8-1, 2.55) third in the rotation.
Bulldog batters have their own challenges this weekend. They will certainly be tempted by those reachable walls, particularly if the wind is again blowing to right and State—as expected—tilts the order with five left-side swingers. And State has clearly been better hitting balls out on the road this year. Of the 46 home runs 31 have been slugged at opponent's yards. And imbalance against league pitching is even greater. Bulldogs have hit 23 homers in SEC action, just five at home.
At the same time Polk will stress keeping the same approach at the plate that gets runners on bases. If a drive leaves the yard, fine, but the goal is to hit for average and move men around. And after two months of struggling to perform that second, scoring part of the equation, the Bulldogs have quietly become more efficient in plating teammates. Put another way, not as many men are being left-on-bases now while the on-base average has remained steady at .391.
Even setting aside the 21-run outburst against Mississippi Valley State, the Bulldogs have been better offensively with 39 runs in their last six SEC games. Just as importantly, they are feeling good about themselves again. "I think we're starting to get our ‘swagger' back, like we had the first part of the season," said Easley, who is hitting .348 now. That's third on the State stat sheet behind shortstop Thomas Berkery's .394 average and the .362 for second baseman Jeffrey Rea. The team as a whole is hitting .305.
The respective stakes may be different but the pressure is equally high for both ballclubs this weekend. And whatever else is announced at Hagan Stadium all that matters is how the Dogs and Kats play out the game. So Polk sees no need for blinders or earplugs, because the players know the score.
"Our guys know they have to perform well at Kentucky and when they play Ole Miss at home."
SEC Tournament Standings
1. Kentucky 16-8 (.667) vs. MSU
2. Alabama 15-9 (.625) vs. UF
3.Arkansas 14-10 (.583) @ UM
4.Mississippi 13-11 (.542) vs. ARK
5.Georgia 13-11 (.542) @ AUB
6.South Carolina 13-11 (.542) vs. TENN
7.Vanderbilt 12-12 (.500) @ LSU
8.Mississippi State 11-12 (.478) @ UK
9.LSU 11-13 (.458) vs. VAN
10.Auburn 9-15 (.375) vs. GA
11.Tennessee 9-14 (.391) @ S.C.
12.Florida 7-17 (.292) @ ALA
Tiebreaks: UM is 4-2 vs. S.C. and GA; Georgia is 3-3, S.C. 2-4