That's an accurate assessment. Mississippi State (34-19, 11-15 SEC) hosts Ole Miss (34-19, 15-12 SEC) to wrap up the 2006 regular season. The three games, moved up one day as are all SEC series this week, will be at 6:30 on both Thursday and Friday and 2:00 Saturday. By the last evening (Sunday will not be used for an extra ‘weather day' according to SEC officials) the Bulldogs will know if they are to get a chance to defend their 2005 SEC Tournament title, or if they will spend next week playing the NCAA waiting game.
It's the same situation as in 2004 and '05. This doesn't make things any easier for State's veterans. In fact, "This has probably got to be our toughest shot," said shortstop Thomas Berkery, "being that we've got to either sweep or take two-of-three for sure. But it's another challenge and we have to get after it."
The obvious challenge is to pass Louisiana State (12-15 SEC), which means winning one more game than the Tigers do in their series at Florida; while also matching Tennessee win-for-win. This combination of events would steal the eighth and final slot in next week's conference classic at the Hoover-Met. There are other scenarios that would work but this is the one the Bulldogs understand best.
"We've got to do one better than LSU," Berkery said. "Basically that's what it comes down to. We're going to try to win all three regardless."
The 2004 Bulldogs did do just that, sweeping at Alabama. As things played out around the league it still wasn't enough to get them to Hoover, but those wins did secure State a NCAA Tournament bid. Last May the Dogs ‘backed in' to the SEC tourney despite losing two-of-three at home to LSU, qualifying on percentage points and securing a seventh-seed. Given the opportunity, that team swept through four games in Hoover to earn the tournament trophy.
So yes, they've been here before and should be ready for the pressure. "I think it does prepare you," said Rea, a starter on both those teams. "If you do win the series or sweep or whatever that's huge, to go into the SEC Tournament with that kind of momentum. But if you lose that's it."
And even if they win out these Dogs still require some aid from the Gators. "We'd like to not be in that situation, but we are," said Coach Ron Polk. "And scoreboard watching will happen. But you've got to play for the moment, we've just got to take care of business. I don't tell the players they're not allowed to look at the scoreboard!"
Of course this week's matchup might help keep MSU focus on the business at hand. The Rebels are already locked into the SECT field but arrive at Dudy Noble Field with other incentives. They still have an outside shot at winning the Western Division should leader Alabama collapse. Mississippi is also very much in contention to host a first-round NCAA regional if they finish a strong second in the West and show up well in Hoover. And then there is the natural rivalry aspect that applies any season, any situation.
A rivalry that the Rebels have taken charge of lately, winning eight of ten meetings since 2004. They have also won the last five Mayor's Trophy meetings, which don't count in league standings but matter much in the minds of both fan bases, and scored a 1-0 victory back in April's game. The Diamond Dogs salvaged a measure of pride by beating Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament championship game last May, but it was still just one game.
"The last couple of years they've been really good and we didn't play well when we played them," Berkery said. "You have to tip your hat to them, but we got them in the Tournament. So we're confident we can come out with a couple of wins this weekend. They did beat us in the Mayor's Cup but it was 1-0 on a home run. So we'll see."
The least that State faithful hope to see is one really good weekend to conclude a frustrating regular season. Or second-half of the season. After opening with a school-record tear of 18-straight wins, the Bulldogs have since gone 16-19 and fallen from the top of national polls (the very top of one) to unranked and in danger of missing out on the postseason entirely. "A roller-coaster, really," Rea calls the campaign. "Because we were on top of the world at one time, we couldn't lose. We had confidence we were going to get it done." Polk has tried to keep the confidence alive during the long, struggling stretch. Even now he points to the overall record and the fine line between a good season and a threatened one.
"I keep telling people we're just three games from 33-16 and not putting pressure on anybody," the coach said. "But we're not there." Instead State is in a must-win situation and unable to control its tournament fate, at least SEC-wise. Though many observers now believe that it is unlikely more than eight league teams, those making it to Hoover, will receive NCAA bids.
"It puts a little extra pressure on it," Berkery said. "But we just try to treat it like another weekend and do what we have to do. We've been talking about it a good bit, on the plane and today in pregame huddle. It's one of those things that you have to focus on before the game, then after that just go out and play. That's what it comes down to, getting your Ws."
Polk has a point, that with another W or two in the last three weekends they would not be in such straits. Had the Dogs hung on to an extra-inning lead Sunday at South Carolina or avoided a sweeping at Kentucky they would be playing the last weekend to hold on to a Hoover slot, not trying to steal it away from another. To their credit these players never took that #1 March ranking too seriously, and events have since proved that they fattened their early record on lackluster opposition. SEC competition was another matter entirely; and when a few Dogs were injured at the start of a road-dominated stretch in the schedule it was more than the team could handle.
Their recent frustrations have been different, though. "There's been some times in the season, South Carolina is a good example, where we were getting our momentum back, catching a second wind," Rea said. Only to have the wind turn, or more likely blow an opponent's routine fly balls over the fence for home runs. And still these players insist they can make it happen here at the end, when it counts.
"It's all confidence," Rea said. "And we have to get a couple of breaks, like we did (Tuesday) night with a couple of bloop hits." He referred to a 8-6 win over lowly Tennessee-Martin when the Dogs twice had to break ties to avoid a RPI-killing loss. That sort of showing did little to encourage observers about the team's state of mind, but players have the luxury of their own viewpoint.
Polk admits the last seven weeks have taken a toll on everyone involved, as nothing has gone as figured. "It's been interesting. We've always been a great second-half team and this is the first year in a long time we haven't. And that generally wears on you more. I'd rather have a good second half because it gives you a good taste towards the end." Instead State is trying to keep this weekend from ending the whole season, and the past two years the Dogs did it…the hard way.
"The guys that have been around are pretty much used to that, we've always had peaks and valleys and picked it up at the end of the year," Berkery said. "Hopefully we continue with that trend." Rea would certainly like to continue the trend of last May when the Dogs came alive once in tourney-time and won it all at Hoover.
"Hey, if it does work out I think at any time we could snap! and just be unstoppable. It's the same team from last year. And that park is fit to us. If we're the eighth seed Kentucky will be the one and hey, we look forward to playing them in that place!" Certainly the Bulldogs would love another shot at the Wildcats in a more spacious park where routine fly balls are, well, routine, not homers. The Met definitely should play to State's stronger points of pitching depth, batting for average, and defense.
Admittedly that latter aspect has been an unexpected problem of late. Fielding errors might have been more decisive in two losses at Kentucky than home-team slugging, in fact. And the Dogs committed three errors against Tennessee-Martin, two by Berkery. Yet the veterans maintain faith in their gloves and themselves if given another chance.
"Errors are going to happen," Rea said, "and Coach Polk tells us you're going to get a bad hop every now and then. Our pitchers tell us it's part of the game, Brooks Dunn and the older guys being veterans they stick with you and don't get ticked-off."
Lefty Dunn—who started the SEC Tourney title game against the Rebels—will again be on the mound for Thursday's first pitch, and fellow southpaw Justin Pigott is scheduled for Friday. For game-three it's wait-and-see, Polk said, just like last weekend. Righthander Chad Crosswhite ended up starting Sunday at Lexington, but he is also a prime reliever and it will do no good to hold him back for a third game if it costs State a loss in the first two contests.
State had hoped to be able to put Matt Lea on the mound this weekend, after the freshman righthander allowed just the one run in eight innings against the Rebels back in April. A week later though Lea had to leave a game at Memphis with a tightening arm, and he hasn't thrown in a game since. He has practiced, as he did Monday, but "he had some pain," Polk reported. "The doctors don't think it's a tear. It's been a loss to us, he was getting to the point he could help us (on weekends)." So Lea's own status is T.B.A. as well. Otherwise the rest of the usual arms are available, including closer Brett Cleveland who tossed 27 pitches to finish Tuesday's win. "That won't affect him," Polk said.
Rightfielder Andy Rice played Tuesday and Polk said the junior, who has a slight tear in his right (non throwing) shoulder suffered in March, will play and probably start games this weekend. As will senior first baseman Brad Jones who took the night off. His tendinitis in the right wrist won't entirely heal until summer. "They still aren't full-speed," said Polk, but both will play as best they can.
It is the last home appearance for Jones, Berkery, Dunn, and other State seniors. They just hope it is not their final games as Diamond Dogs. Polk is still optimistic about NCAA chances even if State doesn't make it to Hoover, and says this bad season second-half unfairly overshadows the entire campaign. Other than Kentucky with 41 wins, State is only two wins behind the next-best SEC counterpart. And as for the long fall from a top-ranking, the Dogs aren't alone. "There were three schools in this conference that were #1-ranked," he noted. Florida and South Carolina were also on top of the polls this year; the Gators have been eliminated from Hoover and the Gamecocks still have to win their way in.
"The media makes it sound like this is the worst season we've ever had," Polk said. "There were three games we basically should have won." He referred to a home rainout with Tennessee; a still-inexplicable, last-inning collapse at Louisiana Tech; and the extra-inning loss at South Carolina on two wind-aided home runs. "We've had a hard time winning the close ball games. It's not like we're down 25 games, we're two or three away form having a good season." The point remains though that State still lost those games, along with enough others in the league to leave them outside the Hoover eightsome with one weekend to catch up.
And, to hope for some other necessary help. But that's secondary to the task at hand. "We can watch the scoreboard a little bit and see how LSU does," Rea said. "But we know it's up to us."