"I think this is a tournament team," senior outfielder Jeff Butts said. "Hopefully they'll realize that and give us a shot."
‘They' being the NCAA's committee in charge of selecting, seeding, and siting for their national championship tournament. That group is already assembling in Indianapolis, including Baseball Committee chairman and Mississippi State athletics director Larry Templeton, to spend the week watching scores, tallying results, and settling the field of 64. The committee will announce first-round regional sites and eight national seeds on Sunday, then fill in the blanks Monday.
Which means the Bulldogs will be listening in varying degrees of optimism. "That's all you can hope for," senior shortstop Thomas Berkery said, "that somebody gives us a shot."
Mississippi State (35-21, 12-17 SEC) would not have to wait and hope for committee charity if they had taken care of their own regular-season business. The Bulldogs fell a half-game and percentage points short of returning to Hoover to defend their 2005 SEC Tournament championship. They ended the schedule by losing two-of-three to visiting Mississippi, when with one more win the Dogs would have slipped in as the eighth seed. LSU, which lost two of three at Florida, got that final slot.
"We just came up a little bit short," Butts said of the weekend and SEC season alike. "Hopefully it's not over. If it is, it was a good run."
Just not good enough to get back to Hoover, which would not only have kept the Bulldogs busy this week. It would, probably, have secured a NCAA bid. ‘Probably' because there are a couple of teams in this SEC classic who are not entirely confident of their own bids due to modest records and RPIs. Still playing this week is a big boost to the post-season resume that the Bulldogs won't have. Thus the post-series frustrations.
"Our guys battled, we played hard," Coach Ron Polk said. "And with the final score in Gainesville it gets you a little upset."
Of course players and coaches could only be upset with themselves because with LSU losing twice to a Gator team that knew it was out of SEC contention the table was set. The Dogs did get it done in game-two and by a 11-1 margin. But they lost 6-5 in ten innings in game-one, and after falling behind 13-5 Saturday came up short 13-11. Winning either of those would have done the trick and State certainly had the chances.
In Thursday's opener the Bulldogs rallied from 5-1 to tie it up in the ninth inning with the winning run 90 feet from home. He didn't score while a Rebel did in the tenth. For that matter with just a bit of home-field breeze State would have gone in front in the eighth. Instead Edward Easley's deep fly-ball died on the warning track, just as did a drive by Brian LaNinfa in the bottom of Saturday's ninth which, if pulled a degree or two, would have cleared the fence to even things up.
It didn't, making the LSU-Florida final meaningless to all concerned and handing the Dogs an unwanted open week. Polk turned the team loose after a Sunday afternoon meeting. "I'll give them time off and let them watch the selection show, and if we are picked we'll bring ‘em back in a heartbeat and go on to the next challenge."
Coach and several veteran Dogs have been through this process before. Two years ago State also missed the SEC Tourney by percentage points and spent an anxious week awaiting NCAA word. That team did receive a bid, in the process making the SEC the first conference ever to put nine teams in the national tournament. In 2005 it was Auburn getting the ninth SEC bid, while back in 2003 Florida set the precedent by earning a NCAA berth while not playing in the conference event. That year eight SEC teams got bids.
The Bulldogs know this recent NCAA trend, thus they left Dudy Noble Field with a measure of optimism. They certainly believe they are worthy of a bid. "I think so," Butts said. "I think we have the talent to. We've lost a lot of close games and I don't want to make excuses but we've had some bad breaks."
That's been the team theme for almost two months now, repeated often by Polk. The coach in particular points to lost games and series at South Carolina and Kentucky (a sweeping). Most particularly the Sunday game at USC when a routine fly ball carried over the fence, with centerfielder Joseph Hunter pumping his glove in expectation of a game-ending catch. That was only the most obvious in a long list of examples Polk cites from a frustrating season.
"I'm saying it's little things like that. When you're a good ball club and not a great club you need to get some breaks. I don't think we're a great club, we're a good club. We just haven't got the breaks in SEC games. I'm not saying we're better than anyone else, I'm just saying we've been a snake-bit ball club from the time we had some injuries."
Those injuries were to outfielder Andy Rice (small shoulder tear), first baseman Brad Jones (wrist tendonitis) in March, and arm tightness to emerging pitcher Matt Lea in April. None were serious though Lee has been sidelined since April 11; cumulatively they cost State what modest margins they had in collective team talent and experience to take on equal or better ball clubs. The setbacks certainly played a part in bringing back to earth a team opened the year with a school-record 18 consecutive wins. After getting all the bounces in that span, State became a team that couldn't deliver in a crunch. Of the 17 league losses ten came by either one or two runs. "I don't like to use the word snakebit or unlucky, but it's been kind of like that," Polk said.
"There's a number of things you can name," said Berkery, when asked how tough the season had been. "The second half of the year, probably. But I don't want to say anything bad about the whole year, we played hard all year. So let's leave it at that." Berkery certainly did his part, ending the regular season with a SEC-best batting average of .393. He should become the first Bulldog since Rafael Palmeiro in 1984 to win the SEC batting crown.
Whether he and his teammates go to a plate again this season is in the hands of the NCAA committee. Templeton, who cannot participate in debating his own school's case for a bid, did give Polk an idea of where State stood going into the final series. "He felt it would be really nice to win two, if we won one we've got a crack, if we got swept we were out of it. We did what I guess was the minimum."
The Bulldog outlook is not as encouraging as in 2004, either. While the NCAA doesn't announce such information, most experts figure State's RPI in the low 30s…or about the same as the number of available at-large bids after automatic berths are filled. And as for the last three years' examples of SEC teams not in league tourneys still receiving bids, those cases also offer reason for worry. As best can be determined, all those teams had RPIs in the 20s and at least one league club, Georgia in 2005, was also in the 20s but did not get a bid.
So State has cut it far too close for any comfort. For that matter LSU and Vanderbilt might have work left to do at Hoover to lock up their own bids. The Tigers are practically even in RPI with State, and the Commodores lower than both. "If they go 0-2 maybe we can kind slip by them, I don't know," Polk said. "Our RPI is going to be around 32, 33 out of the 64 teams picked. So if there's not too many upsets (in other conference tournaments), and they've gone with nine the last couple of years… And they shouldn't penalize a team for playing in the Southeastern Conference, the best baseball conference in the country."
That latter claim might be disputed by the ACC, which has had eight teams consistently ranked this season. And the NCAA has been criticized around the country for giving the SEC nine berths out of 64. So presuming there will be an extra bid again in 2006 is, well, presumptious. It's been a long, painful fall for a team that in March was on top of the SEC and at least one national poll. Though, as the schedules have played out, it's clear that record was built up against lackluster competition.
Take the non-conference schedule in the first three weekends; as of last week Arizona's unofficial RPI was 92nd, Arkansas State's 135th, and Marist's 188th. And in SEC season, State's series wins came over only #33 LSU, #41 Florida, and #67 Tennessee. None of this strengthens the case for a bid.
But of course the bottom line is the Bulldogs could have spared themselves all such questions, and a boring week, by winning just a couple more games along the way. Or in the case of a still-stunning collapse at Louisiana Tech and sweep at Southern Mississippi, avoiding losses. The fact is simply that Mississippi State has put its post-season hopes in the hands of others. "We'll see what happens," said Polk.
Wait and see, rather. "That's the way it is," said Butts. "So hopefully we'll have a little good luck."