Indeed after a long week spent sweating whether Mississippi State would receive a NCAA bid at all, these relieved Bulldogs don't feel any particular pressure over assignment to the Clemson Regional, hosted by the top-seeded team in the entire field. Just getting the chance to play tournament ball at all is reason enough for excitement.
"This is a new season, what we play for all year," senior first baseman Jones said. "And we'll take it and roll with it." The Bulldogs roll out of town Wednesday for Clemson, and open play Friday afternoon against second-seeded Elon. The host Tigers, who were announced as the overall national #1 seed, play Regional fourth-seed North Carolina-Asheville.
If State players see their siting and Regional third-seeding as a price for being awarded an at-large bid, one of eight issued to SEC programs, they weren't showing it. Just the opposite. "We've got the opportunity to do something good now," Jones said. "There's no pressure on us, people don't expect us to go far, that might be why they put us in that tough Regional.
"But we're happy to be there and there's nothing to lose for us, just go out and play. We know what we're capable of and we know we can do it."
"What's happened in the season doesn't matter any more," noted Butts. "It's 0-0 and you've got a new life. We had a week off to get rejuvenated and hopefully people will come back refreshed and ready to go."
The Diamond Dogs did have a free week, though being forced to watch eight SEC peers playing in the league tournament while Mississippi State was off was not so very relaxing at the time. "You'd much rather be in Hoover, playing," Butts said. "It's a lot of fun." But State missed the first post-season tournament after going just 12-17 for SEC season, falling a win short of Hoover. It made for a long, painful, and often stressful few days for the scattered Dogs, many of whom stayed in touch speculating about what the NCAA might or might not say come bid day.
"We were hearing rumors all week that we'd make it somewhere," said Jones, who went through this same sort of drill in 2004. "But you really don't know until selection day. One web site didn't even have us anywhere. That kind of got us worried."
Five minutes into the selection show, all such worries were gone and Dogs like Butts and Jones were glad they were already in town. Their teammates on the 25-man post-season roster? "They're probably on the road right now," Butts said. "They'll be back and we'll get after it tonight." State has a Monday evening practice planned.
And at that workout, as well as Tuesday's practice, veteran players hope beneficial effects of their May break will show. Jones thinks the pitchers in particular should be better for the rest, though the batters might have to knock off a little bit of rust. All in all of course the Dogs would have preferred to spend last week defending their 2005 SEC tourney title and sharpening for Regional play.
"It was disappointing watching the SEC Tournament at home and knowing we should have been there," Jones said. "But now we've got to go with what the NCAA has given us."
And make no mistake, these senior Diamond Dogs understand that to some extent they are being presented a gift with this bid. The selection committee might very easily have passed over Mississippi State in favor of, say, league rival Louisiana State. Or, have simply stopped inviting SEC clubs after reaching seven. When State was swept at Kentucky and lost two of three at home to Ole Miss, the Dogs knew they had put themselves in a skaky NCAA situation.
And most frustrating of all was how close they came to Hoover. Of those last five losses four were by one run and the clincher by a pair. All five were one swing of a stick from being MSU victories. For that matter the last two months of the regular schedule followed that sort of so-close theme.
"We put so much pressure on trying to get to the SEC Tournament that we let some games slip through our fingers," Jones said. "We were really five or six games away from having an unbelievable season and being right there in probably the national top seeds. We had a pretty solid non-conference schedule and won the majority of those. Fortunately for us it worked out that we kind of snuck in."
And no, they are not the least bit ashamed to describe their bid in those terms. All that matters is Mississippi State has been invited to the tournament, and if the fine-print on their ticket assigns them to the #1 overall seed that's fine. All these Dogs wanted was another chance…or in case of the upperclassmen, a last chance. Butts remembers the tension in 2004 when State received a bid after failing to make it to Hoover. This time was different.
"It really was. In the past you'd be disappointed but at the same time you had next year. Being a senior there's not a next year. I was kind of nervous last night but at the same time whatever happens, happens. It was a good feeling to see our name up there and now you get to play a little more baseball."
How much more is now entirely in their hands, and on their bats. Though most attention will be paid to the host team, Mississippi State's preparations begin with Elon. And scouting for the Phoenix will be a bit different compared to more familiar foes. "I don't think I ever have heard about Elon," Jones admitted. But a look at their 44-16 record, including a couple of victories at Auburn where State lost two-of-three, was all this senior needed to hear to sell him on the challenge.
"So we know they're competitive." And as for the NCAA seeding a team from the Southern Conference ahead of a SEC squad? "That's fine," Jones said. "It could have been us two and them three, we know we have to play our best ball."
Butts has an idea that maybe, given second life, the Bulldogs can do just that. Because once upon a time—specifically, in February and March—this was a good State team that dominated non-conference competition. Will June reveal the real Diamond Dogs at last?
"I think so," said Butts. "We showed it early in the year, then somewhere along the road we started struggling a little bit. You don't want to make excuses but we did have a few little injuries and just got kind of thrown-off. And we lost a lot of close games, do one little thing different here or there and it's a totally different season. So maybe with a new start in a Regional we can go out and show we're a legitimate team and deserve to be in a Regional."
"We're fortunate to be here, and happy to be here," Jones said.