"We had a Monday practice," Coach Ron Polk said, "we had to go inside because of the rain. Then we hit all afternoon Tuesday and the pitchers had their bullpens, but we got a late shower and the field was soft again. But we'll be outside today, before we hit the road."
Polk and staff have paid some extra attention to these practices, or more accurately to a couple of players working out as they try to settle on a lineup for Friday's Regional-opening game with Elon. Pitching coach Russ McNickle had the easier job, naming lefthanders Brooks Dunn and Justin Pigott as the starters for the two games State is assured of playing.
The defensive lineup and batting order isn't quite as obvious a call for Polk. Some decisions have to be made about who line up at three of the infield's corners. "We have to decide about how to play a couple of guys, like Edward Easley and Brad Jones," Polk said. Easley is certain to be second in the batting order and somewhere in the field for the 57th-straight game this year; it's a question of does the sophomore open behind the plate or will he be at third base where Easley has started 21 times.
Polk would probably prefer to have Easley receiving from Dunn and Pigott, as well as keeping an eye on some aggressive and effective Phoenix baserunners. But defense on the third corner has been a soft spot most of the season, and 35-game starter Michael Rutledge's fielding average is .797. State does expect Elon to play small-ball as well which puts even more pressure on good glovework. Both are righthanded hitters, as is alternate backstop Joseph McCaskill, so that won't affect the decision.
On the opposite corner, Polk is still concerned how healthy Jones' right wrist is. The senior developed tendinitis in late March and has not swung freely since. "I just don't know what I'm going to get from Brad," Polk said. He can count on good defense of course, as Jones' glove-side hasn't been hurt a bit. Still he has had a tough fourth varsity season with a .240 average. His alternate, Brian LaNinfa, has hit .295 with a team-leading nine home runs, and both are lefthanded hitters. But LaNinfa hasn't Jones' range, especially with a nagging hamstring.
Polk will always wonder how this season would have played out had Jones, and rightfielder Andy Rice, stayed healthy. Rice damaged his right shoulder in mid-March and hasn't been able to provide the big bat expected. LaNinfa has filled in some of the void, but "Those injures have probably hurt us more than anything, at the beginning of the season they were our four- and five-guys."
Rice will probably start in game-one, which would make alternate Mitch Moreland the designated hitter and keep him ready to relieve if necessary. Both are lefthanded hitters.
Polk is anticipating a righthanded hurler on the hill for Elon, either senior Matt Chastain (10-3) or freshman and Southern Conference top rookie Steven Hensley (6-3). "I think we'll get Chastain, that's what they're talking about," Polk said. "He's their senior pitcher and been the guy they go with every first game in their conference."
The Phoenix won that conference, too, with a 21-5 record. They also won the first two games in the SC tournament before being walloped 12-1 in the decisive winner's bracket game with second-seed College of Charleston. Elon was eliminated 14-11 in the loser's bracket, which did nothing to hurt their post-season resume. The Southern Conference champ is the second-seed at this Regional, with SEC-member State seeded third. Polk has no problem with that rating.
"They're a veteran ball club, everybody we talk to says they're a good ball club, they've played well all year." The record includes two wins at Auburn, where State lost two out of three, as well as competitive outings against South Carolina and yes, at Clemson twice. This is a small-conference club with a stout Division I record of 44-16 that the Diamond Dogs are taking very seriously.
"They struggled like anybody may right at the end in their tournament but they play in a competitive conference," Polk said. "It looks like a team that deserves to be a number-two."
State arrives this evening at Clemson, and will have a 1:00-to-2:15 practice Thursday afternoon. After that, Polk should be able to make his final decisions now how the Diamond Dogs will line up for Friday's 2:00 (CT) contest.