Yet Polk says Rutledge has the tools and aptitude for the position. "He doesn't make an error, ever, when we're hitting him ground balls and forcing him to go left and right," the coach said. "It's in his head, it's just like a hitting slump. And he might boot a couple. But we've got to get Easley behind the plate with Elon's runners. Not that (catcher) Joseph McCaskill can't throw them out, but (LH starting pitcher) Brooks Dunn doesn't hold runners as much as (LH starter Justin) Pigott does."
Polk said that Friday's defensive lineup will not necessarily be the same for Saturday's game-two, because Pigott will be on the hill. "So there's a chance depending on who we play and Pigott throwing tomorrow we might go McCaskill behind the plate and Easley at third." Also, Polk expects to have ill rightfielder Andy Rice able to substitute defensively Friday and start if needed Saturday.
The tentative lineup Polk gave for Friday has not been fielded since game-one against Georgia on April 7.
***While Rice, Rutledge, and first baseman Brad Jones have all been slowed with minor injuries this season, those ailments aren't keeping any sidelined this weekend. Which is good, Polk said, because "Once you submit the 25-list you can't call someone to fly in." And along the lines of tummy troubles, yes, there have been times the coach has wished he could have substitute personnel parachuted into the park. Just not at MSU.
"When I was with USA Baseball so many years we'd take twenty guys to Cuba, Puerto Rico, or Nicaragua, and with all the things you can eat down there you'd just keep your fingers crossed you'd have ten to play."
***The Bulldogs had to wait for Elon to finish their Thursday practice before getting on Doug Kingsmore Field, and having arrived early they spent a half-hour in the batting cage. It showed when they got on the field as balls were jumping off State sticks. "Overall it looked like we swung the bat pretty well," said shortstop Thomas Berkery, the Bulldog batting leader and SEC regular-season hitting champ.
Which led to a trivial sort of question: how do veteran Dogs compare the coaches tossing them balls to hit in practice? The seniors feel safe in answering. "Coach (Russ) McNickle throws good BP, just money BP that's consistent," Berkery said. "(Tommy) Raffo is tough, he's good because he makes you work but his ball does a lot of stuff."
Senior outfielder Jeff Butts was of the same opinion. "Most would agree Coach McNickle is a pretty solid BP thrower, he grooves it in there. Toughest, I'd have to say Raffo. And he knows it, he tends to carve us up. It's like getting game at-bats, he throws a little cutter or what."
Unfortunately, none of them have had a chance to take hacks on their head coach. "Nah," said Butts of Polk. "I think he's hung it up from BP throwing."
***Mississippi State has never played Elon, or for that matter UNC-Asheville. Bulldog teams have faced Clemson ten times since 1965, with the Tigers owning a 7-3 lead. Three of those games were in NCAA tournament play. The last meeting was in the 2000 NCAA Super Regional hosted by Clemson, who won 11-4 and 9-4 decisions over the MSU team coached then by Pat McMahon. Previously, Polk's Dogs and Tigers squared off in the 1991 Orono, Me., Regional in a winner's bracket game won by Clemson 10-9.
***Polk himself is 6-7 against Clemson, having coached Georgia Southern and Georgia teams against Tiger squads. "I guess I've played here eight times," he said.
But three of those games were in 1981 and not against the home team, as that year State was assigned to the Clemson Regional. The expectation was for Polk's Folks to meet the Tigers coached by Bill Wilhelm (1958-93). Instead the Dogs had three games against others en route to winning that Regional. "We came here and won, that was Wichita State, East Tennessee, and Clemson. We didn't get to play Clemson, I think they were 0-2." That '81 team was Polk's second State squad to advance to the College World Series.
Wilhelm finished with 1,161 wins in 36 seasons with Clemson. Polk, nearing the end of his 33rd year as a college head coach, has 1,310 wins at three schools.
***This is a very different facility that Polk has brought his 2006 Dogs to. It's even greatly changed from the park the 2000 Diamond Dogs saw, the result of a major 2003 renovation inside and out. "It's a beautiful ballpark," he said. Polk came over from his job at Georgia six years ago to watch State play those two Super Regional games, standing outside rightfield where he could smoke safely. That seating area is gone now, but an elevated ‘porch' area has been built behind the rightfield fence with umbrellas and table seating. Much of the central grandstand is now covered, and the press box is at least triple the size and far, far nicer than six year ago.
The dimensions are 320 feet to rightfield corner, 375 in that alley and 400 to straight-center, 370 in the left alley and 320 to the leftfield corner. But it wasn't the numbers Diamond Dog outfielders cared about, it was the legendary sloping outfield. This was the first thing leftfielder Jeff Butts wanted to check out at Thursday's practice. He was relieved to discover that, during the 2003 renovation, the fences were pulled in…or more accurately down the slope several feet. Now it's more of a lip than a slope.
"It's not too bad. I'd heard about it, different reports that it was still there or it was gone. But I think it's not as bad as it used to be. I played with the ball over there a little bit, and it's a little different but I just have to make some adjustments and it will be fun to play with."
It will be more fun for Butts than his cohorts. The lip is much less prounounced in centerfield and almost gone in right. But there is still no warning track for outfielders, just a padded fence to run into. "But just good communication with (centerfielder Joseph) Hunter and it will be fine." Besides, Butts said, it's not an entirely new thing for him. "Actually in high school, in Joplin (Mo.) for the Junior National tryouts, they had a nice little slope. So I have a little experience."
Regardless, Butts and all Bulldogs are satisfied with the field they will play on. It's not a cozy little bandbox and while a bunch of batting-practice balls were hit out Thursday by all teams in real games longballs will have to be earned.
"It's a fair ballpark," Butts said. "It plays big in the gaps and center and down the line it carries a little. So there will be some plays we have to make, but I don't think it will be any cheap home runs."
***Closer to home, literally, catcher/third baseman Edward Easley likes the surface State will be fielding on. "I like the way the infield plays, it's a good infield." This matters, because Dog glovemen will probably have to be on their toes in Friday's opener with Elon. "They play a lot of small-ball, Easley said. The Phoenix also like to run and pressure pitcher and catchers that way, which is why Polk is more comfortable with Easley at receiver.
So is the catcher himself, when told where he would start in game-one. "That's good to hear. I'm excited about getting behind the plate. I'm not gonna promise I'll throw everybody out but I'm going to do my best. I'd like to catch every day, but I'm not going to be stingy. If Coach wants me at third base and I can help the team that's what I'm going to do."
***State coaches were spending Thursday afternoon finalizing their scouting report on Elon, about which they know little other than their record, Southern Conference championship, and work against Auburn, South Carolina, and Clemson this season. The Phoenix played the Tigers twice at Kingsmore Field this season, losing two close contests.
At one point, talking with media during State's practice, Polk looked around. "Is anybody here from Elon? Anybody write for them?" he asked. Nobody responded. But the MSU coach did have one tid-bit to offer. "I was told Brenda Paul is the basketball coach there." Paul was the MSU women's coach in the late 1980s-early 1990s.
***Not surprisingly the subject of State's at-large bid came up again. Since the NCAA announced the field Monday there have been stories written and commentary offered around the region about MSU receiving a berth after failing to make the SEC Tournament. Even in ACC country they have heard the controversy in SEC-land, and the outrage in Baton Rouge that LSU—who did make the league tourney a half-game ahead of State—did not receive a bid.
Polk is sympathetic to such talk, to an extent. "I wish LSU was in, they deserve it. But the committee has a tough task, there are so many teams right there on the bubble and I feel bad for anybody that gets left out…Louisiana-Lafayette, Wake Forest, they all have cases."
This is the second time in three years State was awarded a bid without qualifying for the SEC Tournament. In 2004 the Dogs were sent to another ACC venue, to Atlanta, and as a third seed. Senior Berkery was on that squad. He says nobody on this team is apologizing for getting a bid, especially the upperclassmen. "We're definitely excited about being here. For the older guys on the team it's kind of our last hurrah and we're going to put it on the line and get the job done."
***Mississippi State is the only participant at Clemson that did not win a league title of any sort. Clemson and Elon both captured regular-season championships of their respective loops, the ACC and Southern Conference; while UNC-Asheville won the Big South Conference tournament. That enabled those Bulldogs to earn an automatic NCAA berth despite their overall losing record.
COMING FRIDAY: Will the NCAA give college baseball 14 scholarships? What does Jeffrey Rea think about next week's baseball draft? And other notes after Mississippi State's opening Regional game.