Will the 2007 Dogs be capable of filling that growing gap in State's post-season resume? Will they be a quality contender for conference honors? For that matter will a rebuilt ball team just be able to get back into the SEC Tournament, a once-annual MSU event now missed twice in three years? Not so long ago the notion of State regularly struggling just to finish eighth in the SEC was unthinkable. Now events of the past few seasons in generally and this spring in particular have resulted in quite a bit of thinking, and as fans watch a quartet of conference rivals play for berths at Omaha much of that verges on all-out brooding about the program.
"It's been a disappointing season," admitted Coach Ron Polk at the end of the Clemson Regional. "But not disappointing kids, just a disappointing season in regard to the second half."
Certainly there wasn't as much to cheer about the season-past as expected from a team with seven position starters and most of the offense back from 2005. True, that team barely slipped into the SEC Tournament as well after a 13-16 league season. But they got hot for one week and won the event, then played reasonably well at the Miami Regional. But with a settled lineup and improved, if young, pitching the '06 outlook was bright for a veteran club. And after bolting to a school-record start of 18-0 the Bulldogs were even ranked #1 in one national poll.
Trouble was, the season peaked in late March when several factors coincided to send the Dogs into a two-month tailspin. A couple of minor injuries, to 1B Brad Jones and RF Andy Rice, did major harm to the team's RBI- and power-potential. The schedule went from almost all-homefield to 20 of 28 games on the road. And most obviously, SEC season exposed inherent liabilities the winning streak had obscured.
The offense could hit for average—in fact, they led the league much of the year in that category—and get runners on bases regularly. It just could not consistently score them with an average of over nine left-on-base for the year and 8.8 in league play. The team's production in bases-loaded situations was so unreliable that it almost seemed opponents wanted the sacks full. Certainly by April it appeared Bulldog batters were pressing in such settings given the number of pop-outs and routine ground balls.
Even in early weeks infield defense was often a question, and once the slide started fielding issues were magnified. The left side was most troublesome, though this wasn't entirely unexpected with junior Michael Rutledge pushed over into the third base role after ending '05 at shortstop and catcher Thomas Berkery moving out to shortstop. The second half of the season catcher Edward Easley got most of the third-base starts and while he was more reliable with the glove the junior never really had a chance to settle in either. Of course not having an every-day target at first base due to Jones' wrist woes also affected all infielders at some level, and State ended up fielding at .960, the lowest average in nine years.
A rebuilding pitching staff paid the price. LH Brooks Dunn, in his first and only year as a SEC starter, gave his team outings and innings in (mostly) Friday games. RH's Josh Johnson and John Lalor were not as productive in rotation roles, the latter yielding to freshman LH Justin Pigott, or fellow frosh RH Aaron Weatherford or soph RH Chad Crosswhite.
It was difficult to make a fair evaluation of exactly how effective most weekend starters were given erratic support in field or at bat. But the numbers were blunt: the staff ERA went from 3.51 (3.93 SEC) in 2005 to 4.24/5.27. Opponent batting climbed from .264/.280 to .275/.306. Still, pitching was where the new faces lined up this year. Hitting and fielding were the responsibilities of veterans.
In a sense the last game of the season summed up the second half of the campaign, as overall State went 19-23 and 12-17 SEC…one game worse than in 2005 and a single win shy of the SEC Tournament. Facing elimination gainst national top-seed Clemson the Bulldogs played well enough to keep it tight and even lead after six innings, only to come up short. Again. As Polk said after the 8-6 final, "How many two-run losses can you have in one year?"
Enough that the coach could choose a viewpoint that said State was quite close to having a big year. "Really, we had 37 wins and three, four games we should have won. Louisiana Tech, Sunday at South Carolina, two one-run games at Kentucky. And the two losses at Alabama. If we win those we're 41, 42 wins and people are saying ‘wow'."
But the Dogs didn't win any of those games, so all that is left to say is what might have been. The veterans realize what just another couple of W's could have meant; not only would they have made the SEC Tourney but they would have been seeded better for the NCAAs and probably in a more promising Regional. They tried, Berkery said. "You know, I think down the stretch, the last 15 games, we played a lot of close games and got the feeling to start ‘leaving it on the field.' We definitely played hard to close it out."
With 2006 closed out it's open-season for talk of '07. State did get through this week's pro draft without any damage to the signee class. Freshman LHP Jarred Holloway was picked but in the 49th round and will come to college. The rest of the class was untouched, if not unconsidered. "They just said no," Polk said of signees contacted by pro clubs during the draft about their signability. "We felt we had a chance maybe to lose Holloway and (IF) Connor Powers. They told everyone they were going to school." As will incoming soph juco LHP Jared Wesson, drafted out of high school by Florida but still unsigned.
The real draft-concern is that junior second baseman Jeffrey Rea was drafted, in the 33rd round by Boston, and will essentially spend his summer in Cape Cod trying to improve his offer from the club. "We won't know his status until the end of summer, that's not good," Polk said. Not good for coaches trying to put pieces in places before fall ball, that is. Even if Rea returns for a senior season his exact position might now be a question. "He could be a second baseman, centerfielder, be just about anything," Polk said. "But he's a key to bring back."
That comment is equally key to grasping just how uncertain everything is about State's 2007 lineup. And while talk of moving Rea speaks well of his versatility, it might say much more about the shaky state of the entire outfield. CF Joseph Hunter and LF Jeff Butts, with 399 career starts between them, are graduated. Rice, a 28-game starter as a soph transfer, had Thursday surgery to repair a tear in his non-throwing shoulder that hampered his swing after the March 18 injury. He had the other shoulder fixed in 2004 for a similar prep injury.
Polk is optimistic Rice will be 100% both afield and at-bat again, and able to provide the power expected of him this past season hitting fifth in the order. "The big loss is Butts and Hunter," he said, thus speculations of moving Rea. "It's just talk, rumors," the second-sacker said. And Polk does call off other names who can take over outfield jobs. Juco soph Nick Hardy was redshirted as the presumptive heir at centerfield, the harder position to fill. Leftfield is simpler, and OF/DH Mitch Moreland played there in a 2005 pinch as a true frosh. He moved to rightfield for 18 starts this year and DH'd, though State has to think about giving him more pitching opportunities also.
Matt Richardson had 13 starts in right and DH/1B Brian LaNinfa has worked out there, though neither is a strong defender and could be more safely hidden in left. The other redshirt to watch out for is Cade Hoggard, an OF/1B saved a year to play a lot in '07. The fact is that at least two and, pending Rice's recovery, maybe all three outfield jobs are up for grabs for the first time since Polk returned to State. "We've got some work to do there."
Despite uncertainty over Rea's future, and contrary to what 99.9% of fans and media would say, the coach does not see as much work ahead in rebuilding the infield. "Position-wise it's just (replacing) Berkery on the infield," he says. That is definitely counter to perception. And even if LaNinfa and Rutledge are back at the respective corners they alternated at in ‘06, this is not exactly re-assuring in terms of solid defense. LaNinfa doesn't have great footwork nor much in the way of range; Rutledge does have the physical tools but his confidence was shaken by a tough season both fielding and throwing.
And shortstop? The key middle-position is the most open spot of all. Never mind replacing Berkery's SEC-leading batting average, his ability to make plays in the field will likely be missed more.
Questioned about the left side, Polk's response is instructive. "We've got two really good redshirt infielders and three that were signed," he said. "And we have Michael and Bunky Kateon coming back." It is out-of-character for the coach to mention fresh faces before veterans when discussing positions, and thus possibly revealing.
Those redshirts are Russ Sneed and Brandon Turner. Only the coaches and teammates have seen them playing the field much, and most of that last fall, but there are good words for each. "We like Turner a lot," Polk said of the lefthanded-hitting, righthanded-throwing middle-infielder who would seem to get first shot at shortstop now. Rutledge has played there too, as noted, as has fellow fourth-year junior Kateon, but at this point more faith is being placed in a redshirt rookie.
Berkery likes the other redshirt a lot. "Russ Sneed, man, he's huge, he's going to play a great third base probably and give Rutledge a run for his money." That would be huge in more ways than just setting the hot cornerman, too. Ideally State would prefer to leave junior-to-be Easley behind the plate, catching pitches instead of fielding grounders. If Sneed can deliver on perceived promise, and Rutledge settle down in a reliable alternate role, a lot of dominoes will start falling the right way for a change.
Of course there is still Rea's status to worry about all summer. "We'll have to see what happens, that could shake up the whole middle-infield," Berkery noted. It would leave Kateon, who has struggled to adjust to college ball ever since his freshman-fall shoulder surgery, as the only second-sacker on the veteran roster. And in turn that would offer more incentive to push a rookie forward. State has three middle-infielders coming in with true frosh Jet Butler, Ryan Powers, and Connor Powers. Butler and R.Powers are prep shortstops, which would seem to offer at least the chance Turner might end up at second base.
LaNinfa's bat will be in the lineup for power and regardless of pitching matchup; whether he plays the field depends. State's system essentially interchanges first basemen and rightfielders, and Moreland is a legitimate candidate for the first sack. He'll certainly play somewhere and/or pitch daily anyway. A wild card is Jeff Flagg, with his reputed power potential and unproven utility. State has looked for some way to play and thus hit him, and a 6-5 target at first base is his best chance. Of course Alex McIntosh offers that same size and maybe better defensive range. And redshirted rookie Hoggard will be very much in that mix if he doesn't find outfield employment first.
Catcher is by-far the position with the most experience and depth but the preference is to stick with best backstop Easley and use Joseph McCaskill and/or Wyn Diggs as substitutes and pinch players. McCaskill also has '05 credits in the outfield. Since Easley is expected to be drafted next June and the other two are seniors a couple of younger catchers will be prepared for the future. Ryan Duffy redshirted this year and has a great shot at climbing to #2 now; he's also a first baseman. With all these numbers '06 signee Brent Tanner will likely have to wait a year.
At the same time, it is worth wondering if redshirting baseball players is a good policy in the first place. Polk still thinks so, repeating that he doesn't want to waste a whole freshman year on a dozen at-bats or innings. He was also asked if, given how this season played out, it might not have been wise to give a few freshmen some innings to prepare for 2007 play. He stands by the pre-season decisions, even in regard to suggestions the redshirts would have offered more late-season help.
"We didn't have any injuries to position players they'd have helped us at. If early in the year, yeah, Hardy would have been our first pick." Instead State relied on older backups regardless and redshirting rookies have to wait another year. One other redshirt is also in the mix, as punter Blake McAdams dressed out when not busy with spring football. He is listed as an outfielder and shortstop both, and will be a candidate at both…most likely on the infield. It's been a long, long time since State had a true two-sport player in the same school year and McAdams will get his chance.
Despite taking some lumps on the mound there's much more optimism here. Dunn and reliever Brett Cleveland were the only graduates, while midweek starter Jon Crosby was let go in May after three frustrating seasons with State following a redshirt year at Georgia Tech. All put in significant innings this season, but on the whole Polk likes the staff remaining and incoming.
"Pitching-wise we're going to be OK, we've got some good arms coming in and some good guys returning." One, RH Matt Lea, will be returning after a mid-April arm problem ended his season just as he was able to break into the rotation. "Matt was a big loss late in the year." Lea, a winner in midweek work, is just one reason MSU starting pitching looks in good shape for years to come.
"I'm really excited about it," Pigott said. "We've got Aaron and Chad coming back, they've got a year under their belts and have great arms. Hopefully I can step into the rotation." It's a good bet as Pigott did move into weekend work by May after proving himself in lefthanded relief. A Friday job isn't out of the question here.
Righty Weatherford is a more classic hard-thrower with all the tools to be the ace…except a third pitch. He was given two SEC starts after dominating in relief innings and while the fastball was fast indeed league batters could wait for the right one without fear of a strikeout bender. That is Weatherford's summer assignment and the only item lacking to be a great college hurler and future pro.
Maturing righty Crosswhite also has the chance for a larger role. He only started two of 21 games but has the stuff to open games, weekend or midweek. Johnson does also, though his career has been frustrating in that the righty has no problem getting ahead of batters. Finishing them is the downfall. Bring in Lea and some righthanders will have to settle for either weekday starts or weekend relief. Of course winning those non-conference contests are also critical to the record and RPI, and having proven starters able to win these games is no second-rate assignment.
Pigott is the top veteran leftside starter, with Jesse Carver next in line and Moreland the top southpaw reliever. But "I know for one thing we've got a lot of good young guys coming in, some lefties that are throwing real hard," Pigott said. "So that will definitely help mix it up left-right a little bit better in the bullpen."
He's correct as no less than three lefties are coming in. Holloway is the best-known prep pitcher in the signing class, while home-schooled Tyler Whitney looks at 6-0, 170 to be a redshirt candidate. Not so Wesson, the lone juco in the class. The tall southpaw pitched this spring at Itawamba C.C. after having ‘Tommy John' surgery on his left elbow a year ago.
State signed just one righthander, Greg Houston, because three rightys sat out this season, included well-regarded juco Jared Koon. He and freshman Rickey Bowen should contend for significant innings now, injecting serious competition to off-season scrimmages and workouts. And not just for starting jobs; long, short, set-up, and closing roles are just as open given the number of arms available.
"It's going to be exciting, it's going to be a fun fall," Pigott said. "There could be some freshmen coming in there and trying to take some spots so it's going to challenge a lot of guys, you know? Carver and (RH Trent) Hill and all the guys that have been here. So we're going to have to work hard. We'll be a young staff but I think we'll be fine. I'm excited about it."
So is a veteran Dog who will be wearing a pro uniform next year. Berkery likes the state of the program he is leaving behind. "There's a lot of talent coming back, they just have to step up. People are going to have to step up but at some time you have to play with a young team regardless."
Polk isn't so quick to call the prospective squad of '07 young, not like he was in 2004. "We won't be young pitching-wise, or behind the plate or in the infield." But that's yet to be seen because presumably several redshirts and rookies could and even should push their elders, especially on the infield. That is what fans and even many players hope, at least. And Polk is quick to promote the signing class of '06 from criticism that because none were drafted highly it might not be so talented overall. Untrue, he insists.
"No, absolutely not. In a lot of cases the best classes are the ones that don't get drafted." Either way, time will tell, and while this year's draft saw the longest wait for a Bulldog to be named (Dunn, in the 23rd round) since 1991, there are several players the pros are watching closely for next year and beyond.
And what of State's skipper himself? When he returned to State in June 2001 he told Dawgs' Bite he had in mind coaching four or five seasons more. But that was hardly a definitive plan, of course. Still the five seasons since have not been up to the standards set in his first 22 with MSU. His teams have made four NCAA appearances without a Regional titles and have hosted just once. Twice State has missed the SEC Tournament and the third time got in by a break of percentage points. The 2003 team is the only one of these five to finish above .500 in league play.
A week before receiving his 22nd NCAA bid, at three programs, in 33 years as a head coach, Polk quipped to another reporter asking about his job status that he wasn't going to fire himself and would be back for another year.
With the subject raised again this week, the SEC's winning coach, any sport, ever and NCAA's ninth-ranking baseball winner (sixth active coaches) jibed his way around absolutely direct answers. "Right now, I'm just hanging in here," he said when reminded of his 2001 comment. And while he would not commit when asked if he planned to coach this year's signees all the way through their MSU careers, Polk did answer in oblique fashion. "My health is good, I've never missed a day at work in 38 years."
Which is Ron Polk's typical way of saying that #1 will be on the job in 2007, working to meld a new-look squad into a more successful team capable of putting Mississippi State back in SEC and NCAA contention. And while the coach always tries to defer criticism of his players, he himself is entirely willing to be judged by the final score. Because, as someone likes to say, that's baseball.