Talking 2007 Baseball With #1

Coach Ron Polk held the pre-season media conference Wednesday afternoon, to discuss the 2007 Diamond Dog season which will be opening next Friday, February 23 when Mississippi State hosts Murray State in a weekend series at Dudy Noble Field.

Polk covered all the typical aspects of a new team going into a new season. It also included frequent critiques of his favorite target, the NCAA. Those comments are not included in the edited transcript that follows.

Opening comments: "I know the boys are looking forward to our first nine games at home, before we travel to Waco and the Baylor tournament. All three opponents in that tournament were in the NCAA Regionals last year with Winthrop, San Francisco, and Baylor. And the Cadence Bank Classic we have here, both teams were in Regionals; Big Ten champions Michigan and Troy State will be here. We play 14 games non-SEC before we open up with the Florida Gators in Gainesville."

"And we're playing two games at the Trustmark ball park. With Ole Miss it's now being called the Governor's Cup; and the South Alabama game is the Jaguars' home game but the Trustmark officials bought them out. We played a double-header down there last year and had a full house."

On the 2006 season: "Last year when we lost our number-four and –five hitters (Andy Rice, Brad Jones), even though we tried to pay them they just weren't able to produce. Then our fine freshman pitcher (Matt Lea) goes down, we start out 18-0 and lose key players and it makes it very difficult. We had a poor second half because we started losing a lot of close games, especially in the SEC."

"We did have a couple of non-lottery schools, Ole Miss and Alabama, enjoy healthy seasons and subsequently have great years. That's the margin of difference right now in baseball. So absolutely no question in my mind if we stay healthy we would have had a banner season, even the second half. Our kids still managed to get to another NCAA Regional and managed to go into the championship round."

"We did lose some key players. Starters lost were shortstop Thomas Berkery, outfielders Jeff Butts and Joseph Hunter, and Brad Jones at first base. Off the pitching staff we lost a starter in Brooks Dunn, a part-time starter in Jon Crosby, and reliever Brett Cleveland. We had two boys transfer to Division-I schools which was a good move for both, Bunky Kateon is at South Alabama and he has a chance to start this year. And (pitcher) Trent Hill wasn't going to be a factor this year and Samford needed him really bad. We're happy for both boys."

On the 2007 roster: "We feel as though we have a ball club with 13, 14, maybe 15 players who will be in-and-out of the lineup depending on pitching matchups, healthy, etc. many years it's just ten or 11, this will be a ball club with a lot of evenly-matched guys, especially at certain positions. So our depth is really good with position players, with pitching it's OK."

"The two losses to our pitching staff due to shoulder surgery were freshman all-American Matt Lea and JC transfer Jared Wesson. With Matt being draft-eligible and Jared a two-time draft pick we were expecting to lose both in June; now they'll both be back so it's like signing two quality pitchers for next year. If they were here our pitching depth would be as good as I've had at Mississippi State, in regard to number who could pitch consistently."

"I've had more surgeries in the last two years, I believe, than I had in 34 years as a head coach. Is it something in the air, something they're eating, maybe it's me, I don't know. It's amazing how many guys have been cut on in the last couple of years."

"We were able to redshirt some quality guys and with the returning players and the mixture of some true freshman and a transfer our depth position-player wise is very good. We've got two injuries to infielders in games, Brandon Turner with a hamstring pull and Ryan Powers with a knee problem. But I don't think either one will make it difficult for them to participate."

The team outlook: "The strength of the club is position-player depth. Speed should be OK, power should be just fine even tough we play in the biggest ball park in the conference. Dudy Noble will always be a double-triple, gap-type ball park. And that's what I think is exciting for fans, to see guys running around the bases without cheap home runs…which happened to us a lot it seemed last year, especially on the road in games that could have gone either way."

"We have to stay healthy, especially on the mound, for us to be successful."

"I've got 27 position players, 16 play two positions. That protects us in case of injuries, sickness, or slumps. In some spots there's still competition. The boys make the final decisions regarding redshirt and we may be ‘arming' some with redshirt information very very soon because we've got a lot of depth in those positions."

The infield: "In the infield we still have four scrimmage games to play and there's still some concern in the coaches' minds, at least the head coach's mind, what we are going to do with some things in regard to the left side of the infield. Hopefully it will be solidified, but Brandon Turner and Ryan Powers, two kids I really want to see this weekend, may not participate so that makes it tougher for me."

"At first base Mitch Moreland is our starter right now. He may also be our left-handed closer or help us in some capacity on the mound. If Lea and Wesson were healthy Mitch probably would not see as much action as he is probably going to. Senior Brian LaNinfa returns as a first baseman/outfielder, we must keep his bat in the lineup so right now he would start out in the DH slot. But he can also play in the outfield. Sophomore Jeff Flagg could be a power-righthanded bat off the bench, and Ryan Duffy also plays first base. Redshirt freshman Cade Hoggard is listed as an outfielder/first baseman, very soon he should see some playing time. There's just a lot of people right now in front of him and Jeff. We also worked out true freshman Conner Powers but right now he has a legitimate chance to start at third base when we open."

"Jeffrey turned down a chance to sign a contract last June with the Boston Red Sox, we're happy he did that. It gives us a lot of senior leadership in the infield because we're somewhat young in that area. Jeffrey can also play in the outfield depending on what we want to do with Brandon Turner. He's a key factor in what is going to happen with Jeffrey, we've got to get Brandon's bat in the lineup. He's working out at both second base and short, he was redshirted last year because of guys in front of him but we always knew he would be a hitter."

"If Brandon is at shortstop, Jeffrey will be at second base. If Brandon is at second we have to keep both bats in the lineup, and Jeffrey goes to the outfield where he played in the Cape Cod League and did it very well."

"Brandon has had a history of hamstring problems. Injuries are going to happen, as long as it's a week or weekend it's fine. But hamstrings are tough. Brandon swings the bat, he's got amazing instincts. Sometimes he doesn't look pretty, I have to get on him for sitting back on balls. As a shortstop he's got to learn it's a hurry-hurry position. But he's a hitter."

"We signed three freshman infielders we think have a bright future. It's our job to find out real soon which one can step across that white line and be productive. Conner Powers had an impressive fall, he would be at third base if we were to start tomorrow. Jet Butler and Ryan Powers both are shortstop/third basemen, and a lot depends on what we do with Brandon Turner. If he becomes our shortstop one of those two boys could opt to redshirt. We have depth on the left side because we have junior veteran Michael Rutledge and redshirt Russ Sneed."

"We hope to redshirt two infielders and maybe more. For sure junior college transfer Will Coggin, a second baseman, will redshirt along the possibility of Jason Nappi. Jason is also an outfielder but he's got a chance to be a very good hitter in due time, we just have to find a spot for him. We're losing a few outfielders after this season and we think he has a chance to be an outfielder more than an infielder next year."

Catcher: "We've got a veteran catching corps with Edward Easley, Wyn Diggs, and Joseph McCaskill all returning. Edward is a secondary third baseman, Wyn a secondary outfielder, and Joseph a primary outfielder and secondary catcher. Brooks Lewis is a returning sophomore and Ryan Duffy a redshirt freshman who also plays first base. We have three catchers we'll probably recommend redshirt: Donny Stevens, Brent Tanner, and Scott DeLoach."

The outfield: "We did lose two four-year starters but we feel we're in good shape. Especially in the depth department, if Rea is an outfielder we have way too much depth. We'd like to redshirt two JC transfers in Leon Farmer and Grant Houge, both are nice players but have too many people in front right now to gain any playing time."

"Andy Rice is fully healthy which will be a big factor, he'll probably be starting in rightfield. He had labrum surgery after the season, if I had to do it over again we'd have had it done earlier because he wasn't very productive. It's difficult to hit in this league when you're healthy, let along when you're not 100%. Our other returning veteran is Matt Richardson, a corner-outfielder with right-handed power we need in the lineup because we do have a lot of quality left-handed hitters."

On Andy Rice: "We're glad to have Andy back, he struggled in fall because he wasn't able to play summer baseball. He's a hard charger and has a chance to lift some out of the ball park, like Moreland does. We've got a little bit more power maybe. That really hurt us last year losing Andy and Brad Jones pretty much for the season. If those guys are healthy and hit .330, .340 as I thought they would then last year's second half would be much different, I guarantee that."

"Mark Goforth transferred from Birmingham Southern, he was a freshman All-American and we're glad he's now a Bulldog. He had a great season last year, he will be a factor this year as well as redshirt sophomore Nick Hardy. We're excited about both. McCaskill, Diggs, Flagg, Hoggard, and LaNinfa are also listed as primary or secondary outfielders so you see we've got a lot."

"I haven't seen Jeffrey much in the outfield, every time we had him there it seemed nobody would hit a ball to him! He looked good out there, sometimes he's hard to see as small as he is! But his summer coach said he made all the plays. He's an athlete, he could play left, play center, could play right. But he did it on his own, he wanted to help the club and he knew Brandon Turner was factor this year."

Pitching: "As of right now we've got 16 pitchers on the staff. You say wow, that's a lot of pitchers. If we had Wesson and Lea it would be 18 and that's a lot, but in college baseball with injuries and fatigue you need as many pitchers as you can possibly have. We've got two coming off surgery in Mike Valentine and Drew Hollinghead, they're trying to get back in the fold and we'll see them again this weekend."

"Starters among the veterans would be Josh Johnson, Justin Pigott, and Aaron Weatherford, with the others serving as potential starters, middle-relievers, and closers. Now that could change this weekend after we've seen them some more but right now that's where we're at. With 14 games before we play Florida in the SEC, we will then start thinking about SEC Friday-Saturday-Sunday. So don't even ask that question right now, we're not ready to make that decision. When we get those 14 games under our belts we will make that decision."

Is Weatherford set as a starter only? "I just threw those three names out. I'd like to have him do both. If Lea and Wesson were healthy and we were clogged-up Aaron would probably be a closer. But right now he's too good. I'd like to have him do both. We've got to keep him healthy, he's had a little nerve problem but it hasn't been a factor."

Did Pigott surprise you last year? "He's got a chance. Matt going down helped him a little bit. But too, every time we put him in he got outs. We got to the point we just were having a hard time getting a lead, especially in the SEC it always seemed we were behind one or two the third or fourth inning. And Justin came in the times we asked him to do it. He's not a power guy, he's not a guy the draft people love because he throws soft. But he's left-handed and has got command, he's a very intelligent kid and knows how to pitch and changes speed well. I know our hitters don't particularly care to hit off him in scrimmage games. He's 85-86 but in our league that's three, four miles per hour below the average starter. I had Jon Harden here years ago, he never hit 82 but he had 55 different changeups and was left-handed."

Where does Crosswhite fit into plans? "Chad is one of the many in-between guys. He's athletic and has a good arm, he's going to pitch a lot this year. He was going to but now with those two guys down he's going to pitch a LOT, I mean give us a lot of innings."

"Josh Johnson has had good days and bad days like all of us have. He's pitched well and got the stuff, he's got more maturity now and being co-captain shows the kids have a lot of respect for him. I don't mind marching Josh out there, even more this year than the last three years."

"Pitchers that redshirted last year that could be a big help to us, especially in mid-week games, are freshman Rickey Bowen and Jared Koon. Both could be factors on SEC weekends as well depending on how they do in the pre-SEC games. The true freshmen we like a lot, we're not sure what role they'll be, are Jared Holloway, Greg Houston, and Tyler Whitney. Last year Kevin Hatch tried to walk on in fall, his arm was sore and he had surgery also."

"We can keep nine, ten, sometimes eleven pitchers going pretty good."

"We hope our pitchers get a few more runs than they had to work with last year. And I think we will, as long as we stay healthy."

I don't think I've ever signed an infielder who didn't play shortstop in high school. You like to recruit centerfielders, shortstops, catchers, co-captain types of guys. And pitchers. His reaction to being predicted 6th West by SEC coaches: "Sometimes we've been one, two, five. But last year Kentucky was ranked 12th and became one; Florida was one and became 12. So who cares, right? That shows the balance of the league."

Where would he have voted State: "I can't remember where I put the team. I try to be realistic, I may have put three or four. I don't remember. It takes me five seconds to fill it out, because who knows? I'm sure it's fun for the fans and the press but I don't think it affects our players at all. I've been last before, I've been first before."

You seemed down after losing at Clemson and the way you finished last year: "No, I was proud of our kids. We had a two-run lead in the seventh inning in front of all those fans. Of course we'd had to beat them again, but I thought our guys finished good. You'd have to have been on the road to see some of the games. I hate to use the word snake-bit but it just seemed we couldn't get a bounce here or a comebacker that is normally fielded goes into rightfield, or a chink home run in the ninth, whatever. Three or four games where you say how did that happen? Really I think the kids did a heck of a job last year. The second half, those injuries were a factor; not only in regard to lineup but it takes a little out of the kids, they say we have to try harder and sometimes in baseball when you try harder you're not as productive. I don't apologize for the second half last year, we battled. It just didn't work out, and what are you gonna do?"

"The 18-0, remember we were at home. We played a good schedule but we won some close games. We were good, but then we went 20 out of 28 on the road plus the schedule picked up dramatically. You'd like to think 14-14 at the worst and maybe 18-10, but that's when it happened. You're not going to be on all cylinders all year. But I keep harping, at Georgia and especially the second year you don't miss a beat if one catcher goes down. You've got about the same money in number-two, -three, and -four."

On scheduling: "I know you all ask why we start the season later. Next year the rest of the country is following Mississippi State, we will have a starting practice date of February 1 and the last weekend of February is when you can start your season."

"I've got coaches calling me all time, how do you play 56 games starting the end of February. I say we've been doing it forever. You have to play Tuesdays and Wednesdays for the most part and use 10, 11 pitchers. The good thing is when you get in the loser's bracket in Regionals the 8-9 guys have pitched some."

On Dudy Noble Field/Polk-Dement Stadium: "We're trying to continue to upgrade our facilities because our stadium is 20 years old. It seems just yesterday we moved in. There are things we have to do cosmetically, I'm sure you saw the new wrought-iron fence and red-brick pillars being put up. That's really going to dress up the outside of our stadium. We put a new surface in the John Grisham Room, we painted the dugouts and both runways to the dugouts. The new outfield padding is not all up yet but we've taken down all those banners with all the uniforms retired and all the championships; we're putting them on the concourse on banners. And we're putting up green padding that makes the ballpark look smaller but we're still the largest park by far in the SEC. We have not moved the fence in."

"We've fixed up the Players Lounge through Dugout Club money. A new flat-screen TV, paint, new carpet, re-framing all the certificates, new murals on the walls. And we've fixed up the conference room in the office complex with pictures and memorabilia. We're just trying to do a little bit every year to continue to display the tradition of Mississippi State baseball."

"And the Left Field Lounge is no longer called that, since all the trees are down it's now the Outfield Lounge because it goes from pole-to-pole. That is sold out."

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