This preview will show who some of the players to watch on each team are, and show just what lies ahead for the Diamond Dogs in their out-of-conference matchups.
Murray St. (Feb. 23-25)
2006 record: 15-40, 8-19 Ohio Valley (10th)
The Racers finished last in the OVC last season. There are just as many newcomers on the '07 squad as there are returnees, but three top hitters return, in senior catcher Jason Payton (.285, 7 HR, 31 RBI) and part-time starters Seth Hudson (.385, 14 RBI) and Jamie Leidolf (.327, 16 RBI). The Racers struggled with putting runs across (4.78 runs per game), and struggled just the same with surrendering them (7.24 per game). Considering that the schedule gets much tougher in a hurry, opening the season with the other MSU will be a good way for the new Bulldog lineup to get itself going. You can never underestimate any opponent, especially in a sport where #1 can lose to #300 on any given day, but nothing less than a resounding sweep is expected.
Mississippi Valley St. (Feb. 27)
2006 record: 25-32, 20-4 SWAC (1st East)
The Delta Devils are a regular on the MSU schedule. The games are usually one-sided, but MSU had to scratch out a 3-2 win in one of the two 2005 meetings. Last year, MSU used 20 hits and four-hit pitching to rout MVSU 21-2 on May 2nd. The team is off to a rough start this season, having already been on the wrong end of a 33-3, mercy-rule shellacking against Florida Atlantic, where the Owls had scored all of their runs by the end of the 4th.
Troy (March 2 & 4)
2006 record: 47-16, 20-4 Sun Belt (1st), won Sun Belt tourney, 2-2 in Tuscaloosa Regional (2nd)
The Trojans have won back to back conference titles, in two different leagues. They won the Atlantic Sun regular season title in 2005, before moving over to the Sun Belt, where they swept both the regular season and tournament titles. The Trojans are once again a favorite in the Sun Belt, and have picked up wins over Arkansas and Alabama so far. They were one of the nation's best hitting teams in 2006, and despite losing four top hitters from last year's club, including consensus All-American shortstop Tom King, are still pretty set. All-American two-way star Josh Dew (.317, 17 homers, 67 RBI), Clint Robinson (.343, 8 homers), Ian Craze (.336, 61 runs, 36 RBI, 19 steals), and Edgar Ramirez (.320, 7 homers, 58 RBI) all return to give the Trojans a strong lineup.
Clegg Snipes (7-0, 4.87 ERA) and Joe Hallahan (6-3, 4.15) are two talented starters, and Dew (5-1, 2.98, 7 saves, 63 Ks) is one of the top closers around, but the Trojan pitching staff gave up 37 runs in three games against Arkansas. Considering Troy's bats, and the fact that MSU's offense should have their hitting shoes strapped on, Dudy Noble might see just a little scoring in the two games these teams play. Troy is currently 5-2 following a three- game sweep of Saint Louis, with the other two wins coming against Arkansas and at Alabama.
Michigan (March 3)
2006 record: 43-21, 23-9 Big Ten (1st), won Big Ten tourney, 1-2 in Atlanta Regional
The Big Ten doesn't get a lot of pub in baseball, but there are a couple of teams in the conference that can play with pretty much anyone, and Michigan is one of them. Michigan and Ohio St. are the perennial contenders in football, and that's also the case on the diamond, as the two are the favorites for the conference title this year. This year's Wolverines team isn't quite the caliber of those 80s teams that had guys like Barry Larkin and Hal Morris, but the 2007 version is solid in every facet of the game. Five .300+ hitters return, led by junior first baseman Nate Recknagel, who hit .372. Eric Rose hit .329 and stole 32 bases. Sophomores Adam Abraham (.304/5-3, 3.96 ERA) and Zach Putnam were both freshman All-Americans and are dangerous both at the plate and on the mound. Michigan has a deep rotation, with Chris Fetter (5-2, 2.22 ERA), Paul Hammond (8-4, 2.36), and Putnam (6-2, 2.51), who is the preseason favorite for conference player of the year. Some MSU fans (like me, who was a wee one at the time) don't remember the '85 Michigan team, but there is a lot of recent history with the Big Ten, with MSU having played the Buckeyes several times in recent years, and having hosted Illinois in the Classic a few seasons ago.
UAB (March 6)
2006 record: 19-38, 6-18 C-USA (8th)
MSU and UAB usually play twice in a season, but this will be the lone matchup between the two in 2007, in the first of four straight games MSU will play against teams coached by former MSU assistants. Brian Shoop is now UAB's skipper after Birmingham Southern dropped their D-I baseball program. Shoop brought several players with him from BSC to complement UAB's returnees. The leading returnees at the plate for UAB are senior catcher Danny Sawyer, who led the team in average and RBI in 2006, and was second with seven homers, and senior outfielder Steven Turner, who hit .304 and stole 13 bases. The Blazers struggled mightily with control issues and giving up runs last season, but do return junior Jim Crew, who led the team in wins, ERA, and strikeouts. MSU routed UAB in their two matchups last season, 20-4 in Birmingham and 10-3 in Starkville. In that 20-4 win, MSU hit four homers and benefited from those aforementioned control issues, as UAB pitchers gave up 18 free passes (16 walks, two hit batters). UAB opened their 2007 season by dropping two of three at home to Mid-American favorite Central Michigan.
Jacksonville State (March 7)
2006 record: 35-24, 19-8 Ohio Valley (2nd), won OVC tourney, 0-2 in Tuscaloosa Regional
Jim Case has led the Gamecocks to the postseason in two of the last three seasons, and the 2007 Gamecocks are once again one of the favorites in the OVC, along with leading contender Samford. Six .300+ hitters and seven of nine lineup starters return, led by the speedy combo of senior outfielder Nick Cleckler (.369, 62 runs, 32 RBI, 20 steals) and sophomore second baseman Bert Smith (.315, 55 runs, 37 RBI, 23 steals), who was a freshman All-American last season. Junior Donovan Hand (9-5, 2.82 ERA, 88 Ks), who is the ace of the staff, has a career record of 19-8 and a 2.72 ERA. Senior Tony Drinkard (4-5, 3.44, 53 Ks) is the team's #2 starter. MSU took both games last season, 6-1 in Starkville and 7-4 in Jacksonville, and each game was closer than the final scores indicate.
Winthrop (March 9)
2006 record: 46-18, 17-7 Big South (2nd), 2-2 in Chapel Hill Regional (runner-up)
The Eagles have established themselves as one of the top three to five 'mid-majors' in the country under coach Joe Hudak. Winthrop is currently ranked in the Top 25 in multiple polls. The team boasts one of the best pitchers in the nation in sophomore Alex Wilson, who racked up 13 wins and 143 strikeouts in an All-American freshman campaign. There's a pretty good chance that MSU will be facing him in their opener in Waco. The Eagles are already 7-2 on the season, with the losses coming in a season-opening series at then-#13 UCLA.
Baylor (March 10)
2006 record: 37-23, 13-14 Big 12 (T-5th), 2-2 in Houston (Rice) Regional (runner-up)
MSU plays the host team on Saturday. The Bears, coached by Mississippi native Steve Smith, opened the season in the Top 25, but fell out after dropping games to Houston, Rice, and Vanderbilt at Minute Maid Park. Baylor is one of the most talented teams in the country, but do regularly start four or five freshmen (albeit very, very, very good freshmen) in their lineup. Sophomore shortstop Beamer Weems was a freshman All-American after hitting .297 with eight homers and 47 RBI, and making only ten errors in the field. The pitching staff is unproven in some roles, but thoroughly experienced, led by Randal Linebaugh (6-1, 3.42 ERA) and Jeff Mandel (2-3, 4.40, eight saves) and a solid bullpen. The Bears are 4-3 on the season, having won four straight after dropping three in a row at the Houston College Classic to Houston, former #1 Rice, and new #1 Vandy.
San Francisco (March 11)
2006 record: 39-23, 15-6 West Coast (T-1st), 1-2 in Lincoln Regional
MSU closes out the tournament in Waco with a game against the Dons. USF is one of the up and coming programs in the nation, having posted 38 wins in 2005 and topping that last season with 39 and making their first ever NCAA regional appearance. They don't post eye-popping offensive numbers, but are led at the plate by returnees Joey Railey, Luke Sommer, Jonathan Norfolk, and Mitchell Bialosky. Junior Aaron Poreda is the ace of the pitching staff. So far in '07, the Dons are 5-4. Bialosky (.360/2/7) is the team's leading hitter and is the team's #4 starter on the mound. If it's a low-scoring game, it bodes well for the Dons, but if MSU is able to put runs on the board, USF may not be able to keep up.
at UT-Arlington (March 13)
2006 record: 29-36, 16-12 Southland (4th), won Southland Tourney, 0-2 in Austin (Texas) Regional
The Mavericks posted a losing record last season, but won four games in a row when it mattered to win the SLC tourney and make the postseason. UTA also won at Texas and beat Hawaii and super regional participant Oral Roberts. The team returns five starters at the plate, led by Daniel Rieder, who hit .318 last season and has posted the same mark through the first seven games of 2007. The Mavericks are led on the mound by Chris Taylor, who went 4-5 with six saves as both a starter and a closer in 2006, and is 1-0 with a 1.69 ERA through his first two starts this season. UTA has opened 3-4, and has been hurt by errors (16 in seven games) in a couple of close losses, one coming at the hands of top-10 Nebraska.
at Dallas Baptist (March 14)
2006 record: 33-23 (Independent)
MSU closes out their Texas trip with a game against the Patriots. The Patriots are in only their second year as a full D-I member and still don't have a conference affiliation yet, but will be challenging for a regional berth. Last season, they knocked off WAC champ Fresno St. and Mountain West champ TCU twice on the road, Oklahoma and Texas A&M on the road, and also defeated tournament teams Oral Roberts, Southern Miss, UNC-Asheville and UT-Arlington. DBU has consistently been an excellent hitting club, and last season hit .302 as a team with 86 homers. A couple of those sluggers are gone, but the Patriots have three power producers in junior centerfielder Austin Krum (.368, nine homers, 30 RBI, 19 steals), sophomore leftfielder Evan Bigley (.293, nine homers, 46 RBI), and senior second baseman Matt Tucker (.273, 14 homers, 48 RBI). Randall Taylor (5-3, 5.40 ERA, 76 Ks) is the top returning pitcher. DBU has started 4-2, including a sweep of Northwestern St. and a victory over Big East favorite St. John's.
Samford (March 20)
2006 record: 34-25, 21-6 Ohio Valley (1st)
Samford won the OVC regular season title in 2006, and are the favorite to take the crown this season, with a loaded roster of returnees. Their top seven hitters return, led by conference POY favorite Parker Gargis (.396, 5 HR, 55 RBI in '06). All three main mound starters return, led by 2006 OVC Pitcher of the Year and All-American Josh Ehmke (11-2, 3.15 ERA, 132 Ks in '06) and closer Jospeh Edens, who had 11 saves last season. These Bulldogs are 2-1 in 2007, having opened their season with a home series win over Arkansas State. Former MSU pitcher Trent Hill transferred to Samford after last season and is already making a big impact for Casey Dunn, going seven shutout innings and striking out seven in the Saturday game, a performance that earned him OVC Pitcher of the Week honors.
Memphis (March 26-27)
2006 record: 32-28, 13-11 C-USA (T-4th)
Former MSU assistant Daron Schoenrock has immediately begun a turnaround at Memphis, leading them to a winning record in his first season. This season, the Tigers should contend for their first regional berth since 1994. There aren't too many better lineups in the South than Memphis', which returns seven of its top eight hitters from a lineup that hit .315 as a team in 2006. All-American first baseman Adam Amar leads the way, along with Bill Moss, Will Petersen, and Joey Lieberman, who hit 13 homers and drove in 42 runs in only 135 at-bats last season. Southaven native K.K. Chalmers (one of eight Mississippians on the Memphis roster) is the Tigers' center fielder and one of the nation's top base-stealers. Pitching is the team's weakness, but with several returnees, should see improvement. MSU and Memphis have played a number of close games in the past few seasons, including a few slugfests, and the bats should come out when these teams get together in Starkville.
Louisiana-Monroe (April 3)
2006 record: 18-37, 12-16 Southland (8th)
MSU easily swept three games from the Warhawks last season, but will face them only once in 2007. ULM's top four hitters return, led by senior catcher Josh Morrison (.352, 6 HR, 30 RBI) and sophomore shortstop/pitcher Ben Soignier (.348, 18 steals, 1-5, 4.70 ERA), who was a freshman All-American last season after transferring from Alabama. ULM has gotten off to a 5-1 start this season, with a series win over Stephen F. Austin and a sweep of Nicholls State. Morrison is leading the team with a .520 average and 10 RBI through the first six games.
South Alabama (April 10 - Mobile, April 11 - Pearl)
2006 record: 39-21, 16-7 Sun Belt (3rd)
USA is usually a regular on the MSU schedule, but was absent from the slate in 2006. That may not have been such a bad thing, considering all of the weapons they had. The Jaguars hit .326 as a team last season, and despite losing big-time hitters David Freese, Tyler Jones, and Patrick Weaver, do return sophomore third baseman David Doss, who hit .400 as a freshman and was named the Sun Belt's Freshman of the Year and garnered multiple All-American honors, and Jeff Cunningham, who hit .348 last season. Joey Doan is their leading returning pitcher, and compiled a 6-3 record last season. MSU and USA have played several great games over the years, including a pretty unforgettable 14-13, 12-inning affair to open the 1998 season. USA started the season winning two of three against Mercer.
Ole Miss (April 17 - Pearl)
2006 record: 44-22, 17-13 SEC (3rd in West), won SEC tourney, won Oxford Regional, lost to Miami 2-1 in Super Regionals
The Governor's Cup replaces the Mayor's Trophy Game as the non-conference meeting between the in-state archrivals. Ole Miss won the last five of the non-conference meetings, so a new name and new site may be a good way for MSU to start a new win streak.
Southern Miss (April 24-25)
2006 record: 39-23, 13-11 C-USA (T-4th), 1-2 Tuscaloosa Regional
No one can forget the memorable incident that happened last season between MSU's #1 and Hattiesburg's finest in the first of the teams' two games. That incident almost overshadowed the games, which were both won by USM. Hopefully this year, the games will be the main focus. The Golden Eagles lost three of their main hitters, including Marc Maddox, who belted 53 career homers. But, they do return their two leading hitters in junior second baseman Trey Sutton (.375) and shortstop Brian Dozier, who hit .368 as a freshman. They also have the twin combo of sophomores Michael and James Ewing, who were both freshman All-Americans last season (Ewing did so at Arkansas, before transferring). The rotation is led by senior Ryan Belanger, who shut down MSU last season with a 10-strikeout performance, and junior Barry Bowden. USM started off their season by sweeping their Coca-Cola Classic with wins over Southern Illinois, Louisville, and Northwestern State.
At Austin Peay (May 8-9)
2006 record: 32-27, 14-13 Ohio Valley (5th)
You usually want to maximize your home games at this point in the season, but having a midweek road series against a competitive opponent isn't a bad thing. When you're in the home stretch, consistently facing quality opposition will ensure the team doesn't get complacent, and prepares you for the postseason.
The Govs return sophomore outfielder/first baseman Ryan Gilboy, who hit .366 and drove in 54 runs in a freshman All-American season, and four other regulars. There are two experienced pitchers at the top of the rotation. Senior Shawn Kelley posted a 3.30 ERA and posted 89 strikeouts and four complete games last season, and senior Matt Reynolds posted a 4-4 record in 2006. Austin Peay has opened the 2007 season at 2-1, with a victory over Central Arkansas and a split with Cincinnati.
Arkansas-Little Rock (May 15)
2006 record: 24-30, 5-19 Sun Belt (9th)
The Trojans struggled in coach Jim Lawler's first season, finishing last in the Sun Belt, but return five starters from a lineup that hit .298. Second team All-American senior outfielder Ryan Gotcher led the team in hitting last season with a .360 average and stole 25 bases, and senior DH Matt King hit .323 and led the team in homers (8) and RBI (52). Only one pitcher that saw significant time last season returns from a staff that gave up an average of nearly eight runs a game.
So far in 2007, the Trojans are 5-2, with series victories over Central Arkansas and Northern Iowa. Coach Lawler is known as one of the top pitching coaches in the country, and his new rotation led by JC transfers David Klumpp and Joe Campbell seems to be much improved. Senior third baseman Brian Asbill leads the team with 11 RBI.
With Murray St., Jacksonville St., Samford, and Austin Peay all on the schedule, MSU could be considered a part-time member of the Ohio Valley Conference. In the past few seasons, MSU has also faced OVC members UT-Martin, Eastern Illinois, Morehead St., and Tennessee Tech. I suppose we can expect series against Eastern Kentucky and Southeast Missouri State coming up within the next couple of seasons.
There are 13 games against 2006 NCAA tournament participants, and throw in the games against Memphis, Samford, Jacksonville St., and DBU, and MSU's got a non-conference schedule full of quality opponents. Considering that the 30-game SEC schedule is tougher than an overcooked T-bone, then scheduling a weaker schedule would have been understandable.
But with the number of questions that must be answered about the 2007 Diamond Dogs, or more specifically the order and the roles among the team, then having so many tough games will be a good way to answer these questions before conference play opens and prepare the pups for another run towards an SEC title and the postseason.
Eddie Griffin, a freelance writer who does monthly opinion columns for the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .