MSU's Success: Hitting and More Hitting

After taking two of three from Kentucky on Super Bulldog Weekend, the Diamond Dogs made their season debut in the top 25, coming in at #23 in the Collegiate Baseball poll. But a bigger jump came after the team took a couple from division rival Arkansas at Baum Stadium. That impressive result had MSU as high as #18, and ranked in the top 25 in the four major polls.

No doubt the Dogs should be on the move up again after an undefeated, albeit abbreviated, week that saw them defeat South Alabama in Pearl and take the only game that they were able to play at Tennessee.

I'll be saying the word impressive a good many more times, and for good reason.

The 23-8 record through the midpoint of the season is pretty impressive in itself, considering how tough MSU's schedule has been up to this point, and the fact that the Dogs were picked to finish last in the West. And, if there was a time for their run towards last to have started, it'd have been early, with series against Florida, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Arkansas in the first four weeks. But they didn't, winning three of four of those series to pull into a tie for second in the West with Ole Miss, heading into the weekend series at Tennessee.

The majority of MSU's wins thus far have come against top quality competition. They're 12-6 against teams rated in the top 50 of the RPI, and that's a good reason why State is a top-five team in that all-important (whether or not it actually should be) rating. That includes the two wins over both Troy and Memphis, and the win at Baylor. Most importantly, there are no 'bad' losses on the ledger. Michigan is 22-6 and on a 16-game win streak, Winthrop is atop the standings in the Big South, and Dallas Baptist is 11-2 at home. And, well, there are rarely ever any really 'bad' losses in the SEC, except for on the scoreline sometimes.

We all know the value of getting excited about an early start, especially after last season, so, carry on with cautious optimism. But, all things considered, feel free to be pleased, because you should be.

At this same point last season, MSU, after the 18-0 start, stood at 26-9, and had a 7-7 conference record.

But, this year's start is actually much more impressive than even that 18-0 start, honestly. Last year's team was expected to do well, with a team full of experience all around. We all know what happened after the 18-0 start, so I won't go there much.

This year's team does have its experience, with the three seniors and two juniors starting at the plate, and a senior and a junior in the weekend rotation, but there are also four underclassmen playing significant roles in the lineup and several in the pitching staff.

What's most impressive though is what's spearheaded the start.

Hitting, hitting, hitting, and more hitting.

Coming into this week, the Dogs are not only at or near the top of the SEC in a number of offensive categories, but they also find themselves prominent in the national rankings.

As of Wednesday's 5-1 victory over South Alabama, MSU now ranks fifth in the nation in batting average, coming in at .339 as a team. They are 11th in runs per game at 8.2, third in hits per game at 12.74 (unofficial statistic), and are among the top teams in slugging percentage and doubles per game.

Starkville is home to one of a handful of teams with multiple .400 hitters, and one of only three teams with all nine regular starters hitting over .300 (and the only team, as a matter of fact, with every starter at .317 or above). The others are Arizona State and College of Charleston. The Sun Devils rank second in the nation in average (.358), and the Cougars rank right behind them in third (.354).

Speaking of the guys that make up the order, there are some standout performers among them. Redshirt freshman shortstop Brandon Turner is second in the SEC with a .421 average, and junior catcher Ed Easley is fourth in the conference, stroking at a .405 clip. Easley is a top candidate for several conference and national honors, ranks high among the leaders in the SEC in eight offensive categories (slugging %: .651 - 5th, on-base %: .473 - 7th, hits: 51 - 7th, runs: 36 - 12th, RBI: 38 - 8th, homers: 8 - 9th, total bases: 82 - 8th, and average). Turner isn't too shabby either, as he's up there in hits (53 - 5th), runs (38 - 8th), and on-base percentage (.471 - 9th), and he appears to be the top candidate for SEC Freshman of the Year, and among the leading candidates for national honors as well. The only other freshmen with better numbers are Hofstra's Matt Prokopowicz and North Carolina's Dustin Ackley, who is the likely favorite for the national freshman of the year honors.

Junior first baseman Mitch Moreland has been a threat all season long in the cleanup spot. Moreland, in his first season as a full-time starter, is hitting .363 with five homers and 37 RBI. He also ranks in the top 20 in the conference in doubles (12), slugging percentage, on-base percentage, and hits (45).

The numbers are all very nice on the surface, because nine times out of ten, you're going to win if you can put runs on the board with regularity.

But look deeper, and you'll see just how good this team has been so far.

One of the things that tripped up last year's team was a lack of consistency at the plate in producing timely hits and prevailing in close situations. That's something that has changed greatly this season. Eleven times this season, MSU has used rallies in the 7th-9th innings to win games.

Last season, MSU was 13-14 in games decided by one or two runs. It had a significant impact in SEC play, where ten of those losses came, against only four wins.

This season, the Dogs have already surpassed that 13-win total - in 17 games (14-3). In conference play, they're 6-1 in one and two-run games, with the sole loss coming in the Saturday game at Florida. Ideally, you'd like to avoid getting into too many close games, because you're guaranteed to lose a few; however, when you know the team is capable of coming through the majority of the time, it makes getting into those situations a lot more bearable as a fan, and it undoubtedly works wonders for team confidence.

Last Wednesday night's game against USA was yet another example. With the amount of opportunities that had been created in the first six innings, it almost appeared as if it wasn't a matter of 'if' the breakthrough would come, but instead 'when.' Yes, the late rally was helped along by a few Jaguar mistakes, but it never hurts to have a little help along with a big hit. That time around, it was Moreland's two-run double in the seventh inning that broke a 1-1 tie and put the Dogs ahead to stay. That was the second time in a week that a seventh-inning double turned out to be a game-winner. On Saturday, Jeff Flagg delivered a two-bagger in the seventh frame to put MSU ahead of Arkansas in the series-clinching victory.

It might be easy to forget, but last year's team was a very good hitting team. They finished in a tie with Vanderbilt for third in the conference with a .308 team average (one point behind Georgia and Ole Miss), fifth and third in doubles and doubles per game, and fifth and fourth in runs and runs per game. And, the Dog lineup boasted the two leading hitters in the conference, in batting champion Thomas Berkery (.383) and Rea, who finished second behind his infield partner at .372. The team also posted a respectable 55 homers, led by Brian LaNinfa's eleven long balls.

There was expected to be a dropoff, with the losses of Berkery (261 career hits, .314 average), four-year starters Jeff Butts (213 hits, .299 average), and Joseph Hunter (218 hits, .305 average), and three-year starter Brad Jones, who had two productive seasons in 2004 and 2005 before an up-and-down senior season.

But, the return of Rea after flirting with signing with the Red Sox in the summer was an immediate boost, and so was the transfer of outfielder Mark Goforth from Birmingham Southern after it dropped its Division I status. Rea (.317, 32 runs scored) is having his fourth straight .300+ season, and is closing in on the MSU career hits record, and Goforth is hitting .347 after a team-leading 3-for-4 performance in Friday night's 4-3 win in Knoxville.

The emergence of newcomers and new full-time starters has been big as well. Turner has lived up to his billing as a talented hitter by putting in big performance after big performance. True freshman third baseman Connor Powers (.331, 23 RBI) hit 16 homers as a senior in Illinois last season, and has six in his first collegiate campaign. Starting sophomore outfielder Flagg (.329, four homers, 20 RBI) is having a solid season in his first as a starter, and senior outfielder Joseph McCaskill (.337 in 18 starts) looks like he'll be a fixture in the lineup for the rest of the season.

And, as for the other veterans in the lineup, they're thriving as well. Easley is having his best season yet, and is moving his way up the MLB draft boards as a potential top-two round pick. LaNinfa, who was arguably MSU's best hitter in the second half of 2006, is having a solid senior season (.339, 29 RBI). And Moreland, who took over duties as the everyday first baseman, is showing off his potential at the plate and gaining more and more interest as a top pro prospect.

Last year's lineup was pretty darn good in its own right, but this year's appears to be much better, in that they are consistently solid from top to bottom, and they also have those intangibles that give them a chance no matter the situation. And, even though some have better numbers than others, it's been a carousel of big-time performers throughout the season. Easley, Turner, and Moreland have been the consistent stars, as their numbers would indicate, and have combined for 19 three-plus hit performances, and the team has 32 total. The trio have also combined for 13 of the team's 22 total three-plus RBI performances as well.

But everyone else in the lineup have done their part as well. Rea had a five-hit game against Florida, and Goforth, Powers, and McCaskill have all had game-winning hits in the final at-bat. As mentioned before, Flagg has had some big hits, and LaNinfa's done the same.

The big inning has been key as well. MSU has had 14 innings where they scored four or more runs. The seventh inning seems to be pretty lucky, as the Dogs have had seven, eight, and nine-run seventh frames that have given them leads to stay. And, against Memphis (two-five run innings) and Louisiana-Monroe (a ten-run second and six-run fourth), two big innings were enough to put the game out of reach.

It's still too early to tell just what this bunch of pups will end up being, but things appear to be in their favor. A popular baseball phrase is 'hitting is contagious,' and it looks like that is the case with this team. When the others are doing well, it's easy to feed off of their success.

True enough, the pitching has had its struggles, but a couple of performances in the past few weeks have been encouraging.

For now though, the hitting has provided more than enough. If Easley, Turner, Moreland, and the rest of the gang of nine keep it up, and the pitching staff can consistently perform as it has recently, I may have to find another word besides impressive to describe this team.

Eddie Griffin, a freelance writer who does monthly opinion columns for the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by website, can be reached at .

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