Bulldogs Start SEC Second Half At Home

Coach Ron Polk has to like what he's seeing on the office television these days. Specifically from the Weather Channel. After a couple of weeks battling with, and often losing to, miserable climactic conditions, the forecast is excellent for Mississippi State's upcoming series with Louisiana State. A home series at that, which is another change for the Bulldog-better.

"We just finished what was supposed to be a nine-game road trip 5-1," Polk said Thursday morning. A road-stretch where Mississippi State lost more to weather than the opposition, with rainouts of a single game at South Alabama and a pair of conference contests at Tennessee. Of course weather victories don't show in the standings, so the Bulldogs have more to be pleased with than warmer, drier conditions.

Taking five of the six games played (the lone setback coming at Arkansas) leaves State 24-8 overall and, more importantly, 8-5 in the SEC standings and second in the Western Division. And even weather hasn't kept the Diamond Dogs from climbing in the national rankings, to as high as #15 in one poll this week. So now that they are body dry and high, the objective becomes staying in contention for both Division and conference titles.

Which means taking care of business with the Tigers (21-17, 6-8-1 SEC) this weekend. "We've got a fine LSU team coming in, they have good young players," said Polk. A new coach too, with Paul Mainieri, though the former Notre Dame skipper isn't so young; he has 864 wins in 24 seasons before coming back to his home state and the SEC. Polk still has seniority though, in his 34th season as head coach. In fact, when Polk was an aide at Miami-Dade South College his team's arch-rival, Dade-North, was coached by Mainieri's father.

"I've known Paul since he was a peanut," Polk said. Now of course Mainieri is a tougher sort of nut to coach against, having taken the Irish to national status. His 2000 Irish team came to Starkville for a great Regional the Bulldogs won with a 10-9 title game.

"I was here one game in that Regional," then UG-Coach Polk said, "and got a chance to see his team play. I knew when Skip Bertman made the decision to hire Paul it was a good decision. I know Paul's ambition is to get LSU back to where they were and I think he's on target."

And, get MSU-LSU back to being the SEC's preeminent rivalry. Polk is 69-54 against the Bengals for his career and in his five regular-season series since returning to State for 2002 his teams have won twice, lost twice, and split a rain-shortened set. Last March the Bulldogs did take the series in Baton Rouge 2-1, though that Saturday loss ended MSU's school-record 18-game winning streak.

This team boast no such streak or a national #1 ranking. But unlike that team, which faded over the second half of the schedule, these Bulldogs have improved since the season began. They won four of the first five SEC series and at 8-5 are second in the Western Division to loop and overall league leading Arkansas (11-4). And, State is the only team to take a series from the Razorbacks so far, winning two of three in a cold-weather weekend at Fayetteville to begin that road string.

And even those rainouts at Tennessee are playing to State's favor in the standings, which at season's end are based on win/loss percentage and not just wins and losses. Thus the Bulldogs at .615 are second in the entire league to Arkansas' .733. Vanderbilt and Florida have won one more game but are at .600; the Rebels and Florida at 8-7 have as many wins but still trail State at .533.

The key to this resurgence is simple enough. Mississippi State is scoring runs this SEC spring.

"When we went into the season after losing Matt Lea and Jared Wesson, two guys we were counting on for the pitching staff, we knew we would have to swing the bats well," said Polk. "We have." That's putting mildly as State leads the SEC in all-game hitting with a .340 average, nine points ahead of Kentucky. LSU by contrast is batting .256, last in the league. It's a bit closer with SEC-only game stats as State is third in hitting at .304, LSU 10th at .263.

Three Bulldogs are in the current full-season top ten batting; shortstop Brandon Turner is second in the SEC at .427, catcher Edward Easley fourth at .400, and first baseman Mitch Moreland sixth at .372. And while only Turner makes the SEC top-ten cut for hitting in league-only play, he is joined in that top-ten by centerfielder Mark Goforth who has batted .372 in a dozen SEC outings.

The plate-prowess was on display in the most recent win as Mississippi State took a 14-9 decision over Ole Miss in Wednesday night's Governor's Cup Game in Pearl. The win didn't count in then SEC standings but naturally mattered much to MSU fans. It also did the Dogs lots of good with their sixth victory over a ranked opponent, besides ending a five-year losing streak for State in the annual ‘extra' game of the rivals in the metro area. The teams meet again next weekend in Oxford in a series that will count towards the SEC title.

"For the most part we've played pretty good defense," Polk said. Also true with a team .965 fielding average, 5th SEC. Pitching is another matter entirely as State is 11th in SEC-game ERA (LSU 9th). And even here wet weather might have done the Dogs a favor at Tennessee, as Sunday starter RH Josh Johnson would almost certainly not have been able to take his weekly turn with bicep tendinitis. Now, "He's had almost two weeks to rest," Polk said. "We hope he can pitch Sunday."

"Our rotation will be the same, Chad Crosswhite on Friday and Justin Pigott Saturday. Pigott pitched a little against Ole Miss." The lefthander also has tweaked a hamstring and was limited at Pearl just for protection, keeping him on schedule for this Saturday.

While the numbers aren't glowing for this State staff, even that needs putting in some perspective. Because while MSU pitchers have given up runs, they also typically have kept things under just enough control for sufficient innings for the offense to take charge. Maybe most meaningfully, the whole Bulldog squad is showing the sort of grit and resilience lacking in the second half of 2006.

"We're 9-2 in one-run ball games," Polk pointed out. He might have added State is 5-1 in games decided by two runs. "Last year when we were losing we weren't getting hammered, we were losing 4-3, 6-5 because we didn't get one hit. Our bases-loaded knock in was probably the worst in college baseball history. Now we're one of the best."

The fact is these Dogs have been able to deliver the decisive swings much more often than not and it shows in both the record and the team's attitude start-to-finish. Polk, always an advocate of contagious hitting, agrees there is one thing better. "Timely hitting is what it's all about, to heck with average. It's who knocks them in when they're at second and third base."

The Diamond Dogs will be taking those cuts this weekend, starting the second half of their SEC schedule and a five-game homestand. There are only seven more home dates left after next week, though, which has fans asking if any of the four games washed out so far this year can be re-scheduled at Dudy Noble Field between now and mid-May.

Polk said State has worked on this, but not made make-up games a priority for a fundamental, big-picture reason. Athletic director Larry Templeton, chairman of the NCAA's baseball committee, has recommended waiting until after this weekend's series and getting a better read on how thing stand around the country in both conference and NCAA Tournament terms before committing to a few more home dates against low-caliber competition.

"The problem is if we play a team in the immediate area not many of them are having good seasons," Polk explained. "Even if we win our RPI drops." And RPI is critical with the baseball committee come late May when host privileges for first- and second-round Regionals are being settled. Polk cautions that it's too early to be worrying about RPI and hosting, that the SEC schedule is only half-done. But…neither is the coach pushing too hard for make-ups.

"We're down four games now, not good, we'd like to play every day. But right now our schedule is pretty compacted because we start later in the year. Next year everybody will start at the same time." That's 2008; have any of the 2007 gaps been filled yet?

"At this particular time no," Polk said. "But we're hoping to get at least one or two of those games back and find an opponent whose RPI isn't too low."

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