The showdown at Oxford-University Stadium is certainly what SEC West baseball is about this week. The Bulldogs (27-10, 9-7 SEC) are second in the Division standings and third in the overall SEC ‘race to Hoover'. But the margin is only sixth-thousandths of a percentage point ahead of the Rebels (10-8 SEC) in the West, as well as East teams Florida and South Carolina who are also 10-8.
It means that the weekend's winner will come out that much stronger in tournament terms, both SEC and NCAA; while the loser could easily find itself three or more slots lower on the league ladder going into the May stretch run. For that matter, this April meeting of rivals could very easily settle which team has a chance to host first- and second-round regionals and who will have to travel in June.
"We've got to bring our A-game up there," Polk said.
The Rebels certainly have the look of a squad rounding into post-season form lately. The teams met ten days ago on a neutral field, with Mississippi State taking a 14-9 win in the inaugural Governor's Cup game played at Pearl's Trustmark Park. That game does not count into SEC calculations. It did however give each side a very good look at the other, and Polk was impressed.
"Pitching and defense is what makes this team go," he said. "I think they're leading the league in defense." This despite four Ole Miss errors committed on the AA-park, and the 14 runs allowed by a series of arms. Polk minimizes both aspects of a non-conference contest, expecting the Rebels to be on much better form at their home field. Besides, State has struggled for the last couple of seasons in this matchup, getting swept in Oxford in 2005 and losing the home series last spring.
This isn't quite the same Ole Miss club. "Offensively they lost some great players from last year," Polk said. Yet Coach Mike Bianco has recruited well and filled in the order-gaps with only modest drop-off in the early season. Two months of games has had the natural effect of developing the younger talent.
"I'm so impressed with the Henrys (Justin and Jordan), that's a tough combo at the top of the lineup," Polk said. "Zack Cozart is a veteran and fine player, they've got a nice club. And they've been swinging the bat a lot better lately." "And certainly they not only have good starting pitching but they've got a couple of guys in the bullpen in Cody Satterwhite and Scott Bittle who can bring it pretty good."
Mississippi State had been playing pretty good for a month also, winning three-straight SEC series even if one was shortened by rain to a single game at Tennessee. The Bulldogs were leading the SEC in batting and thriving in close contests. Then came last weekend's home set with LSU, where after a 12-3 Friday win State lost by 6-5 and 3-1 scores.
Polk hasn't seen any signs of shaken confidence from his club yet, pointing out that State out-batted the Bengals .321 to .235 and outscored them 17-10 with regular hard hitting. The difference wasn't average, it was opportunity. Timely hitting, in other words. "We didn't get that done last weekend, we leave 18 on base to LSU's eight in the last two contests and they get the two timely hits that win."
The Diamond Dogs showed signs Tuesday and Wednesday that their timely-touch is back, with 11-2 and 7-4 wins over Southern Mississippi. The first win also let a new pup, freshman DH Jet Butler, show there's talent on the bench yet to be fully tapped. Butler played with senior DH Brian LaNinfa sidelined by a knee injury suffered in locker-room horseplay, and sub Jeff Flagg struggling at plate and with the glove.
"We sustained no new injuries," Polk said Thursday of the series. "We'll be healthy for the series in Oxford." The pitching staff is healthy-er, too, as senior RH Josh Johnson had a strong start Sunday against LSU after some shoulder soreness. He said there was no pain for the first time all season, a good sign given the lack of sheer depth in this staff.
"Our rotation will remain the same," Polk said, "with Chad Crosswhite on Friday, Justin Pigott on Saturday, and Josh on Sunday."
After the weekend, Mississippi State has series with three SEC squads struggling just to stay in or even get into the league tourney picture. Auburn and Georgia are tied for 11th with six SEC wins each and nearing elimination; the schedule concludes with Alabama which right now stands 8th, barely ahead of Kentucky but also nipping at LSU's heels. That's how slippery the league ladder is and the Diamond Dogs don't want to fall back into that frantic pack.
State also has just seven home games left on the 2007 slate. At the same time the Bulldogs have had four games rained-out this year, all road games. Polk has said there is a chance one or two of those might be made up, but there are problems adding anyone to the schedule at this late date. For one thing, next week is spring finals at State and home games can't be played during the ‘dead' period.
After the Auburn weekend the Bulldogs have a road set at Austin Peay on May 8-9. And there's not as much time between the Georgia and Alabama series because the SEC now concludes the schedule with series starting on Thursday, May 17. There is a final non-SEC home game on May 15 with Arkansas-Little Rock, and Polk says this might be expanded into a day/night twinbill. Maybe.
"RPI is the whole key, it seems like," Polk said. "We don't want to play a team with a low RPI if we're doing well, it would be foolish. But I'd still like to play the games, that's why the kids came here."
"I don't know too many years we haven't played 56 games. If it (the Alabama series) was Friday it would be easy, we could play on Wednesday and a day/night Tuesday. But then you'd have to play teams that aren't good." And State doesn't need to schedule more foes that will drag down a RPI currently among the nation's ten-best. In fact, just playing Georgia and Auburn will cost the Bulldogs some points there already.
"I'm not a computer expert by far," said Polk, who still uses a typewriter for all notes and correspondence. "I don't know how things get thrown in the machine and it spits out numbers. But our RPI is pretty high and it's because we've played a pretty good non-conference schedule. But, it's just one factor the committee uses in evaluating seeding and siting for the NCAA Tournament."
Speaking of the NCAA, while the Diamond Dogs focus on their weekend Polk will also be keeping track of events at the NCAA Office where the governing board is considering proposals from the baseball committee regarding baseball scholarships and rosters. The committee, chaired by MSU athletic director Larry Templeton, is submitting proposals that would, among other things: cap the amount of scholarship aid a baseball player can receive at 33% of the cost of a full-ride at that school, regardless of the source of the aid (athletic, academic, foundation, etc.); require that all players for the spring season have been enrolled, eligible, at the school the previous fall; and force all transfers to sit out the same year as do athletes in full-scholarship sports.
Currently baseball programs in states with lottery-based public college funding or foundation funding (such as the ‘Lucky Day' at the University of Mississippi) can use such monies to boost the total scholarship offered to players from their own state, and thus shift more of their 11.7 scholarships worth of athletic aid to other, out-of-state players. Also, the NCAA has allowed teams to add players between semesters after evaluating their fall practices.
Mississippi State does not have access to the same additional funding as lottery state schools, though Diamond Dogs meeting the same criteria as other students have always been able to apply for and receive additional academic aid. State has rarely used mid-year transfers, though several times in the past the Bulldogs have benefited from a instant-eligible transfer, even from an in-state rival. Lottery funding is not necessary for on-field success. Alabama, with no such aid, won the 2006 SEC regular-season title, and both State and Ole Miss have won the last two SEC Tournaments without lottery money. Still over the long haul schools with such extra scholarship aid have had real advantages in terms of keeping talented in-state players home as well as signing out-of-state players with the extra aid they can offer.
Asked only if he expects these items to pass, Polk vented on familiar topics of the unfair treatment given college baseball and said the three baseball coaches on the current committee do not agree with certain parts of the overall proposal. "But they were overwhelmed by folk on the committee," Polk said, which essentially meant yes, the legislation will pass. And even Polk will admit that this will help eliminate many of the recruiting disparities that State operates under in the Southeast region where almost all lottery-scholarships exist. Though, this will also force State to do some trimming of the total roster in the future and to reevaluate the aid committed to current underclassmen and 2006-07 signees.