Diamond Dogs Open SEC Stretch Run

While the Diamond Dogs might not have exactly considered it a ‘break' since they spent the time either studying for or taking final spring exams, it should be a rested and somewhat refreshed Mississippi State team that returns to SEC action this weekend. Healthy? That's another story according to Coach Ron Polk.

"We're still banged-up," the Mississippi State skipper said Thursday. "That's a concern."

The concerns are to starting shortstop Brandon Turner and right-handed designated hitter Jeff Flagg, both of whom came up gimpy over last weekend's series at Ole Miss. Turner pulled a hamstring hitting first base when he tried to leg out a grounder in Saturday's game. At the time the training staff called it a 7-10 day injury; as of now Polk says the freshman is day-to-day. The same is true for Flagg who missed a couple of games with back spasms.

Polk did not say if either or both will be on the 25-man weekend roster, which doesn't have to be formally submitted until Friday afternoon. Both are expected to be included even if they can't play until later in the weekend.

While Polk is concerned he is also realistic about the situation at this point of the season. "And as many of my fellow coaches, we've had our share of injuries." The good news is at least both could be able to play this weekend and if not certainly by next week's five-game road swing. Also, a pitching staff which lost four members even before the season with injuries has had few issues so far.

The Bulldogs really did catch something of a break by having exams this week, which meant no games could be scheduled. Not only was the roster down a couple of names but State was coming off a 17-inning Sunday marathon at Ole Miss which would have made getting the worn-out starters back on a field for midweek action dicey. Other than individual choice, the players didn't have to report to Dudy Noble Field Monday or Tuesday.

"We practiced last night," Polk said. "We'll practice again this afternoon getting ready for Auburn to come in here."

These opponents come in with differing degrees of SEC aspirations. Mississippi State (28-12, 10-9 SEC) is currently third in the Western Division and clinging to fourth in the overall league ‘race to Hoover' standings. Auburn is also 28-12 overall but at 7-14 SEC they face elimination from the SEC Tournament. In fact the Tigers are listed last in the league after being swept by 7-14 Georgia.

So while the Tigers scramble just to stay alive in the SEC tourney picture, the Diamond Dogs want to stay in the top-half of the eight-team Hoover field while strengthening their case for not only a NCAA bid but to host post-season play. Those decisions won't be made until after three more league weekends and the conference tournament. Still State is in strong enough position right now to think of NCAA position…yet not so far ahead of a frantic SEC pack as to be out of danger of a long hard May fall. And while fourth for today, that's just two-thousandths of a point ahead of fifth-place South Carolina.

Which means the Dogs also must overlook talk of winning weekends at the moment and play in the daily moment. Much as they did in the Ole Miss series when, after losing 17-7 and 5-1 they hung tough for almost two full games' worth of innings to outlast the host Rebels and avoid a sweeping.

"We did find a way to win a game in Oxford, which was huge for us," Polk said. Especially after losing the preceding home series with LSU. A sweep to the other rivals would have damaged State's standing seriously; now the Bulldogs can honestly feel they are still on a promising track going into the last month of the regular schedule.

If Turner cannot start, true freshman Jet Butler is first choice to move into the lineup as he did at Oxford. Typically State has carried several left-side infielders on the 25-man list this season, including veteran and 2005 May starting shortstop Michael Rutledge and redshirt Russ Sneed. At DH there is further flexibility with senior Brian LaNinfa able to match up either right or left with equal efficiency. Redshirt Cade Hoggard is also available.

"The rotation will be the same as last week," Polk said. "Chad Crosswhite on Friday, Justin Pigott on Saturday, and Josh Johnson on Sunday." The head coach isn't worried that soph righty Crosswhite will have any after-effects from a short and brutal stint in the opener with Ole Miss, when the Rebels rattled off 14 runs in the first three innings.

"Chad is a tough kid," Polk said. "He had three good outings before that. You're going to have good days and bad days in the SEC. He'll go out there and compete, no question. We stuck him in that Friday role because he's a confident lad and has some stuff to beat people."

Though he hasn't gotten wins his last two outings, senior righty Johnson has also been showing good stuff lately. Maybe the best of his career, in fact, with nagging shoulder soreness gone and more zip than Johnson has shown the past couple of seasons. Polk admitted there has been some consideration of moving him up in the rotation after two strong starts.

"You always think about it. But we're going to stay in this, Josh is a good Sunday guy. We're going to march him out there the way we've done and hope we can score some runs and that our bullpen does a good job and we can win a series with Auburn."

Despite the scores from Friday and Saturday the Bulldog bullpen actually was generally effective last weekend, obviously most of all on Sunday when first baseman Mitch Moreland was heroic in beating both innings and cramps to keep the team in contention long enough to win. Since going back to the bullpen righty Aaron Weatherford has been consistently strong, and both John Lalor and Jesse Carver have shown they can take care of middle-innings by the bunch.

Now, if only the Bulldog batters could get back to producing as they did when leading the SEC in average and scoring. Polk is not concerned there, either, as solid contact hasn't been a question. Luck and timing have gone to the other side with a series of LSU and Ole Miss hits falling into undefendable areas. "They say it evens out in the end," Polk mused, adding that game-two at Ole Miss hinged on a bases-loaded, one-out situation where senior 2B Jeffrey Rea hit the ball well…and on a string to the Rebel third baseman. On such are SEC races won and lost.

As for the overall NCAA picture Mississippi State has a top-ten power rating in both official and private rankings. So Polk doesn't see the need to add any midweek games to make up for the four dates (two of them SEC contests, at Tennessee) rained out in March and April. Besides, there isn't time left to do so on the '07 schedule.

"We go to Austin Peay next week, then go to Georgia," the coach noted. "Then we play Arkansas-Little Rock on Tuesday (May 15) and the Alabama series starts Thursday." So, there will be no makeups to flesh out either the home slate or to add Ws to the final record. Polk sees no need now anyway.

"Our RPIs are good now and there's no one around we can play that would benefit us. I'd like to play, our kids would like to play, and there are some pitchers that need to work." But as it stands Mississippi State will play out the remaining schedule, with the goal to get to Hoover with a top-half seeding that can be boosted into, hopefully, a winning case to host a Regional.

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