Mississippi State (32-16, 14-11 SEC) is almost assured of being in the eight-team grouping at Hoover's Regions (formerly Metropolitan) Park. The Bulldogs need one more win to clinch a berth, though they would also make the field with a loss by either of a couple of clubs farther down the standings. But naturally State would rather win their way win…and as importantly at the moment, just get back to winning again after a humbling week on the road.
"We're back home," Coach Ron Polk said this morning, "we had a five-game road trip." And a rough journey it was, with four losses. State was swept in a two-game set at Austin Peay State, 3-2 in 11 innings and 7-5; then after taking a rain-interrupted 4-2 win to start a series at Georgia the home Dogs came back to take both seven-inning contests Sunday, by 2-1 and 5-3 scores.
The weather seemed to follow the Bulldogs home, too, because Tuesday night's game with Arkansas-Little Rock was halted, then cancelled in the bottom of the second inning by more rain and lightning. Weather shouldn't be a factor in the series, if only because with school out and a day-earlier start there are more chances to get the games in.
And there should be no problems getting Mississippi State focused on the action at-hand. Besides trying to seal their berth the Bulldogs are playing for seeding at Hoover and, with help, a Western Division title. They trail Arkansas (17-10) but can pass by winning two more games than the Razorbacks, who host Ole Miss (14-13). The Rebels also have a shot at winning the West if State stumbles again. The Division winner goes to Hoover as an automatic top-seed in one of the four-team brackets.
The runner-up? Their prize could be ending up in the bracket with East winner and likely SEC Champion Vanderbilt (19-8), though since the 3-through-8 seedings are set by final win/loss percentages this is hard to project with three games left for all involved. Still State wants to finish as high as possible in the West for NCAA seeding and, more importantly, host-siting purposes. And if the Dogs can catch and pass the Hogs they would claim Mississippi State's first Division title since the current format began in 1992. It would be MSU's first SEC baseball regular-season title of any sort since 1989.
Alabama (29-23, 13-14) meanwhile is in the opposite sort of SEC situation. After winning the 2006 overall leauge title the Crimson Tide is 7th in the overall league standings but just percentage points ahead of Kentucky and LSU (both 12-14-1) and 11-14 Tennessee. None of those three play each other this weekend, either. Besides that all four squads are desperate to strengthen their resume for NCAA consideration and not have to depend on SEC Tournament success…if they can get to Hoover.
The Bulldogs know they should make that trip next week, barring collapse. Yet after last week's frustrations and failures State has no right to assume any success, though Polk stresses his own perspective. "Close games," he called the lost week. "All of them could have been decided by a play or a hit. Sometimes you think you get that play or that hit at home better than on the road."
They are at home now. Though, State didn't look overly inspired at Dudy Noble Field on Tuesday evening, falling behind 1-0 and then 4-2 against UALR. A two-run homer by 1B Mitch Moreland in the first inning and errored ground ball in the second did have the Dogs scoring, and the tying runner was on second base with two outs when the evening ended early. The only real signs of liveliness came after the call when several players took turns sliding on the outfield puddles. Until then they looked like a team still carrying last week's losses on their collective shoulders.
Besides, Polk said, "Maybe it's somewhat of a blessing with our club because we're somewhat banged-up right now." That's an understatement as State is definitely without one weekend regular and four more are either questionable or limited. Polk and staff are still struggling to assemble their 25-man weekend roster.
"Injuries remain a situation for us," Polk said. "Right now Aaron Weatherford is not on the 25-man roster, he's still nursing shoulder soreness and nerve soreness. Hopefully he'll be ready if we do qualify for Hoover." The righthanded reliever has the staff's best ERA and batting average-against, and the second-most innings.
SS Brandon Turner is the other big question. The hamstring pulled on April 28 at Ole Miss was aggravated when the freshman tried to run the bases Saturday at Georgia. Polk is not hopefully Turner, a 41-game starter, will take the field tomorrow or likely all weekend. "He might have to DH against a righthander," the coach said. Turner is still the team batting leader with a .414 average in the 45 games he has played. True frosh Jet Butler has started 10 games at shortstop in place of Turner.
Other, less serious injuries still leave State with grave shortages in the outfield and in pinch hit/run situations. Cade Hoggard and Jeff Flagg both have back problems, and Nick Hardy's hurting wrist will probably require post-season surgery. Hoggard and Flagg have both started in rightfield and DH'd. Hardy has been an alternate starter in leftfield and a late-inning defensive substitute, a role he can still fill as the wrist affects his hitting most.
Polk calls all these, save Weatherford, day-to-day. But by Thursday afternoon he has to turn in the 25-man list for the weekend, with no changes or replacements afterwards allowed. "We've got practice this afternoon and we'll make a decision on them," he said. "I'm looking at various matchups, maybe even moving Moreland to rightfield and playing Brian LaNinfa at first." And Polk will make most if not all choices this afternoon following a batting practice. He now ruefully recalls his pre-season comments that he thought this was a deep enough club to withstand injuries.
Besides, "Injuries are part of the game. Thankfully our rotation is OK. Right now it's Chad Crosswhite, Justin Pigott, and Josh Johnson facing Alabama." What pitcher moves into Weatherford's place, or if it is even an arm at all and not another fielder, will also be settled today.
Polk did say there will be no shuffles at third base, where rookie cornerman Connor Powers has been struggling and is now fielding at .869 with 18 errors. Too many of those glove gaffes have resulted in runs, though Powers has also made a share of sharp plays as well. It's inevitable that the mistakes loom larger when the team is not winning, but Polk is not too worried.
"He made a nice play last night before the rainout. He's a freshman, he's a level-headed kid. He'd like to play better but hasn't. You've got to live and die with freshmen position players. He's got a great future here, we don't know if it's at third or first but he'll play." In fact if State has to shuffle DHs or substitute runners during games this weekend Powers could always find himself on the other corner, and veteran Michael Rutledge—who had similar issues in May-June of 2006—take over third again.
That '06 squad did not play at Hoover, missing the SEC Tournament for the second time in three years. Ironically when the '05 Dogs did make the meet, they won it as a seventh-seed. This team would rather go there as a top-seed or at least a second regardless of what bracket matchups that results in. The real reason is because the higher the SEC seed, the better the case for Mississippi State scoring one of the 16 first-seeds in the NCAA Tournament. And, by extension, of hosting a Regional, which MSU has not done since 2003 and only twice since 1997. Two regionals in a decade is not the sort of pace Bulldogs or their fans expect.
Most projections still have State in position to host a first-round Regional, but also shows a sharp slide in status. "RPI-wise we dropped from 6 or 7 to 15-16, depending on what RPI you're looking at," Polk said. "That's not unusual when you go 1-4. We didn't play great, but one hit or play and we win three or four of those games. But, you've got to win them.
"We didn't take care of business last week. We're on the bubble as host-site this week, and hopefully we can take care of it."
Mississippi State will also recognize seven senior Diamond Dogs at the final regular-season home weekend, prior to Friday's game. One of these veterans, 2B Jeffrey Rea, is chasing school and SEC history at the end of his career. Rea has 320 hits through four seasons, and ranks 7th in the all-time SEC list as well as 3rd at MSU. He needs eight hits to catch Richard Lee (1995-98) for a share of first in State history. The SEC career record is 352 hits.
"He's achieved so many things," Polk said of Rea. "Happily he came back, he had a chance to sign with the Red Sox last summer. He's a Mississippi State-type kid. He's the complete package pound-for-pound, he's what college baseball is all about."
Another senior, OF Matt Richardson, had a knee scoped last week and is not on the weekend roster.
And while not a senior, this will almost surely be the final regular-season home games for junior C Edward Easley who expects to be drafted highly in June and turn professional. Easley is second on the team in hitting at .376, first in homers (12) and RBI (57), and has started all 48 games behind the plate. And, Polk pointed out, "he had a 4.0 grade average this past semester." For that matter the Bulldog team as a whole posted a 3.2 GPA in the spring with thirty players at 3.0 or better.
Of course once they line up for Thursday's first pitch, the only numbers that matter are balls, strikes, runs, and the SEC win/loss percentages.