Any fun will still be serious stuff though, as State is playing this tournament to improve their status for the next. At 33-18 the Dogs are confident a NCAA Tournament bid is in store. The real question, and one this week will impact greatly, is how highly MSU is seeded and where they will be sited. The players know what they hope.
"It still gives us a good chance to host a Regional, hopefully," said C Edward Easley, who played NCAA first-round at Miami and Clemson in his first two seasons. "That's a big part of having success in the post-season, is we want to play right here."
But to bring the NCAAs to Dudy Noble Field next week will require some resume-boosting wins this week. A team that not so long ago could optimistically speak of hosting is much more pragmatic now, after losing six of their last eight regular-season games and consecutive SEC series. State has fallen from a consensus top-ten RPI to around 20 or so in informal lists. Such charts aren't the final standard in issuing the 16 host sites or #1 NCAA seedings; in fact a couple of second-seeds could still end up hosting.
State would rather not leave such decisions up for discussion, if possible. "We can't do anything about it but come out and play hard and play good," said Easley. "I think maybe if we play good in the SEC Tournament it will give us a chance, that's all we're focused on this week, play hard get some wins and we'll see what happens."
Easley and Rea know how much fun it is to get wins in Hoover. They are among the six current position-Dogs who played in that 2005 SEC tourney where seventh-seed State stormed into the title game against, ironically enough, the Rebels and won 4-1. But these veterans also know they cannot take the sort of ball they've played the last ten days into tournament time if they want to last, much less host.
"From a team standpoint we have to put all this behind us," said RHP Josh Johnson after the Dogs dropped the final regular-season series to Alabama, at home. "We haven't played well for two weeks and we know it as a team."
The lost weeks cost State their shot at winning the SEC's Western Division and claiming a top-seed in a Hoover bracket, as well as likely locking up a Regional-host. Though as Coach Ron Polk noted, "Arkansas gave Ole Miss and Mississippi State every opportunity" to win the West. Even after the Dogs lost Saturday's rubber game with Alabama they thought they would be a #3 SEC seed, and the coaching staff was already thinking of a Wednesday matchup with Florida. Then South Carolina rallied from a huge deficit to beat Georgia and steal the third slot…and knock State a notch farther down in both SEC seed and NCAA standing.
Ironically up to that final score Polk was even encouraged by State's presumed pairings. "The other bracket is a bear," he said talking of being in a grouping with SEC champ Vanderbilt and Ole Miss. Which is where the Dogs abruptly found themselves a half-hour later. Polk will discuss the Bulldogs' bearish bracket further Monday morning.
By then the coach hopes to have a better idea about his own roster. The Dogs didn't just limp down the season-stretch emotionally, they are a physically battered bunch as well…which contributed greatly to the mental game. As of Sunday, no less than six players are medical question marks. The biggest is SS Brandon Turner's hamstring injured in late April at (irony again) Ole Miss. The freshman has only started in the field twice since, at Georgia, and had to leave early each time. Otherwise he has only been used to DH or pinch-hit with no success.
The loss of the team's batting leader and one of the SEC's best producers at the plate has had an obvious impact on the entire offense. So has the absence of slugging DH and sometime RF Jeff Flagg with back spasms; he did not dress out for Alabama weekend. Alternate RF Cade Hoggard did with his increasingly bad back but made just one pinch-hit appearance. Alternate LF Nick Hardy (wrist) played the field in late games. And in game-two backup 3B Michael Rutledge twisted a leg muscle rounding the bag, preventing him from starting the third game.
"Everybody has injuries but ours seemed to happen at the wrong time, in the stretch run," said Polk. "Some years (trainer) Jay Logan doesn't earn his paycheck; this year I go through the training room and it looks like, what was that TV show? M*A*S*H, there's not enough tables."
Nor enough healthy bodies on the roster; by game-three Polk said he only had four position players on the lineup card for situations and substitutions. "When you have your closer out, one of your home-run guys out, and your leading hitter, and other guys are limping, you just feel like we're hanging in there. The dugout doesn't have a lot of confidence that I can make some moves right/left, pinch-hit or run." The closer spoken of is soph RHP Aaron Weatherford, who has aggravated a fall shoulder-nerve problem lately. Being tossed twice at Georgia made him unavailable for Alabama, though as Polk noted neither game developed into ‘save' situations.
"He felt good throwing some delivery drills," Polk said of Weatherford, who will probably be able to go and throw at Hoover. How often is another matter. "The bad thing in a double-elimination tournament you'd like to have a closer work at least two times, but he might be a one time guy." Fortunately the starting group is healthy physically; mentally might be another matter after the last couple of weekends when the staff pitched well enough to win or at least compete but didn't get the support with glove or bat needed.
The club hitting average has gradually slipped to .320 for the year, and RBI have become scarcer as clutch hitting has dropped off even more. Of the last six losses all have been by one or two runs, games the Dogs were regularly winning right up to the third week of April. Since then they are 1-8 in these close contests.
"But the biggest factor the last two weeks believe me is injuries," Polk said. "Not only in the fact they're not in the lineup but other players say we don't have the full deck."
Healthy or not Polk has to draw 25 names for his Hoover deck, and from the 30 players held on campus for post-season play. The list, which cannot be changed once play begins, must be in by Wednesday but Polk figures to know sooner. "I've got to wait to Monday's practice to make a decision on Rutledge, Flagg, Hardy, Hoggard, Weatherford, Turner." That latter should be on the travel squad though and maybe able to play the field, somewhere.
"We've got to get Turner back at second or short and his bat in the lineup," Polk said. The good news is the hamstring isn't so much torn as has a knot that can be shot-up without more damage. Hardy's wrist and maybe Hoggard's back will require off-season procedures, for now they can play…though how well is the concern. Particularly so at Hoover, a AA-size park that puts the premium on defense and pitching first.
For the last weekend Polk adjusted the lineup with 1B Mitch Moreland moving to the depleted rightfield spot and DH Brian LaNinfa taking over at first, a position he's comfortable at and played very well against the Tide. If Turner is inserted at second, Rea can move out to leftfield without a problem. In fact his speed will be useful on that side, though it makes picking—and moreso changing—the DH interesting. Sub-3B Russ Sneed was the designated batter twice over the weekend. Any late-game shuffle to improve the defense or put speed on the paths will have to be picked very, very carefully now so as not to lose a veteran bat and fielder.
Polk is also considering changing up the rotation for the first two games. He had all but decided to move LHP Justin Pigott up a day to open the series and slide RHP Chad Crosswhite back. That was when State thought they would face Florida on day-one; for the Rebels, who beat up Crosswhite in a Friday outing and eventually got to Pigott on Saturday, there might be other factors in the decision. "We're going to look at matchups," Polk said. "We'll make a decision, it's either Pigott or Crosswhite." And Johnson on day-three if the Dogs can stay alive in Hoover.
That's something they almost certainly must do if State is to host a NCAA Regional for the first time since 2003 and only the second time in the last decade. In fact many forecast Wednesday's game as a showdown for host privileges between the Dogs and Rebels. While winning the whole thing might not be a direct factor—the 16 #1 seeds are to be announced a half-hour before the SEC's championship game begins—getting to the finals will build the sort of momentum State wants for post-season. Rea can even see some similarities.
"It was kind of the same deal (in 2005), we were struggling and everything just connected and went well. I'm not saying that will happen again but it would be great. And I feel that's kind of our own field, we have a lot of fans there, so I'm looking forward to it." And as for all the injuries, this senior has some experience there as well. "Tournament time, you never know. When you see that atmosphere nothing is going to hurt, your arm or leg, everybody is going to feel good!"
Really, though, the older Dogs say this part of the season isn't just about positive thinking or good feelings. Tourney time is the reward for battling through a long schedule, riding out the ups-and-downs, and being presented the opportunity to, as Rea puts it, just enjoy playing the game. Fun, in other words, is the intangible key for the Diamond Dogs in Hoover.
"I feel we play better when we're just having fun, goofing off, that kind of deal," Rea said. "I know it's hard for the coaches when we're kidding around in the dugout, but it's true. We do play better when we're having a good time. That's my advice to the younger guys, have fun and enjoy it."