"We have some decisions to make based on what we see today," Polk said. And tomorrow, with an abbreviated workout (3:50-4:50, open to the public) at Hoover's Regions Park. And joking aside, even on what the coaches think or just plain feel come Wednesday evening as the #4 seeded Bulldogs prepare to play #5 seed Ole Miss. Official game time is still 8:00 though tourney history shows few first pitches get thrown by then. And yes, Polk isn't sure yet who will be throwing that first pitch for State, the higher seeded and home team based on finishing a few percentage points ahead of the Rebels in the SEC's Western Division.
Polk did have some encouraging updates prior to practice. RHP and closer Aaron Weatherford's sore pitching shoulder is better after taking the weekend off. "He's felt a lot better of late so he's on the (25 man) roster." Weatherford will still likely be limited to one or at most two appearances though.
The real question is how much and where middle infielder Brandon Turner can help this week. The redshirt freshman hurt a hamstring at Ole Miss on April 28 and has been limited since to two starts in the field and some pinch-hit or DH turns. In one of those starts, at Georgia, he aggravated the knot in the muscle. The prognosis is more promising now.
"We feel good about Brandon now, he should be able to play," Polk said. "Will he play all games at shortstop or second, we don't know." But State badly wants the rookie in the lineup, or put more plainly his bat in the order. "He's the big factor," Polk agreed. "He's a great number-two hitter, he puts the ball in play and he can run a little bit." When healthy, that is. Which is why Polk isn't entirely jesting about Wednesday's 5:00 game dragging into extra innings…or hours.
"The later that game goes the better Brandon will be. But he's going to play until he tells me he can't do it." Turner's starting status ripples through the lineup, as on the gimpy ham he would probably have to open at second base. "If he can, we can play Jeffrey Rea in leftfield," said Polk. And freshman Jet Butler start at shortstop.
Which would mean other decisions, such as whether to DH regular leftfielder Joseph McCaskill or use left-handed slugger Jeff Flagg in that role. Flagg has his own issues with back spasms and has been sidelined lately. Two more alternates in the outfield, LF Nick Hardy (wrist) and RF Cade Hoggard (herniated disc), are not 100% either. "We've got guys able to play but not full-speed, and that's our depth," Polk noted.
Polk has other decisions to make on the right sideline. With Flagg and Hoggard out and veteran Andy Rice struggling at the plate this year, for the Alabama series State moved 1B Mitch Moreland to rightfield and lefty DH Brian LaNinfa to first base. Both play the positions capably so defense is not an issue, though since Moreland is also a closer these changes complicate late-game moves to pinch-hit or DH.
Then there's third base, the spot that has drawn the most errors and ire in the past month. True frosh Connor Powers' struggles at the position have almost become a self-sustaining situation, not unusual for young fielders. Polk said he was going to let the rookie sit out game-three with Alabama, until alternate and 2006 starter—who had a very similar May himself in the field last year—Michael Rutledge hurt a hamstring rounding a base Friday night. Rutledge's status for this week was to be determined. "He's doubtful, we need to see him today," Polk said.
The coach stressed Powers was not ‘losing' his job, and that his bat needs to stay in the order. Still redshirt Russ Sneed will be practicing third base today and tomorrow, after spending most of this season as a backup shortstop. Either way, if Turner does start at second that will have three freshmen on the MSU infield for a SEC Tournament game, in a venue that puts a premium on good defense. Polk even recalled that C Edward Easley was an alternate third baseman the last two seasons.
"We're covered there but it's a matter of making decisions."
There's one other big choice to make, soon. Polk remains undecided on who will carry the ball to the mound for Wednesday's first pitch. "I'm not sure. But we hope Justin Pigott on four days rest will be the one. If not, we're not sure who will be the starter at this time." The choices are lefthander Pigott, who had some good innings in a loss to the Rebels at Oxford; usual game-one starter RH Chad Crosswhite who just got shelled by Ole Miss batters; or RH Josh Johnson, who did throw this past Saturday but only 2.1 innings.
Even the starting staff is not immune, because midweek regular Tyler Whitney is now reporting some "shoulder discomfort" according to the coach. "It's been one of those years that you never know until you practice or play who's going to be healthy." Polk now even sees the five rained-out games as an unexpected blessing of sorts.
State's first-day matchup and the bracket in general is not. The Bulldogs and Rebels split four games this season, though only three counted with the SEC and Ole Miss took two of those by 17-7 and 5-1 scores. State hung on to win a game-three marathon 4-1 in a record 17 innings, to go with a 14-9 win in Pearl, Miss., in the Governor's Cup.
State edged Ole Miss out for second in the SEC West and fourth seed at the tournament, though since four plays five this didn't matter other than who gets to bat last. That will likely matter as Polk forsees a good tight matchup. "They've got the pitching, the closers, the athletes. They've got three guys at the top of the lineup in Jordan Henry, Justin Henry, and Zach Cozart that are really outstanding. They've had some injuries but not as many as we have."
That win broke a five-year losing streak to the Rebels in metro-area meetings. In fact, Ole Miss has won 12 of the last 17 games, starting in the 2004 season, and the last four regular-season series.
By contrast Mississippi State has gotten the better of things when the rivals have met in SEC Tournaments, which did not begin until 1977. That debut year saw the Rebels win in Oxford and the teams didn't meet again in post-season until 1993. Since then State has won all seven meetings, four of them in Hoover: in 1999, twice in 2003, and most notably in the 2005 championship game. The Bulldogs took that one 4-1, taking the tourney crown in their last appearance at Hoover as State missed the four-team meet in 2006.
The Rebels have also had their own late-year frustrations by losing a series of close contests that cost them a shot at winning the West, too. Polk says he can relate. "We have not done really well as of late, but we were close. A lot of time when you have one or two run losses it's the bullpen. But more often it's not getting a play or two or a timely hit. Which we were getting in the first half."
It's not just State's roster and record that have been hurt in the late-season stretch. Going into the final ten days the Bulldogs were in strong position to be awarded a NCAA first-round Regional at Dudy Noble Field, for the first time since 2003. But four SEC losses and losing a pair at Austin Peay State in-between have knocked State out of the nation's top ten teams in Ratings Power Index (RPI). That, and not finishing in the overall top-three in the league suddenly mean MSU has work to do. The Dogs will be playing in the NCAA Tournament, it is certain. Playing at home is not anywhere near as sure now.
In fact, an under-current Wednesday is that State and Ole Miss might well be playing for one of the Regionals that will be assigned to SEC teams. Not that there is a set quota of course, but most do expect the league to get a minimum of three Regionals and probably four with champs Vanderbilt, West winner Arkansas, and #3 seed South Carolina in very good shape.
"I don't know," Polk said. "Everybody, and I've heard some other coaches saying it, says we just need to win. That's the key. We feel we probably cannot go 0-2 or 1-2 and host. But maybe if we can win a couple of games we're in good shape.
"A lot depends on what goes on around the country. I'm sure Ole Miss has put in a good bid. A lot depends on who is above us, who is putting out some money to host. I don't think it's gonna come down to one game, but it certainly would help one team to have more ammo to be a factor, yes." Though, he adds, it is not out of the question for both Mississippi SEC teams to entertain Regionals. "I don't think the committee would bat an eye."
Nor, after decades in the business, will Polk likely blink when filling out his Wednesday lineup. "I'll make that decision based on what I see in practice today and in a short practice at Hoover," he said. "We'll tee it up, it'll be fun to play Ole Miss. And when we play our kids respond well against each other."