So, what was the difference between the MSU team that came into Austin Peay at 31-12 compared to the one that ended the season with a 3-2 loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament and a 2-8 record in its last 10 games?
Pitching - Coming into the Austin Peay series the MSU pitching staff had a 5.19 earned run average and was allowing a total of 6.3 runs per game when you include unearned runs. From the first Austin Peay game through the SEC Tournament loss to Vanderbilt, the team ERA was 3.56 and the pitching staff gave up 4.1 runs per game. Based on the pitching stats MSU should have done well in those last 10 games
Or was it...
Fielding - During the last 10 games of the season, MSU's defense committed 15 errors, an average of 1.5 per game. The previous 43 games, MSU committed 57 errors, which is an average of 1.3 per game. Not much difference.
Hitting - Going into the Austin Peay series, MSU was hitting at a .330 clip and averaging 7.9 runs per game. During the next ten games, MSU's hitters batted .249 and averaged 3.7 runs per game. They also averaged 4.2 less hits per game. Although they struck out more times per game during the last 10 games, it wasn't that significant, 7.0 compared to 6.6. They left less runners on base during that period, 6.5 per game, compared to 8.4 in the first 43 games of the season. However, you have to take into consideration that they had less baserunners, therefore there were less runners to knock in. But, when you compare percentages of runners knocked in during the first 43 games compared to the last 10 games, MSU's hitters were 11.5% more efficient in knocking in runners during the first 43 games. If they had been as efficient the last 10 games, State would have scored approximately 9 more runs. Considering that State lost 4 games by 1 run and 4 by 2 runs, those 9 runs would have been significant during the 10-game span.
So, what do the stats tell us? The pitching was much better, the fielding was about the same, but the hitting was much, much worse.
The next question is what caused the hitting to be that much worse?
At one time, MSU had all nine of its starters hitting over .300. Not so during those season-ending 10 games.
During that span, only two batters hit over .300 - Jeffrey Rea at .350 (14-for-40, 8 RS, 2 RBI) and Edward Easley at .333 (13-for-39, 6 RS, 7 RBI). Mitch Moreland was close at .297 (11-for-37, 6 RBI) as was Brian LaNinfa at .294 (10-for-34, 9 RBI). Brandon Turner, who suffered a hamstring pull during the Ole Miss series, hasn't been the same since. During the last 10 games, after hitting .420 (67-for-159) with 39 RBI, Brandon hit .278 (5-for-18) with 1 RBI in the few games he was able to play in.
The other starters hit as follows - Jet Butler .265 (9-for-34, 1 RBI), Joseph McCaskill .229 (8-for-35, 3 RBI), Connor Powers .125 (4-for-32, 2 RBI) and Mark Goforth .111 (3-for-27, 1 RBI). Jeff Flagg, who hit well early in the season, only pinched-hit in two of the ten games, going 0-for-2, and didn't play in any of the other eight due to a bad back.
One thing that stands out is who was hitting and who wasn't. All of the players who hit .294 or above were veterans, either juniors or seniors (Rea, LaNinfa, Easley, Moreland), while the ones who ended up in slumps were, with the exception of senior McCaskill, either true freshmen (Butler, Powers), a sophomore who transferred in from Birmingham Southern and was playing his first year of SEC ball (Goforth) or a player who was injured (Turner).
It's understandable that the two true freshmen would slump since they aren't used to playing so many games and it's against mostly SEC teams (8 of the 10 games were against SEC opponents. And 7 of the 10 were on the road). And Goforth, a sophomore, isn't used to playing that caliber of competition day in and day out.
The key to staying out of the slump may have been having a healthy Brandon Turner and, to a lesser extent, a healthy Jeff Flagg.
When you consider Turner's replacement knocked in 1 run during the ten-game period and Turner, playing injured, also knocked in 1 run, that was about 8 runs less than MSU would have scored if Turner continued to produce like he did prior to the injury. Turner had played in 39 games prior to the 10-game span and knocked in 39 runs.
As for Flagg, he had been relegated to pinch-hitting during the 10-game span due to his injury, that is when he could pinch-hit. He had only been able to do that in 2 of the 10 games and he struck out both times. While he had been used less and less as the season progressed, he was still a fairly good hitter at times, especially when he was able to play in the field. In fact, during the 10 games preceding the 10 games to end the season, he played in four and was 2-for-11 with 3 RBI. The 2 hits and 3 RBI came against Ole Miss in the first game of the three-game series. And it was the only game that he played in the field. All the other at-bats were either as a pinch-hitter or as the DH. Having a healthy Flagg might have added three or four more runs, but it's really hard to say since he was in and out of the lineup so much in the second half of the season.
You add in 9 to 12 runs and all of sudden MSU may have gone from a 2-8 record to something like 5-5 or 6-4 during the 10 games. If a couple of those wins had been against SEC competition, then MSU would have won the Western Divison and be hosting a regional site and maybe even be in a position to host a Super Regional.
But the bottom line is MSU didn't score those additional runs and because of that they will be playing in a regional on the road.
Gene Swindoll is the publisher of Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by emailing email@example.com.