"I'm happy our young have a chance to continue on in Regional play," said Coach Ron Polk, who will take a 20th Bulldog team into post-season action since 1978. "It's a tough field but everybody has a tough field."
Howser Field in Tallahassee will naturally tilt towards the home team as Florida State (47-11) has been rated #6 among the eight national seeds in this year's tournament. But Stetson isn't a typical third-seed either with a 41-19 record, and BCU won 33 games and played a legit schedule of their own. And while the Bulldogs will take a good fan contingent on the road with them, as the only non-Florida school in town they'll be in hostile territory.
"We've got a tough regional ahead of us," said Easley. "But our season starts all over and we'll be ready to play."
And if none of the current Bulldogs have ever played a college game in Tallahassee (a couple of Florida natives on the roster have been there for summer ball or camps), there's something else familiar about the matchup. For the fourth-straight post-season Mississippi State has been assigned to an Atlantic Coast Conference site. In 2004 it was Georgia Tech; in '05 Miami; and last June, at Clemson. Those Dog teams didn't get out of the first Regional round.
"I think we have something to prove against the ACC," senior 1B/DH Brian LaNinfa said.
For that matter the Bulldogs have more to prove about themselves. At 33-20 and coming in fourth overall in the final SEC standings, State surpassed most pre-season projections of finishing last in the Western Division and missing the NCAAs. But they ended the regular schedule dissatisfied all the same, having lost six of the last eight games and four of their last five SEC series. That slump cost State a clear shot at the West title and an excellent opportunity to play NCAA ball at home for the first time since 2003.
"At the beginning of the year you want to secure a spot in the Regional and we did that," LaNinfa said. "Unluckily we didn't get to host and we've got a tough regional. We'll come out to ready to play just like we're here and hopefully get a good run."
The 0-2 showing at the SEC Tournament insured MSU would go on the road. "Unfortunately we lost four one-run games and four two-run games in the last three weeks, otherwise we'd be playing at Dudy Noble," said Polk. "At the same time things could happen so that we could have a super Regional if we play well at Florida State." That is possible if A) State wins the Tallahassee tournament, B) top-seed Coastal Carolina loses their Regional, and C) the Bulldogs are a higher seed in the overall field of 64 than anyone else who does win that tourney in Myrtle Beach, most likely Clemson. Mississippi State did bid on hosting both a first-round Regional and super Regional.
Since the Bulldogs can't control what happens in Myrtle Beach anyway, all attention is on their own business in Tallahassee. And while they'd rather be on the home field the veterans are at least used to traveling at tourney-time. "It's nothing new," senior 2B Jeffrey Rea shrugged, "weve done it for three years. And we've played well on the road all year, so it shouldn't be a problem." Besides, Rea said, "I'm looking forward to going down there, I hear it's a hitter's park and the ball flies."
That was true in the 1990s and Polk expects the same to hold now. "Florida State used to be a very small field and still in rightfield it's tiny, unless they moved the fences back. It's a beautiful ballpark and they've completely re-done it since the last time we were there. So it's going to be a great venue for a tournament." Though, Polk would prefer a better result than the last trip. His 1993 squad lost both games in Tallahassee, 15-1 to Notre Dame and 2-1 to Long Beach State. It was the first time one of Polk's State teams went 0-2 in any tournament play; last week at the SEC Tourney was the second.
Most of what MSU folk know of Stetson is that it is the alma mater of former State head coach Pat McMahon. LaNinfa is better-informed about the Hatters. "Stetson is a good team, I've played there a couple of times (in summer ball) and know they've always been good. That's our first priority, Stetson, I know they recruit hard and well."
Polk hoped to have some sort of preliminary scouting report for the team before their 7:00 team practice this evening. "We have to get information. We haven't played Florida State in a long time and we haven't played Stetson since I was at Georgia Southern. We don't know anything about their ball clubs, we don't know left or right matchups. It may take us a couple of days, maybe even when we get to Tallahassee, before we make the decision in regard to starting pitching against Stetson."
At last week's SEC tourney Polk shuffled the pitching order, throwing usual weekend number-two Justin Pigott in the first round and regular weekend-opener Chad Crosswhite in the second. Both will have had plenty recovery time so that won't be an issue. A few other arms might be a bit too rested; third starter Josh Johnson didn't threw at all at Hoover, nor did closer Aaron Weatherford. Pigott and Crosswhite were so effective last week that middle-relievers Ricky Bowen and John Lalor were the only other pitchers to get any work.
At the same time State doesn't have the sort of clear-cut #1 man as in past years, so Polk has more freedom to adapt to matchups this June…and not just for the first game. "So we'll look at Stetson first but in the back of our mind we've got to put some information together on Florida State and Bethune-Cookman. A lot of work ahead of us and we'll make a decision on what the starting pitching will be at that time."
Ditto for the defense, and for encouraging reasons as some gimpy Dogs should be at or close enough to 100% now. MIF Brandon Turner's hamstring is the most obvious beneficiary of the unintended early-exit from Hoover. "He was almost full-speed but I couldn't run him," Polk said. "Now maybe I can." Turner might even be able to go back to shortstop after opening a couple of SECT games at second base, allowing Rea to return to his best position following two turns in rightfield.
Besides, Polk noted, a cozier park this week puts less stress on outfield speed and more on making all the infield plays. "It's nothing close to Hoover in regard to dimensions in the outfield. So we'll make that decision what we want to do defending the field when we find out a little bit more about the other teams."
"Guys are getting healthy and that's important to get some wins this weekend," said Easley.
And even if the Dogs got no Ws at Hoover, they came away with a surprising supply of fresh confidence. All agree, while Florida State has a sure ace and Stetson will come at them with a strong starting arm, they won't see better pitching than that faced in the SEC Tourney. Both games could still have gone either way with one timely State hit, catch, or even call at the plate.
"I do think we have some momentum," said Rea. "And we definitely have had some rest, we worked out this morning and the body felt good. Maybe we can do some scrimmages this week, face some live pitching, and head to Tallahassee."
Even if this was the one destination the Dogs didn't guess. "I was hoping maybe Texas or Missouri or something," admitted LaNinfa. "But Florida State is fine. You've got to beat the best to get there." ‘There' of course meaning Omaha and the College World Series.