Tuesday Baseball Practice Notebook

If the Diamond Dogs are at all anxious about their preparations for this weekend's NCAA Regional tournament, they've found an odd way to show it. Or perhaps more accurately, throw it, in the form of some pre-practice water balloon skirmishing Tuesday at Dudy Noble Field.

Mississippi State ran through an afternoon practice session lasting over four hours, both on the field and in the Palmeiro Center. All 29 Bulldogs retained for post-season were able to participate in either batting practice or bullpen throwing, including those hampered by late-season injuries. Coach Ron Polk and staff were to use today's evaluations to finalize the 25-man roster for the Tallahassee Regional, which starts Friday for State with a 1:00et/noonct game against Stetson.

*Polk will post the travel troop Wednesday, prior to a 10:00am practice. Most likely it will be the same 25 that dressed for the SEC Tournament, though there is still the possibility left-side infielder Michael Rutledge or another pitcher such as Mike Valentine or Jared Koon could be called. Those three and reserve catcher Brooks Lewis have remained on campus since school ended in case of further injury. The NCAA doesn't allow changes to the 25-man group once set for a tournament even for injury, illness, or emergency; those extra players could only be activated for the following week.

*The typical Bulldog road-roster this year has nine primary pitchers and 16 fielders/batters, since 1B/OF Mitch Moreland is also a lefthanded reliever. This is particularly helpful as State has just three primary southpaw pitchers in Justin Pigott, Jesse Carver, and Tyler Whitney.

WET AND WILD: Reporters arriving at Polk-Dement Stadium for interviews almost walked into a fire, or rather water fight, with a number of Diamond Dogs tracking teammates down as targets for water balloons. In fact, before going into the baseball office building OF Joseph McCaskill had to hide his ammo in pockets before returning outside and to the fray.

Every player asked pointed a finger, in the hand not toting a balloon at least, toward the same culprit: RHP Josh Johnson. And the senior did accept at least some of the blame. "I got one thrown at me a couple of days ago," said Johnson. "So I started making them." But Johnson insisted he only inflamed the action, that a fellow pitcher started the whole thing. "Chad Crosswhite, he's the root of all this."

At least one bomb was tossed after practice, too, but by then almost all ammo had been expended. And as McCaskill noted, really no one person could take blame—or credit—for the outbreak. "Just bored," he admitted. "We've been here too long!"

MAKING NOISE: There wasn't any boredom displayed around the cage Tuesday. Bulldog batters were still a loose bunch there, too, yet that translated into a lot of relaxed and productive cuts in B.P. work. This despite the fact that the coaches were grading all contact for group competitions with penalty infield laps at stake.

There was a good selection of sixes (Polk parlance for best contact) to gauge and not a few longballs. A steady breeze kept most shots from reaching the fence in rightfield, though 2B Jeffrey Rea did pull a shot out inside the pole. Leftfield was more reachable and several sluggers took advantage, most notably righthanded OF Jeff Flagg who showed few signs of the back problems that have hampered him the last month. C Edward Easley was going deep too, though more often he was driving liners for hits as expected.

The surprise might have been 3B Connor Powers, whose hitting tailed off the second half of the season along with his fielding average. But a week out of the order might have done the true freshman good as he looked sharp today. So much so that after his third and last turn in the cage a not-to-be-ID'd teammate shouted "Hey, Connor, there's a guy behind the stadium waiting to test you!"

AWAITING ASSIGNMENT: Another young Dog looking good with the stick Tuesday was MIF Brandon Turner. The freshman has been hampered by the hamstring injury suffered at Ole Miss on April 28, and re-strained at Georgia May 12. But Turner says he is nearly back to full-speed again.

"It feels better than it has since the injury. They're giving me that cortisone shot and ever since I haven't felt much." The problem isn't a tear but a ‘knot' in the muscle, which can be shot-up and played on without risk of further damage. Still, when Turner played in the SEC Tournament it was at second base instead of shortstop where he has started 38 games. He admitted to some anxiety when he took the field against, ironically, Ole Miss in the SEC Tourney opener.

"Going in I didn't really know what to expect, the first time being back. But after a couple of ground balls I felt good out there." He looked good, too, when making a sharp lateral move and jump to snare a soft liner to his left (glove) side. Turner throws right but hits left. "Then against Vanderbilt I didn't have much hit to me but I still felt good." He looked pretty fair at the plate, too, with base hits against both Ole Miss and Vanderbilt.

Besides the shot Turner wears a protective thigh wrap just in case. Oddly, he also wears a sleeve on the right arm "Just to keep my arm warm. And I'm always hurting the elbow so I wear it."

LINING ‘EM UP: Turner will be wearing the sleeves Friday for game-time when higher-seed State takes the field first against Stetson. But, will he still be to the right of second base or over to the left in his old job? "They haven't told me where. They said either second or short, so I guess we'll have to wait until we get there."

The coaches couldn't say for-sure themselves Tuesday, but every practice indication was that Turner will open at second; Jet Butler at shortstop; and Russ Sneed at third base. Rea would then move to the outfield as he did at Hoover, though it would be interesting to speculate if he would stay in rightfield or go to left. That in turn would reflect decisions to make about first base and rightfield, and whether lefty Brian LaNinfa or righthander Joseph McCaskill is the DH…or Moreland in rightfield and LaNinfa at first?

Stetson is expected to start a power-righthander in the first game, further impacting on all order/lineup choices. Not that it matters much in LaNinfa's case as the senior is equally comfortable swinging against pitches coming from either side of the mound.

As far as State's pitching plans that, too, has not been announced. But based again on practice talk and observation, the most probable choice will be RH Chad Crosswhite. Stetson's usual order has just three lefties batting, two among the first four swingers. Plus the 210-plus pound Crosswhite can work fast and still hold up in the expected afternoon panhandle heat. That way if the Bulldogs can get past the Hatters, lefthander Justin Pigott can throw Saturday evening in the winner's bracket against, in all likelihood, host Florida State.

READY TO THROW: Not that State will demand any starter go the distance, or for that matter more than 15-18 outs. The coaches will not hesitate to go to the bullpen this weekend since it is win-or-done at tourney time. And the full complement of relievers are ready and able for the Regional, including closer Aaron Weatherford.

The sophomore righthander was slowed early this month by a recurrence of the shoulder-nerve problem he had last fall, and since May 6 he has only thrown once with a 1.1 inning relief stint at Georgia. So he has gone seven games and almost three weeks since toeing the rubber.

Yet Weatherford was on the SEC Tournament roster and could have tossed. "I was ready, I really was. I was just waiting on the opportunity to close it out, unfortunately that didn't come. But I was ready then and I'm ready now." More than ready after this long layoff, though he admits the break might have insured his shoulder is up to post-season strength.

I'm sure every little bit of rest you can get helps so I'm not complaining." Weatherford wasn't complaining Tuesday either following an assigned stint. "I'm 100% for sure. I threw bullpen and it felt great. Probably warm-ups and all about 30 pitches." So now it's just a matter of awaiting the right time and situation in Tallahassee, when he might just be handed the ball and told to keep Mississippi State's season going.

"They told me to be ready so that's what I'm doing."


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