The tournament pitching staff has righthanders Chad Crosswhite, Josh Johnson, John Lalor, Ricky Bowen, Greg Houston, Aaron Weatherford; and lefthanders Justin Pigott, Jesse Carver, and Tyler Whitney. Also, Moreland is a late-inning lefthander.
Clemson will throw Daniel Moskos against State, an ace lefthander who owns a most deceptive 3-5 record and 2.91 ERA. If the Bulldogs needed a reminder how stout this southpaw is, they got it Thursday afternoon when Moskos was the fourth player taken in the Major League draft. Down the season-stretch Coach Ron Polk would often wait to game-day to set a lineup, especially when allowing for some hurting players who might or might not be available.
Not this time. #1 is pretty sure of how the Dogs will line up for a lefty. "What we're going to do against Moskos is we'll probably end up with Jeffrey Rea in center, Mitch Moreland in right, and Brian LaNinfa at first. And Connor Powers will probably end up our DH."
Wednesday Polk confirmed what most expected, that RH Chad Crosswhite would start Friday's game and LH Justin Pigott on Saturday, just as in the Tallahassee Regional. Of course part of this was because in game-two Florida State would field a mostly-righthanded order. Clemson is more balanced left-and-right, but Polk will not juggle the arms. "Because we've got to face those lefties in two or maybe three games. We gave it some thought but not to the point of deciding to make a move."
MATCHING UP: For his part Crosswhite isn't exactly intimidated by having to match arms with a first-round draftee. "I threw against the first overall pick," he noted, having started in the SEC Tournament against Vanderbilt and #1 draftee David Price. "So you just go at like another game. It's a great honor to be able to throw in this environment."
The third-year sophomore is glad to be throwing in the most familiar environment. Especially after his experience last June in Clemson. "I got two losses in that regional in relief, I remember that!" he said. "But this year hopefully I'll turn that around. You grow up and learn how to handle things. I learned a lot from that and hope to carry it over to tomorrow." And, onto the home field. "You can't change your approach, just do the same thing. It should be good, it should be a good experience for us."
Then again, Crosswhite makes a habit of creating good experiences in the clubhouse. Or entertaining, at least. At times this season fans have seen the pitcher (on non-throwing days that is) dancing in front of the dugout to whatever pre-game tune is playing. And last week's infamous water balloon battle before a midweek practice was initiated by the pitcher.
"I just try to keep everybody loose," Crosswhite said. "It's just taking this experience and running with it."
ON THE D.L.: As noted, Hoggard has scheduled his back surgery Friday. The second-year freshman has been pained for months by pain from the bulging discs. Hoggard also had a back procedure after high school, a result of his years as a football standout at Oxford. Hoggard played in 17 games this season, starting five in rightfield at the end of April/early May and hitting .276 with one RBI and two runs scored. He is with the team today for the tournament banquet. He is expected to contend for the full-time starting job in rightfield next season.
DEPARTING: Also, Polk has confirmed that freshman pitcher Jarred Holloway will transfer to a junior college. The lefthander redshirted this past season after not cracking the active staff in fall competition. Holloway was the only member of the 2006 signing class drafted, in the next-to-last round by Washington.
WELCOME BACK: Much has been made, on either side of the fan-divide, about Clemson's obvious unhappiness about being sent on the road for the super round. The Tigers did have a strong case for hosting this round after knocking off one-seeded Coastal Carolina twice at Myrtle Beach; in the end the NCAA baseball committee gave the nod to fellow two-seed State, after the SEC's Bulldogs beat another ACC power, national seed #6 Florida State, at Tallahassee.
Thursday, Tiger Coach Jack Leggett was not getting into that media and fan controversy. "We're not going to need to say much about that," he said. "We'll comment on that when it's all over. We're going to use this as a challenge and opportunity and motivation, that's all you can do."
Leggett isn't just being diplomatic, though. He knows all about Dudy Noble Field. "This is my fifth regional here," he said. In fact, he played in the first regional held at the current stadium in 1987. Leggett was head coach of Western Carolina then and brought three-straight Catamount clubs to Starkville from '87-'89. "We were winners of the Southern Conference and came here three years in a row. The first year I loved the atmosphere, (the next year) I was on the committee and they said where do you want to go and I said I'll go back again. And the third year I said let's go back again!"
In that stretch the Catamounts from Cullohee, N.C. became almost an adopted ‘home' team for DNF denizens. "The people treated out players great," Leggett said. This even after beating the true home side that first year. "We eliminated Mississippi State here 8-1 (in 1987)," Leggett said. "The fans wouldn't leave until their players came out of the locker room to say good-bye after the final out. It's a special atmosphere and a great college baseball venue." A venue that has only improved since Leggett's last trip, in 1992 as an assistant on a Clemson team assigned to the Midwest Regional at Starkville. They didn't play State that year, and Oklahoma beat UCLA to win the tourney.
So Clemson's coach can appreciate how the stadium has grown over the two decades since his first visit, and how much is still unchanged. "Probably some of the people in the outfield are the same guys!"
TRY, TRY AGAIN: This will be the first time Mississippi State and Clemson have played post-season ball in Starkville. They have met four times in NCAA regional action though with the Tigers winning all games. In 1991, at the Maine Regional in the winner's bracket, Clemson beat the Bulldogs 10-9. Nine seasons later Mississippi State was sent to Clemson for its first super regional experience and was eliminated in straight games 11-4 and 9-4. And of course last June, at Clemson again, the Tigers outlasted State 8-6 in the championship round. Had the Dogs won that one, they would have had to play again Monday.
SLICK STICKS: For the post-season, the Diamond Dogs received a shipment of new sticks from Easton, made of the latest composite designs. Only a materials engineer or sales rep could likely explain any real physical differences in this version of the ‘Stealth' model State and most collegians have used this season. Still a new bat is, well, a new bat and a number of Bulldogs grabbed theirs with gusto.
Not so Jeffrey Rea. The senior knocked his safeties at Tallahassee, the ones that first tied and then set the Mississippi State career hits record, with more familiar metal. "I stayed with the old one," Rea said. Make that old ones as Rea actually has a couple of favored bats in the rack, both 33-inch/30-ouncers. "I've got one I've been using, and one that's kind of dented," he said. "So I don't know what I'm going to go with (this weekend)."
Now as most know there are rules about just how battered a bat can be and still be brought to the plate. It's both for safety reasons—cracked and dented bats can shatter—as well as the perceived chance that a really skilled swinger could use the flatter spots on his stick to make better contact. Diamond Dog fans of some seasoning will recall 1990, when in the SEC Tournament and Starkville regional Burke Masters used a bat so mangled that it would never have passed umpire's inspection. This writer can attest that the bat wasn't just dented in several spots but even had an open crack just above the handle. MSU managers would hide the bat as best they could until the ump had made the perfunctory check, then slip it into the dugout rack.
Masters, who used that very and illegal bat to slug the fabled grand-slam against Florida State to keep State on track for the regional title, is now a priest in Joliet, Ill.
Rea will keep his more ‘seasoned' stick as long as the ump doesn't object. Besides, "They'll run through them but you can get those in if you need to!" he grins. Still it's not his #1 bat; this one is obviously a veteran of hitting SEC and post-season pitching but otherwise unmarred. "But the new bats do have a little pop in them," he admits. So, why not use one? "I don't like the way they feel. I like ‘feel' better. Who knows, I might get one but as of right now…" His proven pole is also one of the now-popular white or light-colored bats most Bulldogs are using. A couple of State hitters, though, might be questioned about their tastes this weekend. Some of the newest Stealth sticks are bright orange and royal blue…the same colors worn by Clemson. It's coincidence, of course. "I mean, we can't control the colors and stuff," says Rea. Still it is bound to raise a few fan-eyebrows Friday.
RF/1B Mitch Moreland understands it might look odd for a Bulldog to carry an orange-and-blue bat to the plate at Dudy Noble Field tomorrow. But he adds, "We're swinging them, though!"
COUNTERPOINT: OF/DH Jeff Flagg feels the same about the new sticks, having grabbed one for Tallahassee. "They're awesome, I love them," he says, and yes, Flagg also has the orange-and-blue model. "You have to kind of break them in a little bit. But they hit better if you use them."
But do they sound better? Baseball purists might not love the ‘ping' of alloy, but the ‘thunk' of composite material is even less impressive. "It does make a weird sound, compared to the old-school," agrees Flagg, who swings a 34/31 model. "But I think they jump more and I love them. If it didn't feel good I wouldn't use it but I love the feel, the bounce. It works for me!"
HOME, SWEET HOMEFIELD: It's been a sore point with Mississippi State faithful that since the two-round regional format was adopted for 1999 there has not been a super regional at Dudy Noble Field. The Diamond Dogs themselves haven't been so much annoyed as frustrated since they were not able to bring post-season play, first or second round, to campus, and had to go on the road all their career for regionals.
Now, at last, State players and fans alike get to celebrate tournament time at home, and ticket demand has been nigh-overwhelming. The Bulldogs understand entirely, especially the veterans. "There's never been a super regional here in Starkville and our fans are excited," junior C Edward Easley said. "I know our team is excited."
"I think everybody will be behind us, come out and it will be a great environment," Moreland said. "And I'm looking forward to it."
But, Easley added, the point of all the fun is the job at hand. Especially if these Bulldogs are to conclude their season and in many cases college careers in Omaha. "We can't get too excited, we've got to concentrate on inning-by-inning and game-by-game. We're going to come out and play hard and leave it all on the field."
(Editor's Update: the following was published before it was learned Edward Easley had been drafted in the supplemental round, 61st by Arizona. I will try to get with Ed for a comment at the evening tournament dinner.) DRAFT DAYS: Easley has his more personal reasons for excitement. The Major League draft began Thursday, with only five rounds scheduled, and the junior catcher will assuredly have his name called sometime in the next couple of days.
"I'm kind of anxious," Easley said. "But I've no expectations today. I'm concentrating on doing what it takes to help my team win tomorrow. We've got everything rolling the way we like it and we've got to stay focused."
That might not seem easy, especially if perchance Easley's name comes up on the board during Friday's game. But if anyone can handle such news with complete calm, it's Easley. "If it's tomorrow, awesome. Maybe it will give me a little boost in the game." So does he want to be kept ignorant during play or informed?
"I don't care, I'm sure I'll be told sometime. But I'm just concentrating on doing what it takes to help my team win." And Easley says he hasn't put a dollar figure on what it will take to sign him once the season is over. "I've done all can do with this season to put myself where I stand now, I have no say-so in what team is going to pick me and where."
TICKET UPDATE: With first pitch less than a day away, this corner of campus is practically in football-weekend lockdown. Television crews have the area between PDS and The Hump blocked off as they prepare for the broadcast, with such un-important folk as coaches, players, and press having to work around their schedules.
But the busiest folk on campus are in the overwhelmed ticket office, which as of 4:00 had sold 10,000 tickets. The news had Ron Polk quipping "So I'm sure that we've made our bid (amount). I hope the NCAA enjoys our money."