Fortunately there was nothing serious happening, though the sight of five fully-equipped firemen carrying squeegees and washtubs through the lobby was an attention-getter. It made for typical at-practice humor, too, with OF Joseph McCaskill trying to take the credit/blame. "I just wanted everybody up and moving so we could have a good practice, so I pulled it."
PRACTICE PLANNING: The Bulldogs have been able to put their Friday night loss to North Carolina behind with reasonable ease and turn all attentions on Sunday's contest against Louisville. Game time is 1:00 at Rosenblatt Stadium. The 90-minute practice was held at Creighton University's park, not too many blocks from the team hotel.
Coach Ron Polk confirmed what any fan or even a reporter could have told, that righthander Chad Crosswhite will start this do-or-through game. It will be a hot day at Rosenblatt and Crosswhite won't be asked to go the distance. Pitching Coach Russ McNickle wants 18 good outs as a target for the starter.
"And our bullpen is in great shape in regard to our closers," said Polk, with both Aaron Weatherford and Mitch Moreland ready to work late as needed. For middle stints, "Ricky Bowen can come back, John Lalor can come back, Greg Houston hasn't thrown. That's the good thing about Omaha, you've got some breaks between games."
If Crosswhite is feeling any added pressure to take care of elimination-round business, it wasn't showing as he went through the usual pre-start routines at Creighton. Nor will his mindset change between now and tomorrow.
"I'll just do like I always do, have fun today and enjoy being here, seeing some fans watching practice. And looking forward tomorrow to give our team another chance and our fans some hope. It's not any more pressure, you have to say we're in the College World Series and live it up."
That's never an issue when Crosswhite is on the hill. "Chad will compete," said Polk. "It's going to be a tough assignment for them but he'll throw strikes and compete. We have to make plays behind him and score some runs."
Because, the Cardinals will light up the board themselves. Louisville wasn't the best team in Conference USA this season, with St. John's and Rutgers leading the league. But UL chose the right time to get hot and once given their NCAA bid have made the most of it, knocking off Oklahoma State in the super regional round.
"They're a good ball club, I saw them on TV in the regional," Polk said. "Very competitive, very athletic. Dan McDonnell has done a good job with them, he inherited a ball club I think with ten to eleven seniors. So he's developed them well."
In fact former Ole Miss aide McDonnell did walk into a set-up situation when the former head coach abruptly left for South Florida. "Whoever got the job would have a veteran ball club, he felt this was his year," said Polk. "But Dan has done a good job of taking those kids to the next level." The Cardinals thought they would be playing tomorrow in a higher level of this bracket as they bolted to a 5-0 lead on higher-seeded Rice and led as late as the seventh inning before losing 15-10.
State can relate after losing a 4-0 lead and first-round game to North Carolina, 8-5. "I'm sure they're having flashbacks," Polk said. State's staff was working on a fuller scouting report after the noon practice, and did not know for sure who would start on the hill though they expect to face a lefthanded rookie.
"They're scrappy," said RF Mitch Moreland who has seen some Cardinals games on TV. "They're a good team, they're coached well and they play hard. Hopefully we can come out and play our game and compete well."
"It's not going to be an easy task for us," Polk said. "We hope it's not going to be an easy task for them." And while it's never easy in the first elimination game of a tournament, the Diamond Dogs have to set aside any added tensions and just play the game if they hope to stay around Rosenblatt.
"We've got to get past Louisville, then worry about North Carolina-Rice which have deep pitching staffs," Polk said. "But you want to give your kids a chance."
More simply, Crosswhite says "I think it's going to be a great game."
LONG AND SHORT OF IT: It might be a great challenge for State's pitchers to throw strikes to Louisville shortstop Chris Cates, whose with batting helmet on might reach 5'4". Called 'Wee Man' by teammates, Cates more than holds his own on the field and at the plate.
Crosswhite said he isn't overly concerned about throwing at such a tight strike zone, though. "I throw to Jeffrey Rea all the time!" the pitcher said. "No offense to Rea. But I'll just throw it in there."
NUMBERS? WHAT NUMBERS?: As noted Friday, 2B Brandon Turner still has an outside shot at leading the SEC in batting average this year. At just over .397 he is five points behind Florida's Matt LaPorta. If Turner could somehow make up all that ground in the last week of the season, he would be part of a two-fer with 2006 league batting leader Thomas Berkery (.383). State has never had back-to-back SEC batting champions.
Media and fans can track his numbers, Turner isn't keeping up, he claims. "Get to this point and none of that stuff matters. Batting average doesn't bother me at all."
Turner also can still become the 10th Bulldog regular and second freshman ever to hit .400 for a campaign. The other rookie? Rafael Palmeiro, who hit .406 as a 1983 freshman. That was also the last time a MSU freshman led the team in batting average, a mark Turner should have locked up already.
"I didn't know that," Turner said. Still, "To be honest, I don't even know what my average is unless somebody on the team mentions it. I don't keep up because if you do it is going to mess with your head all year. It's an honor but you try not to get your head into it."
Because he missed six starts and nine full games, Turner is not the team's leader in total hits. That's C Edward Easley with 86 safeties in 59 games. Turner and senior CF Jeffrey Rea both have 81 hits going into Sunday, and RF Mitch Moreland 80.
PLASTIC GRASS: If Turner and team wanted to really ring up some numbers, they would come play for Creighton. It's an all-artificial surface, of Sprint Turf on the infield and an old-style Astroturf outfield. By the time State arrived at noon, the surface was steaming in June heat. During batting practice a few Dogs who'd been shagging balls in the outfield found their flat sole shoes wouldn't work in the cage on a thin skin of dirt, and changed into rubber cleats. OF Joseph McCaskill kicked off his first shoes while standing on the Sprint Turf (sprigs of plastic ‘grass' in a mat founded in ground-up tires) and immediately squawked "Oh my gawsh it's hot!" while hopping around in stocking feet.
The rising thermals played a part in a near-ridiculous show of power by many Dogs, with BP balls flying over a fence of dimensions reasonably close to Dudy Noble Field. "Oh, I'd love to play in this park," said Turner after slugging several shots out. "Everybody would probably have 20 home runs this year." But what about the other half of the game, covering all that plastic ground with a glove?
"I'd hate it, I couldn't stand it," admitted Turner. "The Astroturf is worse, it's terrible out there. This infield I could handle. But the outfield, you could have 30 ground-rule doubles and inside the park home runs and everything."
TRAFFIC JAMMED: One reason State coaches didn't have a lot of Louisville information to work with was that when media relations director Joe Dier tried to get to the ballpark mid-Saturday morning both access roads to Rosenblatt were backed-up and barely moving. Cars on the streets were being towed to make room for the game-one busses just to get through. So Dier had to turn around without team stats or player bio sheets.
He wasn't the only State staffer caught by the congestion. "I called Larry Templeton to wish him a happy birthday," Polk said. "He was stuck on the (I-80) bridge."
LONG GONE: Speaking of clearing fences, there was still a buzz Saturday morning about the home run slugged out of Rosenblatt Stadium by RF Mitch Moreland. The seventh-inning shot carried the tall centerfield wall and was easily the longest drive of the day in either game…though a pulled-foul to leftfield by C Edward Easley would have carried any point in the park if fair as well.
Polk admitted that he didn't see Moreland's shot off the stick. "So many people in white shirts are sitting behind the plate," he said. "And that's dangerous for a 63-year-old third base coach." But if Polk didn't keep an eye on the contact, "I heard it. It sounded really good!"
From two spots behind Moreland in the batting order OF Joseph McCaskill had a much clearer view of the whole thing. "I said wow, that's a long way! But it doesn't surprise me, Mitch is a strong kid. Look at him," he said, pointing to the batting cage where Moreland was standing. "He's got that country boy-strong, baling-hay stuff all the time. He can hit a ball a long way."
Informed of his teammate's comments, Moreland hollered "Joe, get over here!" where they discussed exactly how country the Amory native really is…and just how ‘urbane' Jackson native McCaskill claims to be. "I grew up dodging bullets!" bragged McCaskill, never known to exaggerate anything at all before. At least Moreland does acknowledge some rural experiences. "I have swung a few square bales in my time, to make a little money."
FAMILIAR FACE: State's coaches and most veteran players are familiar with Louisville's head coach. For his part Crosswhite was recruited by McDonnell and the Ole Miss staff when he was pitching at Madison Ridgeland Academy. "He always had positive things to say about me. It's kind of weird that I have a chance to throw against his team. "That's baseball, it's a small world. You get to meet everybody and know everybody."
REMEMBER ME? There was also a face from Mississippi State's past at the Saturday practice. Former Diamond Dog Bobby Kocol, a member of the 1978-79 teams who played in the '79 College World Series, came by to watch this generation of Dogs at work. Kocol now lives in Denver.
CHANGE FOR THE BETTER: The move of Crosswhite from reliever to starter would have been made eventually anyway. But pitching coach Russ McNickle says his mind was absolutely decided during his personal cool-down time in the Dudy Noble Field dugout tunnel. After he'd been tossed for disputing balls/strikes in a home game with Kentucky, when starter Aaron Weatheford was struggling.
"I sat back in the tunnel and said we've got to make a move, made that decision now and convince Coach to try that." State had tried first to make a rotation regular out of Weatherford, but clearly his hard stuff and intensity made the soph righty a better late reliever. Meanwhile Crosswhite's more varied stuff was not being maximized by middle-inning use.
"All along we were trying to groom Chad to be a starter," McNickle said. "It was one of those things we felt we needed to add that other pitch. He's got the body to be in that role and the demeanor to get it done. Aaron was struggling as a starter, his pitch counts would go so high so quickly."
Polk agreed to send soph Crosswhite to the hill at Arkansas, not the best situation for a first start of the season. Yet it might have been a turning point of the whole team's season as Crosswhite scattered nine hits for four runs in six innings and came out the winner. In a series won by the Bulldogs as well with implications for the entire campaign.
"It was huge," McNickle said. "We just built from there." So has the starter, who has also improved his mental and physical conditioning for this starting role. "That's been a huge factor," adds McNickle.
At the same time, Crosswhite isn't to be handled like the typical rotation moundsman. Starting responsibility hasn't erased the loose-as-a-goose mindset that makes this righthander seem to be living out in left field somewhere. McNickle agrees that when he has to go to the mound for a chat, he approaches with care. "I ask if he's having fun, has he seen the RBI girls, talk about the music being played."
"When he walks out there I think he's going to get on me, which he has!" Crosswhite said. "But he'll come out and ask questions, are you having fun, have you seen any cute girls, just trying to relax me. He's been great."