From The Dawghouse

There's a baseball on my desk. OK, after so many seasons that's not news. Still readers of long memory might recall another column that began this way, back in June 2003. It came from a box of freshly rubbed-up balls for use had Mississippi State forced a regional playoff game with North Carolina. Didn't happen, and those Diamond Dogs never got to the super regional round or to Omaha.

And I, roaming Dudy Noble Field after the letdown, found the box of abandoned ‘pearls' as they used to call ‘em and filched one. With the goal, as written four summers ago, of returning it unnoticed to the dugout next time State was hosting NCAA play. That didn't happen either, as I'm not sure the same type (a Rawlings R1NCAA) is still used. So this ball will remain desk-bound as a reminder of other unfinished business, to be included in our editorial travel gear when a Diamond Dog team clearly capable of winning the greatest prize heads for Rosenblatt Stadium. Assuming, that is, the historic stadium remains host of the College World Series and isn't replaced by a more modern down-town facility as is being considered.

There's an encouraging sense that before that can happen we'll be back in Omaha at the current park. Blame it on the absurd sense of optimism inspired by any exposure to the CWS, but here in June 2007 I am feeling aggressively optimistic about the kind of club Mississippi State will field in '08.

Yeah, yeah, I'm still trek-tired with a lingering hum in the ears from covering the 900 miles in under 13 hours. (Those teams running around the clock at Le Mans over the weekend had nothing on us Diamond Dog road-warriors, did they?) The editorial synapses are as fried as my credit card from three gas stops yesterday. In fact the right side of my Kraut hatchback nearly WAS fried on the Thursday drive-up by all those Arkansas farm fields set on early-summer fire. Just past Osceola, Ark., the flames leaping over a dozen feet skyward were so close to the interstate I could feel the heat radiating through closed car windows. The paint appears unsinged.

Anyway, back to today's topic of next year's ball club. Mississippi State is gonna be good. Potentially very, very good. And with just two pieces of luck in the form of a summer non-signing by a first baseman/relief pitcher, and a healthy redshirted shortstop, perhaps even great. State is thiiiiiiiis close to being back on the sort of form as in 1988-92 and 1997-2001, back when the Dogs—and their fans--went into a season expecting nothing less than top-ten status and opportunity for Ohama.

That is exactly the sort of outlook already being expressed by the current Bulldog underclassmen. And, why Sunday afternoon there weren't many signs of pain or frustration from these pups. They left the Rosenblatt dugouts already thinking ahead. "We're losing some great seniors," pitcher Chad Crosswhite said. "But I think next year we're going to be OK. We've got great pitching coming back, we've got good hitting. I'm just looking forward to fall and getting back started." Read that last sentence again: the veteran core of the '08 club is anticipating fall ball.

So should we observers be looking to September as the true start of the coming campaign. That's when Coach Ron Polk and staff will be replacing lost parts, fitting in redshirted and incoming talents, and shaking the whole lot of ‘em into place. Of course if they're honest the coaches—and for that manner many players--have been thinking about the '08 lineup and rotation for the last month or so. With good reason, since while there are already the makings of a competitive club there also are things to get done and decisions made to guarantee a squad that's far better than just competitive. Still there are enough sure signs as well as encouraging clues for the sort of optimism expressed above.

Take it from one of those pieces involved, middle infielder Brandon Turner, about the prospective squad for '08. "Position-to-position we don't know what's going to happen but regardless there will be somebody good at that position."

Let's look at the primary as-of-now unknowns. Though in one case we pretty much do know what will happen. I'll be stunned if catcher Edward Easley hasn't signed with Arizona by the end of the week. "It's going to be hard to pass up," he said Sunday of being taken in the first supplemental round. Impossible is a better way to evaluate improving his draft position and bonus as a senior. No Dog pitcher I spoke with expect to be tossing to Easley next spring. Nor does any coach plan to ask a single backstop to replace him and start every '08 game.

Instead we can look for soph-to-be Ryan Duffy to go into fall first, ahead of three redshirted catchers Scott DeLoach, Donny Stephens, and Brent Tanner. JC transfer DeLoach got good reviews last fall, but incoming frosh Cody Freeman will be the one to watch. Jay Powell might be a bit prejudiced towards a fellow Collinsville native but his opinion is worth listening to, methinks, and he says this kid is the real thing.

The true uncertainty of today is Mitch Moreland. Does the 17th-round pick of Texas sign or gamble on a senior season to improve his round while risking the bonus? The trio of State beat-scribes dining out (and quite well at the Omaha eatery Upstream) Sunday split 2-1 towards Moreland signing. We're 3-0 in favor of his return of course because Mitch is not only an outstanding college player but a great interview, especially when paired with roomie Crosswhite as the Butch and Sundance on this roster. Make that Sundance and Butch as Mitch is a bit more dry of humor while Chad is the freer spirit.

Either way, "Moreland is a key factor," Polk says. "We hope he decides to come back. We won't miss him as much pitching-wise as position-wise." Ahh, but I'd see Moreland as just as key in that aspect, allowing Aaron Weatherford to throw all-out and not worry about next-day recovery. Then again he could end up unutilized on the hill as was Brad Corley his final State season. Since Pete Young left we've never seemed to get these double-duty guys enough innings here, have we?

Setting that aside Moreland would be of more regular and reliable use hitting third or fourth in the order and slugging double-digit homers again. And goodness knows Mississippi State needs all the longball power available, the one continuing weak point of Polk's clubs these half-dozen seasons. I do wish #1 would ease up commentary about the size of State's park and let the kids feel freer to swing for those fences, especially since the players he's brought in the last two-three years are bigger and stronger and have the physical ability to knock balls out of the park. Which is no coincidence at all related to State's resurgence this season as these lads have taken their places in the order.

Such as Turner, Connor Powers, and Russ Sneed. Yeah, they only had a dozen homers among them and Powers provided eight. Yet these are all bigger, stronger bodies than the players they've supplanted with athletic skills at least as good. And they're only going to improve at plate and on paths going into their second varsity seasons. Which leads to speculation of can they all three be in the same starting infield, and where? Again, Moreland is the key because he would have first base all to himself as a senior.

But if he leaves, things open up. Powers can move across to first base where he'll be much more comfortable and presumably productive. He can be the righthanded DH but it's a fact of baseball life that guys who play the field are just better with the bat. Of course that leaves the question of what to do with Jeff Flagg who has the most pure power potential of all but doesn't have a true defensive position. If he can adjust to simply swinging then State has the right-handed slugger needed to mix-and-match in the order.

While twice he froze on hot-hoppers in the Series, I've lots of faith in Sneed on third corner. He's got the arm and the mental toughness to handle a do-or-die position and shake off inevitable gaffes. And it's hard to argue with a guy who, despite playing only half a season, batted .315 and ran the paths competently.

Before his hamstring (which didn't bother a bit in tournament season) problem Turner was the best shortstop on the team. But is it his best position? More likely he will be back at second in '08, a job he handled nicely the final four weekends. And wherever he lines up Turner is already on track to be one of the great batsmen ever at MSU; he was one more hit, or one less at-bat, away from becoming the 10th Dog regular to hit .400. And hey, the last freshman to lead State in season-average was 24 years ago, some guy named Palmeiro who did pretty good.

Much still hinges on the other Powers, shortstop Ryan, living up to billing. Before the season Polk told me R.Powers had a chance to "be really special." And this was AFTER the true frosh's fall knee injury. Every Dog talked to during the season is just as high on Powers' potential to play the six-hole. However I've also learned the hard way over the years to wait for an injured (especially knee) player re-proves himself on the field/court before getting too fired-up. If Powers does recover and play to expectations then State might indeed have a special middle-infield. Where would that leave Jet Butler? Backing up at both left-side spots or maybe moving outfield.

And we haven't even factored in redshirted juco Will Coggin. Or, signed first baseman/lefty pitcher Forrest Moore, drafted last week but still expected to stay with State. Should Moreland return there'll be quite an infield logjam, and what a lovely problem to have.

There's another redshirt to fit into the lineup, and based on comments by teammates and coaches alike about his plate prowess Jason Nappi will have his place somewhere. He came in listed as a third baseman; now it looks like he'll find work in the outfield, like left maybe? Over in right Cade Hoggard ran afoul first of the numbers game, then a recurrence of old back disc problems. He'll be healthy at last by fall and ready to show his true talents, particularly with the bat. Hoggard could end up a 10-homer guy…or end up again in a shuffle pending where Flagg fits in. Or, if Nick Hardy were to be moved over. Or if redshirt Leon Farmer comes on strong in September. Hmmm, a logjam again, and not an easy one to shake out especially with the NCAA cracking down on Division I transferring. Somebody ain't gonna be happy by winter.

What are we to make of Mark Goforth? As late as mid-April some of us scribes pondered if he should move up to leadoff and let J.Rea swing second. Then came an end-of-schedule slump and loss of centerfield job. I'm not sure if even a coach could say for sure if it was simply the transition to SEC ball, a gradual wearing down, or what. Yet Goforth has shown he can play; he had three-hit games against Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Ole Miss pitching after all. And he can run, which still makes me think the junior has the best chance of being back in center and at the top of the order when fall ball ends in October.

I'll let the coach talk about the armed forces. "We only lose one pitcher really," Polk said. "We have Matt Lea and Jared Wesson coming back that we didn't even see, that we counted on. Pitching-wise we'll be very good next year." Yep, if Lea can make the translation from mid-week starter to 2008 rotation regular, State's weekend staff will be very good with proven starters Crosswhite and Justin Pigott. That's if, remember, since Lea hasn't worked seriously since April 2006 when the right shoulder went bad. And I just don't know enough of Wesson other than he's a lefty—something the staff needs more of—to speculate at the moment.

I do know Weatherford is happier settling in as a stopper after getting a fair chance at starter. He'll make money in this role, and by next spring should be able to work a bit longer and more often though Weatherford's max-effort style means he'll never be an every-game closer. Though I'd love to be wrong there and see him get a dozen or so saves next spring. And if Wesson can't crack the weekend troika he and Tyler Whitney ought to be near-sure winners in midweek, where a SEC team's RPI and case for hosting are REALLY built up. It says something about the strength of the projected staff that southpaw Whitney might have to wait another year before getting weekend duty.

Throw in, so to speak, Ricky Bowen, John Lalor, and Greg Houston as middle-men and Mississippi State might have the best all-around pitching roster since…well, I'm at a loss to recall a fair comparison. And I haven't even mentioned a couple of redshirted arms, or five pitchers (two primary) signed. I could venture off on another angle, the fact that State will again have too many guys to give fair work or even looks; and that the new NCAA roster regulations will take care of this over the next couple of years but also force Polk to make some very painful choices since State is over-committed on scholarships, again.

But I'm not going to today. The mental battery run-down by driving demands (I used to love long-distance runs but dammit there's just too much traffic and too many stupid people ‘steering' those SUVs now) to pontificate much longer this Tuesday. I'd rather still be in Omaha awaiting a Wednesday winner's bracket battle. Needless to say so would the Diamond Dogs of all ages.

Yet the youngsters left the Series planning on a return trip soon enough. Expecting it, even. "This year I've learned so much and we've learned so much about each other and the game," Crosswhite said. "This year, with the older guys helping us, it teaches us to keep working. And it's looking forward to next year giving us confidence."

"What bothers me is I won't be playing with Jeffrey, Brian, or any of the other seniors any more," Turner told me. "But to be a freshman and be able to come play in the college World Series, it's a dream-come-true. You want to go farther, it didn't happen, but we still enjoyed it."

So did their skipper, taking his eighth team from three schools to Omaha. Things have changed for the sport and site since Polk's 1973 Georgia Southern squad, which only had one set of uniforms to play in, appeared at Rosenblatt. There are far many more competitive clubs around the country now, in no small part due to Polk's own efforts in promoting the game as an end in itself to college administrators. And while some of us often urge #1 to hand off unofficial leadership of the campaign to rescue college ball from NCAA depredations and focus entirely on Bulldog baseball, I will confess it didn't seem to affect how his team performed down the 2007 season stretch. You may take that as an apology for implied criticisms if you wish.

In fact, in an unexpected way State's struggles of May might actually have accelerated development of the '07 team and improved their '08 prospectus. Remember, the Dogs relied on just out-scoring folk in February and March. When Turner got hurt and a revised defense scuffled, the pitching staff was forced to take charge. Which they did. Then when Turner and the offense came back around at regional time State was suddenly a better-balanced ball team.

And, a much more all-around confident club for next year pending what happens over the summer and fall ball. "Hopefully we get Mitch back," Polk said. "I doubt we get Ed back. But regardless we've got a bunch of good players coming back." Oh, and if there was any doubt, so will be their coach no matter what wickedness the NCAA plots against his game. Though, he added cryptically in the final press conference, "It's not many more years I've got, you know what I mean?"

Maybe, maybe not. I quit trying to predict when Ron Polk would step aside long ago. Though, a few of you just might remember and others can look up that sometime in 1991 I casually speculated in a D.B. column that Polk would probably give it two more years. I was kinda-sorta correct; in mid-'92 he actually retired so he could go coach Team USA full-time and fight for college baseball. The retirement lasted one whole week before rescindment. Well, 15 years later we see no signs Polk is slowing down or losing his passion for college baseball…though it's increasingly clear those aforementioned scholarship/roster rules might just force him to either change his lifetime ways of handling teams and players or get out of the game.

It's more than I want to ponder today. I'd rather file this epic-length piece, log-off the laptop, and watch the elimination round at Omaha. And, look forward to the increasingly good odds of a return to Rosenblatt sooner rather than later. It's not that many years I've got left to make such a drive again, either, as come the end of the month (and by probably no coincidence the same day as occurrence of a blue moon) I'll run face-first into the big 5-0.

Yet if before the next birthday I'm back at the College World Series with a bunch of much younger pups, it won't be too surprising. The returning Diamond Dogs are certainly thinking that way. "The good thing about it, we had a taste this year and know what it takes," Turner said. "I'm pretty sure we'll get back."

And if we do return next June, I think I'll take a certain baseball with me…


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