Serious Schedule Starts For Diamond Dogs

They're spent the first nine games shuffling lineups, scrabbling for production, experimenting with pitching, and working around injuries. And now they begin a stretch of three weekends against ranked opposition. Leave it to that master of the under-Statement to summarize the situation. "This is going to be interesting," Coach Ron Polk said.

Indeed, things are about to get very interesting for Mississippi State. Or just plain intense, as the Diamond Dogs prepare to host Baylor in the Cadence Bank Classic. This duel of Big XII and SEC begin begins a 4:00 Friday game at Dudy Noble Field, followed by a re-scheduled 6:00 Saturday contest and 1:30 Sunday finale.

Actually Polk could rightly call the season so-far interesting, not that the description is necessarily positive. The Bulldogs take a 5-4 record into the weekend despite playing a modest schedule by Polk's admission "We have not played a great team yet." Even so State had to get some timely Wednesday relief work from John Lalor and a bit of late insurance to settle a 6-3 victory over Arkansas-Little Rock, and get away with a split after the visiting Trojans took a 9-5 Tuesday win.

Polk had scripted Wednesday's pitching plans. But when UALR put the tying and lead runners on base in the top of the eighth with one out and the top of the order coming up, co-captain Lalor got an early call. Taking the ball from Jared Wesson, the senior righthander struck out Eric Hanlon and got a hot grounder by Zach Rowless that third baseman Connor Power was able to stop-and-step for the inning-ending force.

"Connor snared one for me over there, he couldn't have hit it much harder," Lalor said. "But I'll take the out however I can get it." And the save, his first of the year.

Jesse Carver started for State and put in the planned three innings, allowing a run in the third frame on a sacrifice fly by Matt Apfel. From there Bulldog relievers took scripted turns as Michael Busby tossed a scoreless pair with three hits, before Lee Swindle ran into sixth-inning troubles. After striking out the leadoff man Swindle plunked a Trojan, who got to third as Kody Kroll's high-hopper got over first base and down the line for a double.

A couple of ground balls by the eight and nine batters drove in those runners, and Swindle needed a line-out to centerfield by Hanlon to get out of his only inning.

Fortunately for the Bulldogs they got to UALR starter/DH Clay Rominger with three runs in the second inning. Rominger struck out four of his first five batters before the bottom of MSU's order—RF Andy Rice, C Ryan Duffy, and LF Ryan Collins—all singled, the latter driving in the first run. Order-topper Mark Goforth cashed in the RBI opportunity with a bouncer that got under the Trojan third baseman's glove for a two-run double and 3-0 lead.

It was a 3-1 scoreboard in MSU's fifth when Trojan reliever Nathan Parker walked SS Russ Sneed. DH Jason Nappi singled through the box for Dogs on corners, and with two outs a wild pitch brought Sneed home. 1B Tyler Moore had watched that dirtball; he swung on an ensuing offering for a RBI single and 5-1 Bulldog advantage.

Greg Houston took care of a harmless seventh inning before Wesson got his first chance to pitch in two years. He hit his first batter and walked the next, and loaded the bases on a one-out walk of the ninth batter which resulted in Lalor's entry and successful saving. In the bottom of the eighth Sneed punched an infield single deep enough to shortstop for Rice to score the insurance run.

The Bulldogs weren't complaining about having to hustle to hold off a team that left Starkville 2-8. "We need wins however we can get them," Lalor said. "We've got to scrap and claw, any way we can get some wins we'll take them."

Mississippi State certainly has had to scrap and claw for everything they've done to-date. The early-season struggles on offense were not entirely unexpected after losing so much of the 2007 lineup's producers. Assembling an order remains very much a work in progress and at times the desired progress hasn't shown. It hasn't helped that returning batting leader 2B Brandon Turner was hampered in the early games and now is sidelined with the same cranky hamstring that interrupted his freshman campaign.

Polk said a MRI of the leg showed no damage. "That's good news but he's still not going to help us for two more weeks." Taking Turner out of the order has also left a void in the lineup that for now shortstop Jet Butler is usually filling. His spot in-turn is being taken by Sneed or redshirt Ryan Powers, while the corner starters have also been adjusted. And in the outfield all sorts of trios have been tried, depending on whether Nappi is used to DH or play left. The redshirt has been State's most consistent batter in the opening weeks.

Still the daily cycle of lineup changes has not allowed any sort of consistency. Besides, as Polk noted, "Yesterday we didn't have anybody on the field that played a full season last year." Nor hit. "And with Turner out a couple of weeks it's going to be every game we have to pitch it really good."

Except State hasn't, a puzzlement since pitching was to be this team's strong point. "Going into today the first inning our ERA was 13.50," Polk said. "That means we're playing from behind." And not catching up. Tuesday the Trojans jumped to a 7-0 lead and easily withstood State's later rally. The pitching staff isn't 100% healthy either as game-two starter Chad Crosswhite has a sore hamstring; thankfully just that, as the MRI showed no back problems. Tyler Whitney, expected to start midweek games and help in weekends, has a hurting elbow being evaluated. These injuries were why Swindle, who Polk was considering for a redshirt, threw an inning today.

So far the best part of State's game is the defense, fielding at a respectable .980 clip. Not great, but "That's what we can hang our hat on," Polk said. At the same time the coach is concerned about little things his squad is coming up short in. For instance, Polk says three signs from the coaches have been missed already this year. "And we've gone four or five years without missing three, total."

The Diamond Dogs will have to do more than catch the ball against Baylor. The Bears, coached by former Polk aide Steve Smith, have had their own early-year issues and had to play a lot of one-run games. Still nobody doubts Mississippi State is in for the most serious test of the young season now. And things only get tougher in weekends to come, as SEC season starts next with the Dogs hosting Ole Miss before going to South Carolina. It's a March murderer's row.

"I hope a club like this plays to the level of the competition," Polk said. We just have to play. We have to get better. I love this ball club in regard to their energy, but it's just very young and people are going to have to be patient. I've got to be patient with them."

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