Going into the last four league weekends, the Bulldogs have essentially no room left for losing series or even many more games even in the ‘lesser' loop this season. How much lesser is shown by the standings where Ole Miss is first-West at 10-8 SEC…which would tie for fourth in the East as of now. Nobody else in the West has even a .500 league record, which Coach Ron Polk offers as reason Mississippi State still has a chance of qualifying for Hoover.
But this means making up a lot of ground in a short time. Alabama, which took two-of-three games from the Bulldogs this past weekend, has that priceless second-West status for now at 8-10; which is just one win ahead of 7-10 Arkansas and 7-11 Auburn, while LSU is 6-11-1. The respective Division winners and the six next-best records earn tournament berths; and SEC standings, seedings, and the regular-season title are calculated on winning percentage, not total victories.
Victories are what State desperately needs to make May matter, and even if they can win eight or nine of the remaining dozen SEC dates it will still require everyone else in the West winning no more than four-to-six of their own games. Or, an East club fading down the season stretch where three West squads can make the cut. Which is what the visiting Volunteers (24-16, 10-8 SEC) are looking to avoid as they are tied for fourth in the Division and still trying to secure their own berth at Hoover. But to get wins means MSU has to reverse their current trend, not to mention scoring their first successful SEC series of the whole season. They have lost seven of the last eight league contests, and ten of their last dozen games overall. Since the most recent home game the Bulldogs have a non-league win over Ole Miss at Pearl's Trustmark Park, and a 6-4 game-two victory at Tuscaloosa.
Yet as Polk said today, "We had a chance to win the series at Alabama." Which the Dogs did having bounced back from a 21-7 thrashing to take the second game and force a rubber contest that they led 3-2 in the seventh inning. "And we lost on a two-run home run," Polk said. The coach could wish State's mid-week losses at Southern Mississippi were that competitive as the Dogs gave up multiple early runs and never caught up.
"We had seven runs in each game," noted Polk. "But the big early leads each game made it hard." Impossible actually, as Bulldog mid-week starting pitching wasn't up to the task. Tyler Whitney gave up five runs in 1.1 opening innings Tuesday; and Drew Hollinghead five runs as well but in 0.0 official innings. His problem wasn't being hit as much as issuing walks that made it easy for USM to bolt in front in their first turn at the plate.
Polk has come to accept and maybe even expect such outings from a mid-week staff where more is being asked of a number of hurlers who weren't expected to have this much responsibility in 2008. "Most of these guys are youngsters," he said. "We expect them to have good days and bad days, we've just strung some bad days together."
The only sliver of silver lining from the routs in Hattiesburg was it let State coaches work in a number of arms in unpressured situations, as the affairs were already lost. And, to try to set things up for weekends. No less than ten more pitchers, five each night and not all of them relievers, worked stints of varying lengths. That included both moundsmen booked to start the Friday and Saturday games, and reliever Aaron Weatherford. It was just making the best of a mess.
"We had some guys that needed to throw a bullpen," Polk explained. "We used them, they got their inning. They're not taxed." And thus ready for weekend duty. "We'll go with the same starters we had at Alabama; Chad Crosswhite on Friday, Ricky Bowen on Saturday, and Justin Pigott Sunday."
Pigott, the senior lefthander, returned after a month's absence with a shoulder problem, for the third Alabama game and left with his team leading. That's an encouraging sign, as was State limiting Alabama to nine total hits in the second and third games. "Which is real good for our (weekend) pitching rotation," agreed Polk.
Sunday's game-changing and winning homer came off Michael Busby, who none the less is begin given an increasing role in mid-relief duty the second half of the campaign. The fact this freshman can also play middle-infield matters too because State took only four primary infielders to Tuscaloosa. Risky, but almost unavoidable as long as injuries keep 3B Connor Powers and 2B Brandon Turner sidelined. Powers, the team's slugging leader, has been out two weeks; 2007 batting leader Turner has been down most of the season with a perennial hamstring problem and made just a few DH appearances since early March.
"We hope to get both back in maybe a week or two," said Polk today, though the outlook for Turner hasn't been promising for a while. More likely is getting Cody Freeman back behind the plate in another week after a fluke knee injury. The young but most talented backstop on the roster has been able to DH in the last two series and will continue that this weekend.
At least things have improved on the mound-roster, if not in the ERA or win-loss record. "All our pitchers are basically healthy now," said Polk. That includes Weatherford who has come back from a tender elbow and brought the scouts with their radar guns back to MSU games. The draft-eligible junior doesn't quite look up to his old speed but he's getting closer weekly…and has been even more effective with a better mix of pitches in closing situations.
"His numbers are just astounding even though he was out a month," said Polk. "We'd love to get the ball to him at the end and let him do what he's capable of doing. You don't want to burn him in a tie game or when you're behind, especially on a Friday or Saturday. We hope we can give him that opportunity this weekend against Tennessee."
And at this point any opportunity that Mississippi State is presented must be seized. The Bulldogs realize that at 16-24 overall, with just 15 games left on the schedule, a NCAA berth is pure fantasy now barring the most amazing May run in program history. Which is why, by comparison, speculating about a run that puts them in Hoover seems realistic. Either way, it is effectively a do-or-done situation for the Diamond Dogs come 6:30 Friday…and the next day, and the next, and…