Mississippi State's skipper, certainly the favorite foe of Tiger fans over the years, has even been accorded the honor of helping count-down the last days of the antique facility, to be replaced by a long-promised new stadium. "I guess it's an honor, so I'm looking forward to that," Polk said. "It just worked out that Mississippi State is closing it down, because we've had a tremendous rivalry with LSU." A rivalry that quite literally defined SEC baseball for so many years.
This is not one of them. Though, the Tigers (32-16-1) are getting closer back to their old championship form of seasons-past. LSU is the hottest team in the league, either side, having swept their last three series and jumped atop the Western Division standings at 12-11-1. It's a fragile lead, hinging entirely on that tie—more irony, with overall league pacesetter Georgia--which provides minimal margin over Alabama and Ole Miss, both 12-12. But the Tigers do seem to have the inside track down the season-stretch, hosting State and going to Auburn and thus facing the West's bottom tier teams. So hopes are rising that Alex Box might see more baseball if the Tigers, who missed NCAA play the last two years, can win the West and finish strongly enough to earn a regional host.
"They're hot, they've played well," Polk said. "To go to Kentucky and beat South Carolina, they've had a good second half. They're probably healthy."
Health is very much on Polk's mind as what he calls "a young, banged-up ball club" limps toward the end of what has turned into Mississippi State's worst season in 33 years and seems assured of giving the coach his first and only losing campaign ever. At 20-29 and with seven games left on the schedule only qualifying for the SEC Tournament would give the Bulldogs (7-17) any chance of avoiding the first sub-.500 outcome since 1975…the year before Polk arrived on campus.
For that matter just scrambling into the league tourney would qualify as a miracle since State would have to sweep LSU and Arkansas, while the three Division leaders would appear to have to lose all six of their games. And even then other factors are still involved, since most tie-breaks go against the Dogs.
No wonder such topics have been shoved aside as State slips closer to mathematical post-season elimination. "I'm just trying to win some ball games," Polk said. Road games, too, as the Dogs are in the midst of a eight-date stretch away from home. They were able to take one at Auburn but only one; and then split midweek games with Middle Tennessee State. It didn't look like a split as the Blue Raiders crushed MSU 20-5 first, before the Bulldogs held on for a 4-3 win that required ace SEC closer Aaron Weatherford throwing some late innings on a Wednesday night.
Then again, bouncing back from a humiliating loss and not throwing in the emotional towel left Polk positive. "They're a great group of kids, they just have to understand we've been dealt a bad deck. They're still contending, still competing."
And, still hobbled by a series of injuries that continue to impact the lineup. "I hear some coaches talking about getting players back, that's not us," Polk said. MIF Brandon Turner, the team's top batter of 2007, has rarely played since February with continuing hamstring problems. Polk said today the sophomore is "probably" out for the season, though few believe there is any chance of a comeback in the last ten days of the schedule. Freshman OF Ryan Collins, who played a game at Auburn after a labrum injury the previous weekend, is now definitely done for the year.
3B Connor Powers, who was leading the team in home runs before an April injury, might be able to play next weekend against Arkansas. Freshman C Cody Freeman, the best all-around backstop on the roster, has been limited to batting the last three weeks with a patella injury. "He still can't catch, we'll use him as a DH against certain pitchers."
Polk said this weekend's rotation will remain RH Chad Crosswhite on Friday, RH Ricky Bowen Saturday, and LH Justin Pigott Sunday. Naturally in his last trip to Baton Rouge the coach would rather take a healthy, confident, and contending ball club. That won't be the case.
"We're going to bring out young puppies down there and compete and hopefully sneak out with a series win," said Polk, who is 70-56 against LSU teams in his 31 SEC seasons and has had his share of highlights at the Box. "I don't think there's any visiting coach who has played more games there than I have." Or likely won more, too.
"I'm glad we're going to help close the grand old stadium down. It's going to be sad to see it go," said Polk, adding that he and LSU's park aren't the only long-time fixtures about to vanish from the SEC landscape. South Carolina's Sarge Frye Field is also being replaced by a modern facility, and yes, State made a last-year trip there this season too. Polk can sympathize, having seen the original Dudy Noble Field stadium torn-down 22 years ago to make way for State's current stadium that bears his own name. A plank from the old bleachers is in Polk's office, in fact.
"At South Carolina and at LSU it brings a lot of tears to a lot of people," he said. "But progress is ahead of us, that's what SEC baseball is all about."