Of course the Razorbacks also have much more important things at stake than that remaining non-conference home game. Arkansas is playing for a berth in next week's SEC Tournament, which Mississippi State is not after official elimination this past weekend. Thus the ‘spoiler' context to this series for Polk.
"Because if we don't play well against Arkansas and they get in, someone is going to be left out. There are two or three SEC schools rooting for us to win this weekend." Most obviously South Carolina, currently ninth in the ‘road to Hoover' standings at 13-14 after being swept by Arkansas. The Gamecocks host Tennessee this week. Meanwhile Kentucky and Florida are just a win ahead of the Razorbacks at 14-13 apiece. One of these four clubs will not make the field of eight.
Spoiling Arkansas' run at Hoover, along with their NCAA opportunity, will take some work. "Arkansas is healthy now and beat South Carolina three," Polk said. "It seems every team we play is on a roll right now; the first half of the season every team we played everybody was back from last year. They've had some injuries but they're all coming back."
Which is not the case here at seasons-end for Mississippi State. In fact, the day this final series opens is also the scheduled date for OF Ryan Collins and C Cody Freeman both to undergo surgery on their damaged labrums. Hobbled Dogs 3B Connor Powers and 2B Brandon Turner, both out the last half of this season, won't participate this weekend either. "We're just trying to get Brandon and Connor healthy enough in practice to go play summer baseball," Polk said.
"I listen to the media conference and most coaches say ‘Smith has had an injury and he'll be back next week, Jones will be back next week'. I've got to tell them my guys ain't coming back! I've never had a series of injuries so damaging to key players." How key? Polk figures those four would be batting 2-3-4-5 in State's order, and Powers (.348), Collins (.345) and Freeman (.310) are in the team's top-four in average for the season.
"I'd challenge any SEC team to have their top four hitters out of the lineup an extended period of time and see what their record would have been."
The pitching staff is much healthier, not that this has translated into efficiency with a season ERA of 6.87 and 7.54 mark in SEC action. Polk has shuffled the rotation one last time, having given most recent Friday starter Chad Crosswhite last night's first pitch against Memphis. The junior righty responded with his first win since March, working five innings with the lone run allowed in a 4-1 victory. He will go to the bullpen for this series and usual game-two starter RH Ricky Bowen will start the first Arkansas contest. RH John Lalor, who has been doing set-up duty for closer Aaron Weatherford, will start game-two; and senior southpaw Justin Pigott will make his last college start in the season's finale.
The weekend will also surely be Weatherford's last appearance(s) at Dudy Noble Field, as the junior is expected to earn an early draft-call in June. Weatherford tuned-up for Arkansas with a ninth inning against Memphis that became his seventh save of the season. That ties the righthander with such names as Thigpen, Powell, and Papelbon for the 9th-most saves in a State season. And given how few save opportunities he's had this year, between missing a whole month with elbow tendonitis and State's lack of winning play, it's been a remarkable year indeed for Weatherford.
Two other juniors are having strong seasons on offense. OF Grant Hogue stole his 25th base last night, almost doubling the team-best 13 thefts by Jeffrey Rea last season. His total is tied for fourth-best year by a Bulldog with Mike Kelly (1977) and Brad Winkler (1981). Hogues is 25-of-29 in theft attempts. At the plate 1B Tyler Moore has punched 13 home runs, eight of them in the last five weeks. Both are draft-eligible as well. But the only upperclassman booked for a starting job is pitcher Pigott, notes Polk.
"I think position-player wise, with some of the redshirts we have, next year can be an experienced ball club." With no chance of extending the season beyond this weekend the Diamond Dogs have only next year as wells as individual goals and team pride left to play for. And ‘spoiling' somebody else's season doesn't really factor in for anyone, coach or players. There are three games scheduled and Polk says his team will be ready to go.
"We're not going to play backup guys," Polk said. "We're going to play our best guys and hopefully go out and win. I hate to start talking about next year, but at the same time we ain't got nothing really to play for other than make sure the rest of the conference knows that we're not going to just give up."
Overriding all the other aspects of this weekend is that Polk himself is hanging up the Mississippi State uniform for his last time. Having announced his retirement in March, Polk concludes his 29th season as State skipper and 35th year as a college head coach. He is the winningest coach in SEC history, in any sport of either gender with 1,216 victories at MSU and Georgia. Adding his four seasons at Georgia Southern, Polk has 1,370 total wins and is seventh-highest all time in Division I baseball.
Ironically, he ends a hall of fame career with his only losing year, and Mississippi State's first losing season since 1975. This is also the first season since 1986 a Bulldog team has failed to make either the SEC or NCAA tournaments.
Polk has been through this sort of thing before, having retired twice before; in 1991 for two weeks, and 1997 after State returned from the College World Series. Two years later Polk was coaching SEC ball at Georgia and in June 2001 he came back to Bulldog Country. He briefly quit college ball each time to battle increasing NCAA restrictions on the sport, and governing body policies have finally pushed him out of the game again and—presumably—for good.
In fact, Polk said today, "We just lost another vote to the NCAA body. The SEC sponsored it, that if a walk-on transfers he doesn't have to sit out a year." Instead walk-ons will have to go through the same transfer-season as players on scholarships of any percentage. Scholarships being the primary bane of college baseball's feud with the NCAA, this made an unfortunately fitting irony for Polk's final week to fill out a lineup card.
"It's closing down," Polk said. "I was in the dugout last night, we were winning and the kids were smiling. I said I'm going to miss the guys. But at the same time everything comes to a closure. It's not going to be easy to walk away. But it has to be a closure and it has to happen this weekend."
Mississippi State has invited former Polk players to join school and SEC officials in special recognitions of the coach this weekend. Saturday will feature a pre-game salute to Polk and the first 3,000 fans through the gates will receive a commemorative autographed poster.