MSU Begins SEC Play

STARKVILLE, Miss. - On the heels of a successful two-game road trip to New Orleans, Mississippi State's 10th-ranked Baseball Bulldogs (11-1-1) raise the curtains on 2003 Southeastern Conference competition Friday, testing SEC East foe Vanderbilt (10-6) in a 6:30 p.m. matchup at Dudy Noble Field. Friday evening's game opens a three-game weekend series between the Bulldogs and the Commodores and a 10-weekend run of competition in the rugged Southeastern Conference.

MSU and Vandy square off at 2 p.m. Saturday and close the series with a 1:30 p.m. contest Sunday. All three games are set to be broadcast on the statewide MSU Baseball Radio Network.

Buoyed by a pair of non-conference road wins over the University of New Orleans (7-2, 9-4) in midweek competition, Mississippi State enters the weekend having won 11 of its last 12 games, the lone blemish being a 5-5 tie in a rain-shortened six-inning March 5 matchup with Louisiana Tech.

Vanderbilt (10-6), has won six of its last nine games, including a 6-5 Tuesday decision against Lipscomb, MSU's opponent in three games last weekend. The series marks the first visit to Dudy Noble Field and SEC debut for first-year Commodore skipper Tim Corbin, who served the past nine years as an assistant at Clemson.

Quickly-played and low-scoring games could be the rule in this weekend's MSU-Vandy series, which matches the SEC's top two teams in both team pitching (MSU #1 - 2.40, VU #1 - 2.40) and team defense (VU #1 - .981, MSU #2 - .979 ). Two of the nation's top collegiate hurlers will be matched in the Friday opener, MSU junior lefty Paul Maholm (2-1, 0.90) and Vandy sophomore southpaw Jeremy Sowers (3.06). Maholm worked six innings and got the win in last year's series-opener at Vandy (6-4) while Sowers tossed a complete-game, seven-hit shutout in winning the finale (4-0).

Mississippi State's early-season success is reflected in college baseball's latest national rankings. State climbed a notch to No. 8 in the (NCBWA writers' poll) and maintained its other rankings: No. 10 (Collegiate Baseball), No. 13 (Sports Weekly/ESPN) and No. 15 (Baseball America).

The Bulldogs bring a 57-22 all-time lead in the series against Vanderbilt, including a 29-11 mark in Starkville. Due to changes in SEC scheduling, the last two MSU-VU series were contested in Nashville, where the teams have evenly split the last six meetings. A year ago and on dedication weekend at VU's renovated Hawkins Field, MSU took the first two games of last year's series but came up short on Sunday in a bid for an SEC road series sweep (6-4, 12-4, 0-4).

Senior shortstop Matthew Maniscalco (.440), who entered the week with an SEC-leading .512 batting average, extended his season-opening hitting streak with his third triple of the year Tuesday but went hitless for the first time this year Wednesday. The three-bagger was Maniscalco's third in seven days and the 10th of his career, moving him into a tie for fourth place (with Rex Buckner) for fourth on MSU's career charts.

Vanderbilt is led at the plate by first baseman Cesar Nicolas, who brings a .390 batting average and team-best .559 slugging percentage into the series.

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