They know the SEC and NCAA situations as well as any and better than most. This doesn’t distract the Diamond Dogs from immediate matters. Because, Cole Gordon said, the present counts.
“Every game is important from here on out, and we need to stay focused and prime ourselves for post-season.”
Old Dog Gordon knows all about priming for post-season, having seen it from just about every stretch-run aspect. He played for conference champions with a clear ticket to the NCAA Tournament. He played just a year ago on a ball club that wasn’t sure there would be any sort of tournament with a weekend left. And, Gordon has witnessed the in-between battling for post-season seeding.
So, for the moment, set that topic aside. “We’ve heard the talk and everything. Bu we’re going to focus on Thursday. Thursday is the game.”
The first game in Mississippi State’s last regular-season series. 6:30 brings first pitch to visiting South Carolina that night with same time and place Friday before a 1:00 Saturday finale.
Not, by all practical judgement, a home finale. The Bulldogs (43-10, 18-9 SEC) are as certain of hosting regional baseball as can be. So the revised goals are higher. Mississippi State retains an outside shot at the overall SEC Championship or first in the Western Division. Short of that, one Dog win or one LSU loss locks down a first-round bye at the SEC Tournament, most likely now as the #3 seed and playing Wednesday’s 9:30am game.
After Hoover is the first-round regional, and beyond that the super-regional round. Here the Bulldogs are playing from ahead, in strong national seed shape and close to sealing such status. How close? Enough to keep an edge on the club and coach alike.
“I do think we have to do some work,” Coach Chris Lemonis said. “And even if you have a national seed, don’t you want to be the second national seed, or the third?”
If the NCAA’s own published ratings percentage index matches what the baseball committee thinks, Mississippi State would be the third-highest #1 seed today. But of course the first of the sixteen regionals opens on May 31. The Bulldogs have, weather permitting and it looks good, three SEC games this early weekend; and almost certainly now a minimum two more against conference clubs in Hoover.
This means State actually has something to lose or lessen before the national seeds are announced, maybe more than they can win with UCLA and Vanderbilt seemingly sure of taking the top two overall seeds. Defending their present position is fine motivation all the same.
Is it pressure? No more than the rest of the 2019 regular season, Lemonis figures.
“I think our guys are going to come out and play hard. We really haven’t been too caught-up in who is in the other dugout, maybe Ole Miss because of the rivalry. For the most part they’re just trying to play the best they can.”
The Bulldogs played well in sweeping rival Rebels in Oxford to be sure. They could have played better and know it. Twice they fell behind with early pitching control and slow-starting offense, which to be fair hasn’t been unusual. Defensive issue popped up repeatedly on the infield and, astoundingly, with all-star CF Jake Mangum as well. None of this cost State a win.
All of this reminds that they are not a finished product even as this team has notched the second-most regular season wins ever at State. And ever at State is a big sample size indeed. Still there are aspects to improve or at very least polish before hitting tournament time. Most involve consistency of production.
The offense, for example, is back on top of the all-season SEC list at .317 as well as in runs scored which is the stat mattering most. They are third in slugging and on-base behind respective Division leaders Vanderbilt and Arkansas. The average would be better if not for the most at-bats in the SEC…yet this is key to State’s success. The Bulldogs grind out at-bats and grind down pitchers for the most part, strike out less than anyone in the league, and work a lot of walks.
What has boosted Bulldog batting the last two, three weeks is emergence of a potent end-of-order able to hit, run, and score. The last-third, up to now a mix of C Dustin Skelton, the DH of the day, and 3B Marshall Gilbert was money at Ole Miss and good enough at Texas A&M. This varied trio both supports the middle-men in the order and sets the table for Mangum at the top.
Plus, 1B Tanner Allen reminds, there is enough power to keep pitchers nervous. “You’ve got nine guys that can hit the ball out of the ballpark whenever they want.” This is aided by the new stadium which makes Dudy Noble Field play smaller, no small concern hosting a South Carolina offense which is dead-last in average but first in SEC home runs hit.
There is one order concern though. RF Elijah MacNamee aggravated an existing cracked bone in his left foot turning at first base on a Sunday double at Ole Miss. He left the game and Monday had a procedure to reinforce the small fracture. He is out for two weeks, Lemonis expects. In his place righties Brad Cumbest or Gunner Halter and lefty Josh Hatcher can handle rightfield. This also means backup C Luke Hancock is in the DH mix daily now.
Whoever and wherever, “It’s a really good lineup,” Allen said. “But we’re not done yet, we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
South Carolina power potential will be on Bulldog pitching minds. Still an all-or-nothing offense isn’t an ideal way to attack State’s staff, with a league-leading 569 strikeouts in 470.0 innings. And the Gamecocks do fan a lot, 468 times on the season so far.
Lemonis’ fuse burned last Friday when a mid-inning weather halt kept LHP Ethan Small (7-1, 1.73) to just four innings at Ole Miss. The junior ace did get his team started towards a 2-0 win regardless and RHP Jared Liebelt (1-0, 2.41) was lights-out in very long relief. Now the rude interruption could play in Small’s favor, as could a short-ish game-two start from RHP JT Ginn (8-3. 3.13). Neither went long enough to make bringing them back a day-early dangerous. “That does help a little bit,” Lemonis said.
The shortened week may matter more to RHP Peyton Plumlee (5-3, 3.68) after going 7.2 on Sunday. The key then is getting as much mileage from Small, the SEC strikeout leader with 132, and Ginn as practical and having a full bullpen if needed for game-three. Here, Lemonis and Coach Scott Foxhall handled Tuesday’s 7-3 win over Louisiana Tech with the weekend in mind by limiting regular relievers or resting them outright.
In fact Lemonis and Foxhall were also weighing how to pitch South Carolina with the SEC Tournament ahead. Avoiding single-elimination Tuesday is key but also guarantees two games in Hoover. “Do you want to move up a day this week, or the following week?” Lemonis said, obviously thinking about the regional rotation(s).
“These couple of weeks get to be really tough on these pitchers. We feel if we can get them on the right days it will set them up for the following couple of weeks.”
Those are weeks South Carolina (27-25, 7-20) have no guarantee of games. The Gamecocks first have to get that 12thand last SEC Tournament berth, and they are in a three-way tie with Alabama and Kentucky. On top of that a lost weekend in Starkville will make it almost impossible, barring a title run in Hoover, just to qualify for the NCAAs at all with a better than break-even record.
Still, “South Carolina is fighting for a chance, too,” said Gordon. “Keeping their post-season hopes alive this weekend we can’t be looking forward to super regionals, regionals, tournament, any of that. We have a good South Carolina team coming in and we have to take care of that first.”
For Gordon and other 2018 veterans there is an enjoyable irony. A year ago this very weekend Mississippi State was not in the Hoover field and barely alive in NCAA consideration. Then they took advantage of #1-ranked and visiting, and motivation-free, Florida for three surprising wins that trigged an even more-startling start towards Omaha.
This is not a clean parallel but close enough. The Bulldogs have something or things to play for this weekend beyond pride. Plus, Gordon reminded, there is simply the necessity to keep playing good baseball.
Because, he said, of what can happen to careless clubs. “We know what it was like on the other end. That whole last year some of us went through some struggles. So we know what it’s like to take games off and what happens when you do that, how one game off turns into three games off.”
So, then, this final regular season weekend is no days off for Diamond Dogs.