Ka'ili Smith will be behind the plate tonight when the Mississippi State Bulldogs play Alabama in the first round of the SEC Softball Tournament tonight. (Photo by Michael Wardlaw, SDN)
A one-run game, a two-run game and a six-run game.
Even though they were all losses, that's just how close the Mississippi State Bulldogs played the Southeastern Conference regular season champion Alabama Crimson Tide during a three-game series in Starkville on March 30, 31 and April 1.
It gives MSU hope for success as the two teams meet again tonight in the first round of the SEC Tournament.
The Bulldogs lost decisions of 5-4, 4-2 and 9-3 to the Tide and look forward to another opportunity even though it comes in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The first pitch of the ESPN telecast at Rhoads Stadium is scheduled to be thrown at 7 p.m.
"We're very excited about the bid to be in the SEC (Tournament) again," MSU catcher Ka'ili Smith said. "It's a privilege for us to be there. We have respect for (Alabama) and the game. The last time we played, it was with respect and it didn't fall our way. It's going to be a good game on ESPN. Tune in because we'll be ready."
The eighth-seeded Bulldogs bring records of 33-21 overall and 12-16 SEC into the postseason, while Alabama, the top seed, stands 47-6 overall and 23-5 in the conference.
Even though the Crimson Tide will be considered heavy favorites in their own stadium tonight, coach Pat Murphy doesn't take MSU for granted.
"With Mississippi State, you have one of the hottest teams in our league," Murphy said. "You can tell they play with confidence. They are enjoying the game. This is a situation where all eight teams in this tournament could win a game against any of the other teams."
The Bulldogs have been playing well as of late, winning 14 of their last 17 games since last playing Alabama.
For MSU pitcher Stephanie Becker, the focus will be on the game and not on the opponent in the other dugout.
"We'll focus the way we would any other team," Becker said. "We have played them before and it will be at their field, but it's not going to bother us. We're going to keep playing the game we know and try our best."
Becker has been the most consistent pitcher for the Bulldogs with an 18-10 record and 2.50 earned run average. She has 162 strikeouts in 181.2 innings pitched.
Brittany Bell leads the MSU offense with a .379 batting average, while Smith is just 20 points off that pace with a .359 average. Jessica Cooley had the best power numbers with 15 home runs and 40 runs batted in.
Bulldog head coach Vann Stuedeman was an assistant with the Tide for 11 seasons so each side will be familiar with the other.
With that to consider, Stuedeman said the game will come down to "a battle of wills."
"Everybody knows everybody's strengths and everybody knows everybody's weaknesses so it is a gut-check and impose your will upon your opponent," Stuedeman said.
Florida and LSU open the SEC Tournament against each other at 11 a.m., while Tennessee and Auburn play at 1:30 p.m. and Georgia takes on Kentucky at 4 p.m.
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