By MATTHEW STEVENS
Same plan, different result.
Mississippi State’s baseball team will enter another postseason double-elimination event in the hope it doesn’t replicate its 0-2 performance in the 2011 Southeastern Conference Tournament.
“That’s what we did at SECs with everybody just happy to be there and basically acted like that was an exhibition,” MSU senior third baseman Jarrod Parks said. “We didn’t play to our potential but now we know our games are limited.”
Even after three-straight win totals between 23-25 that saw their seasons end in early May, the Bulldogs had a happy-go-lucky feeling at Regions Park but those eight seniors that have been around for the losing era in Starkville know they’re two losses away from their careers coming to an end.
“We know where this program has been and where we’ve come from before so not that it hasn’t been intense through the season but we’ve had to dig down deep to find that something extra for this weekend,” State senior shortstop Jonathan Ogden said.
The Bulldogs (34-23) will open up its first NCAA Tournament action since 2007 against an in-state opponent for the first time in school history as Sunday they learned Southern Mississippi is in its Atlanta Regional hosted by Georgia Tech.
“I had heard they were going to be a one-seed and get a pretty good bracket and they’re just about as shocked as we are to see in in-state rival lined up in the first game,” Parks said.
Mississippi State will face Southern Miss ace right-hander Todd McInnis (8-2, 2.61) in the first game of regional play (2 p.m., CSS) after the fifth-year senior was named back-to-back Conference USA Pitcher of the Year award.
“He’s their number one for a reason,” MSU senior first baseman Ryan Collins said. “We’ve seen guys in the SEC that are first round so we’re prepared for it but at the same time, it’s exciting.”
The Golden Eagles (39-17) will be without two of their top pitchers suspended in Geoffrey Thomas (10-3, 3.09 ERA), a Conference USA first-team selection, and Jonathon Thompson (7-1, 3.49) but it’s likely neither of those arms would’ve seen the mound today against MSU anyway.
Mississippi State head coach John Cohen suggested that since USM, which consistently stayed between 10-20 in the Ratings Percentage Index during the 2011 season, would be thinking it was close to a one-seed and a regional host opportunity, that would be a source of motivation.
“Obviously they are a very good, confident club that probably feels like had a chance to host and may have a chip on their shoulder also,” Cohen said.
Cohen, who is 4-4 in NCAA Tournament play as a head coach but has never advanced past a Regional round, understands the importance of putting yourself in the winners bracket at the start of the event.
“I know Southern Miss feels the same way that if you win Game 1, it can truly change everything," Cohen said. “That’s why, especially in the SEC Tournament, we have a three-run lead, and if you get those nine outs at the end there, it changes our whole deal for the SEC Tournament, so Game 1s, I think, are very, very important.”
The Golden Eagles will make their ninth NCAA Tournament appearance in a row when they travel to Atlanta. Southern Mississippi has great memories of a tournament run starting at Georgia Tech after going 3-1 in its only other appearance at this regional site that began the school’s only run to the 2009 College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
Mississippi State pitching coach Butch Thompson announced Tuesday in a text message with the Starkville Daily News that sophomore left-hander Luis Pollorena will get the start on the mound in the school’s first NCAA appearance in four years.
This completes a pitching matchup for today’s NCAA opening round contest with Southern Miss (39-17) where both teams will be throwing their Friday night starter.
Pollorena (6-5, 4.44) was told at Tuesday’s practice that he would be getting the ball first and the success against the Golden Eagles weighed heavily on the minds of the Bulldogs coaching staff.
The 5-foot-6, 160-pound southpaw already has a victory out of the bullpen against Southern Miss. Pollorena, a transfer from Marion (Ala.) Military Institute, threw 5 2/3 innings of relief allowing just one hit in State’s 5-4 victory over the Golden Eagles at Trustmark Park in Pearl on April 5.
“It just shows that they’re beatable, we did it before and it’s a confidence boost for all of us,” Pollorena said. “My plan doesn’t change – keep the ball down and that’s pretty much it.”
In that 5-4 victory over a month ago, Mississippi State (34-23) used a pair of right-handers in sophomores Andrew Busby and Kendall Graveman before going to Pollorena after the starting duo failed to find the strike zone.
Pollorena’s last appearance was a nightmare as he was brought into a 5-2 lead with runners on base and allowed the game-winning grand slam home run to Florida designated hitter Brian Johnson to give the Gators a lead they would never let go. The southpaw has given up a home run in each of his last three appearances on the mound.
“I was just trying to get the outs after Evan (Mitchell) gave us a great start,” Pollorena said. “I left the ball belt high but I thought the only thing he could with it was foul it off. The wind just brought it back. My confidence is fine.”
Thompson gave hints this week that freshman Evan Mitchell could get a start on Saturday regardless of the opponent after the right-hander left the opening game of the SEC Tournament against Florida with MSU in the lead.
The Marietta, Ga., native, which is 20 minutes away from the Georgia Tech campus, allowed two earned runs in five innings of work that included five strikeouts.
“Everybody on our staff wants to pitch and help our team at some point this weekend,” Mitchell said. “All of our pitchers are going to contribute at some point so we need to be ready for any situation.”
Cohen made mention of the fact that nobody in the MSU locker room has experienced the pressure and atmosphere of NCAA Tournament play so while experience is thin, the Bulldogs head coach hopes they roll into Atlanta with an 'us against everybody else' mentality.
“Obviously we are pleased to be competing in a Regional," Cohen said. "I think it’s interesting that we get to play somebody that we’ve played before. It’s a great Regional. I don’t think there’s a kid in the locker room that’s played in an NCAA Tournament.”
Georgia Tech, who was ranked throughout the 2011 season, has one of the best pitching staffs in the nation and will be able to throw a Top 10 prospect in the 2011 Major League Baseball draft in Jed Bradley in a game two situation. Bradley (6-3, 3.59) has been a strikeout-type pitcher as a junior as Baseball America has ranked his stuff as the best of any pitcher in the draft. The Yellow Jackets sophomore is the perfect second star in a rotation that is led by right-handed ace Mark Pope (11-4, 1.77).
“Pope and Bradley are guys that have been through this,” Yellow Jackets head coach Danny Hall said. “The young guys just have to bring the energy to get us through this tough regional.”