Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Ping! That sound means one thing: It's college baseball season. And now is the time when the games really count, when teams are playing conference games.
As usual, questions abound.
Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco is questioning his team's heart and effort.
Mississippi State coach Ron Polk has to be wondering if his key players will ever get healthy enough to get on the field.
And the key question about Southern Miss and Jackson State is: Can they keep it up?
Things will change. Ole Miss and State weren't the same teams at the end of last season as they were at the start. That was bad for the Rebels (who lost in the Super Regional) and good for the Bulldogs (who went to the College World Series). No matter how your favorite squad is doing now, it won't quite be the same team in two months.
So here are Doctor S' SWAGs (sophisticated, wild-ass guesses) on how Mississippi's favorite teams will do the evolution.
Coach: Ron Polk (28 seasons at MSU, 1,116-557-2; 34 seasons overall, 1,350-669-2)
2007: 38-22 (15-13 SEC), finished second in SEC West: won NCAA Tallahassee Regional, won Starkville Super Regional, finished eighth in College World Series.
Field: Dudy Noble Field, Starkville
So far, so bad for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs, who surprised almost everybody by reaching the College World Series last season, entered the season with an inexperienced team. Pile on top of that a rash of injuries, and the Bulldogs' record, 7-10 overall and 1-5 in SEC play, isn't so surprising.
Starting pitchers Justin Pigott and Chad Crosswhite, and reliever Aaron Weatherford all missed last weekend's series at South Carolina.
"When we started the season, I said we're young and inexperienced with our skill players, but that our pitching ought to be our thing," MSU coach Ron Polk told The Clarion-Ledger last week. "But at 11.7 scholarships, we're at the mercy of injuries."
Sophomore infielder Brandon Turner, who hit .399 last season, has been limited in 2008 due to a severe hamstring pull. He had played only five games before the South Carolina series. He made the trip to Columbia, S.C., but re-injured himself in the opener.
The numbers tell the brutal story for the Bulldogs. State is 11th out of 12 SEC teams in hitting (.299) and dead last in pitching (6.90 ERA).
Against South Carolina, the Bulldogs were outscored 23-5 over three games and led for just one inning all weekend.
One individual standout is freshman outfielder Jason Nappi, who's tied for second in the SEC with seven home runs, is fourth in RBIs (27) and 13th in batting average (.380).
The skinny: Looking on the bright side, the Bulldogs have already played two of the best teams in the SEC. But if State's players, especially the pitchers, don't get healthy, the Bulldogs will miss the SEC Tournament.
Coach: Mike Bianco (seven seasons at UM, 282-157-1; 10 seasons overall, 382-228-1)
2007: 40-25 (16-14 in SEC) finished third in SEC West, won Oxford Regional, lost to Arizona State in Tempe Super Regional.
Field: Oxford-University Stadium, Oxford
Many experts have penciled Ole Miss in for a trip to the College World Series this season, finally breaking through after coming so close the last three years. The Rebels got off to a fast start, winning their first nine games and climbing as high as No. 2 in one poll.
After that feast, Ole Miss has experienced famine lately. The Rebels have lost eight of their last 14 games. Florida took two of last weekend's games at Oxford, and the Rebels fell to 15-8 overall and 3-3 in SEC play, which is still good enough for first place in the SEC West.
Coach Mike Bianco plans to change his lineup before this weekend's series with Alabama, but he insists the Rebels' problems are mental, not physical.
"We're throwing guys out that physically are maybe more talented than what they're throwing out, but the scoreboard doesn't show it," Bianco told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. "That's because they're playing harder, and they're playing with more confidence."
He's not the only person questioning the Rebels' effort.
"It's about having the will and the heart to win," Ole Miss second baseman Zach Miller told the Daily Journal. "We have to come out and play the game like it's supposed to be played. It's about your own personal desire, and we need to figure it out."
The Rebels are among the SEC's statistical leaders, ranking third in team batting (.315) and pitching (3.42 ERA).
Cody Overbeck is among the league's hitting leaders with a .398 average, seven homers and 24 RBIs.
Starting pitcher Lance Lynn, a preseason All-American, has lived up to expectations with a 4-0 record, 1.50 ERA and 39 strikeouts.
The skinny: Maybe the Rebels are getting their traditional late-season swoon out of the way early this season. Ole Miss has enough bullets to win the SEC West. Barring a reversal of fortune, their postseason prospects are not as good.
Coach: Corky Palmer (10 seasons at USM/overall, 376-233)
2007: 39-23 (14-10 CUSA) finished third in CUSA, lost in Oxford Regional.
Field: Pete Taylor Park, Hattiesburg
Southern Miss is the hottest team in the state, having won eight of its last nine games. The Golden Eagles came out of their first CUSA series of the season last weekend with a record of 14-7 overall and 2-1 in the league.
"This was a series we had to have heading on the road at Rice this weekend," USM coach Corky Palmer told the Hattiesburg American. "I know it is still early but we have to win these games at home."
The Eagles are getting the job done, despite not having the stellar statistics of some of their nationally ranked CUSA rivals.
USM is sixth in team batting with a .274 average. Brian Dozier leads the way with a .366 average and 16 RBIs. Kyle Maxie (.306) supplies the power with four homers and 18 RBIs.
Eagle pitchers have a team ERA of 4.43. Barry Bowden is 4-1 with a 1.83 ERA and 35 strikeouts. USM has an emerging star in redshirt freshman Todd McInnis (5-1, 4.30 ERA, 35 strikeouts) who earned his first career conference victory last Sunday against Central Florida.
"Yeah, there were some jitters, but once it came time for the first pitch, things kind of got back to normal," McInnis, a Brandon native, told the Hattiesburg American.
Reliever Tyler Conn (0.00 ERA) has six saves, tops in CUSA.
The skinny: The Eagles are good bet to return to the NCAA regionals. But they should avoid the ugly-ass all-black uniforms at all costs. Palmer is just 10 wins away from his 400th victory at USM. He should reach that mark with no problem this season.
Coach: Omar Johnson (one season at JSU/overall, 33-23)
2007: 33-23 (17-7 SWAC), finished first in SWAC East
Field: University Field, Jackson
Jackson State is off to a good start, going 14-9 overall and 7-2 in the SWAC through last weekend when the Tigers took two of three games on the road against Alabama State.
That's no surprise: JSU, which is in its second season under coach Omar Johnson, was picked to defend its SWAC West title.
The Tigers are ranked No. 3 in the most recent Black College Baseball.com poll. But here's part of JSU's problem: Two of their SWAC East rivals are also ranked. Alcorn State is second and Mississippi Valley State is 10th. As is the case in basketball, the only chance the Tigers have of going to an NCAA regional is if they win the SWAC Tournament. This year's tournament is scheduled for May 14-18 in Baton Rouge.
The Tigers are solid offensively and are among the SWAC leaders in almost every offensive category. Jamaal Thelwell was the league's No. 3 hitter through last Sunday with a .397 average, four homers and 17 RBIs. Other major contributors include Derek Johnson (14 RBIs), Jerome Tyes (two homers, 13 RBIs), Cortez Cole (four homers, 19 RBIs) and Brionne Jones (three homers, 14 RBIs).
JSU's pitching statistics aren't quite as gaudy, which is the norm for the pitching-starved SWAC. The Tigers' team earned-run average is 8.10, which puts them in the middle of the pack in the SWAC. JSU starter Charles Williams is 4-0 with a 3.42 ERA.
The skinny: The Tigers should contend for the SWAC East title again, but Alcorn State presents a bigger obstacle than usual. For some reason, though, JSU hasn't played well in the SWAC Tournament lately.
Coach: Hill Denson (seven seasons at Belhaven, 109-128; 21 seasons overall, 695-577-2)
2007: 44-17 (24-6 GCAC), won GCAC championship, lost in NAIA Region 13 Tournament.
Field: Smith-Wills Stadium, Jackson
The skinny: The Blazers are the two-time defending GCAC champion. This year's team isn't as dominant as 2007's, but the Blazers are still formidable. Belhaven also appears to be coming together at the right time. Through last weekend, the Blazers had won 18 of their last 20 games. Brent Hudson leads the Blazers at the plate with a .366 average. Charlie Edwards (.290) is the offensive spark plug with five home runs and 37 RBIs. Joe Diecidue leads a consistent group of starting pitchers with a 5-1 record and a 3.89 earned-run average.
Coach: Jim Page (19 seasons at Millsaps/overall, 470-280-3)
2007: 35-11 (12-4 SCAC), finished first in SCAC West
Field: Twenty Field, Jackson
The skinny: The Majors are on a hot streak, having won 10 of their last 12 games through last weekend. Millsaps has shown an ability to score runs, scoring 10 runs or more eight times in its first 23 games this season. On March 19, the Majors hung on to beat Illinois Wesley by the footballish score of 21-16. Hunter Owen leads the Majors at the plate with a .393 batting average, a team-high seven homers and 26 RBIs. Tait Hendrix is the top starting pitcher with a 4-1 record, 2.09 ERA and 43 strikeouts. The Majors appear poised to make another run at the SCAC title.