By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – All cylinders were clicking for Mississippi State last weekend. Well, nearly all of them.
Jarrod Parks, who not too long ago was the SEC’s leading hitter, is in the midst of a 7 of 42 slump. In the NCAA Regional in Atlanta a week ago, the senior third baseman was 1 of 12, including five hitless at-bats in Sunday’s clinching win over Georgia Tech.
“Maybe if I come alive again this weekend, we’ll have the total package,” Parks said.
The Bulldogs (37-23) will need everything working for its super regional series against Florida, which begins at 11 a.m. CDT today in Gainesville.
In Atlanta, MSU was in peak form. The starting pitching was strong throughout, early scoring and two-out hits came in abundance, and the defense not only didn’t make mistakes (two errors in three games), it made big plays.
It was the best MSU has played all season, especially considering the stakes.
“We’ve all been saying it’ll be a matter of time before everything clicks,” freshman outfielder C.T. Bradford said.
The question is, was it just one good weekend, or are the Bulldogs finally returning to that level it was once known for? Is third-year coach John Cohen getting this program turned around?
Cohen thinks it’s both.
“I think it’s kind of a similar situation for everyone who won” in the regionals, he said. “Things just come together for you at the right time. I feel like our players and the program, I think we’ve made progress, for sure.”
One of Cohen’s tenets is attacking – in all phases. His players have embraced the philosophy, but it hasn’t always translated into wins. If recent events are an indication, though, an increase in talent and the development wrought by experience have helped Cohen’s vision come to fruition.
Pitchers are going after hitters on 0-2 counts instead of wasting a pitch. Hitters are more aggressive than cautious with two outs. Twice in one game in Atlanta, Bradford dove for fly balls and missed, but that approach is why the MSU outfielders made more plays than not.
The Bulldogs were in full attack mode.
“This past weekend was one of the best weekends we had at doing that,” outfielder Jaron Shepherd. “Everybody did their job and contributed like they knew how, and we happened to get a regional championship.”
Chance for payback
Standing in the way of MSU’s ninth College World Series berth is the No. 2 national seed, a team that has beaten State three of four times this season, including an 18-0 drubbing in Starkville on April 9.
The Bulldogs did beat the Gators once, though, and the other two losses were by two runs apiece. The most recent setback came in the first round of the SEC Tournament, when Brian Johnson’s seventh-inning grand slam lifted Florida to a 7-5 comeback win.
The Gators went on to win the tournament.
“We know they’re one of the best teams in the country, easily top three,” said Parks. “We also are going in knowing that we beat them once and had a chance to beat them three times. They know it, too.”
They sure do. Florida outfielder Daniel Pigott said of MSU, “They’re a scrappy bunch, they’re very talented, so we’re not going to take them lightly at all.”
This is the fourth super regional for MSU since 2000, and the first time its faced an SEC foe in this round. It’s the third consecutive super regional berth for Florida and fifth overall.
The Gators swept through the regional round at home, taking down Manhattan and then rival Miami twice. Like MSU, Florida might be playing its best ball of the year, having won eight of its last games.
The Bulldogs are hardly deterred, as they’ve developed a quiet confidence over the course of this season. And if Parks can get going again, Florida will really be in for a fight.
“If everybody can be on their game this weekend,” said senior Nick Vickerson, “it’s going to be special.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571