Don’t kid yourself. Tonight’s SEC Tournament contest with Vanderbilt is an important game for Ron Polk and the Mississippi State Bulldogs. In fact, it’s the most important game of the season.
A win virtually assures the Bulldogs a berth in the NCAA Tournament, a party they’ve missed for two long years. A loss leaves the issue in doubt.
The Bulldogs come in with regular season numbers of 36-20, but the key number is six or seven SEC teams in the 48-team field. LSU, Alabama, Tennessee and Florida are locks.
Mississippi State joins Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Kentucky as the teams on the bubble. Those four teams play tonight, with the two losers definitely eliminated from the SEC Tournament and possibly eliminated from the NCAA Tournament as well.
One-and-out is the worst thing that could happen to a Mississippi State team that comes into the tournament on a 5-6 streak.
“I respect the job of the selection committee, but I can honestly believe we’re in. Our RPI (rating power index) would certainly merit it,” Polk said. “This is a team that has played well this year.”
MSU, Polk have the reputation
Polk hopes the selection committee focuses on Mississippi State’s 31-10 surge at midseason and the No. 16 national ranking. And after all, this is Ron Polk and Mississippi State, the coach and school that made SEC baseball famous.
“Ron Polk is college baseball and Mississippi State is one of this country’s great programs,” said Auburn coach Hal Baird. “Let me give you an example of how Ron Polk and Mississippi State have changed this league.
“When Dudy Noble (stadium) was completed 12 years ago, almost everybody in this country laughed. They thought a baseball stadium like that was a pink elephant. Well, since then every team in the SEC, except one, has built a new stadium. What does that tell you?”
It’s no secret the SEC is college baseball’s standard of excellence and Ron Polk has had more to do with that than any other individual.
If Mississippi State loses tonight, the difference between sitting at home and playing in the NCAA Tournament could be the overwhelming resume of the head coach.
Winning solves all problems
The Bulldogs can solve these hypothetical scenarios by winning. And there’s no reason to think they won’t. The Bulldogs won two of three against the Commodores earlier this season.
Eric DuBose, David Hooten and Keith Dilgard are arguably the league’s best starting pitching rotation. In a double-elimination tournament, pitching depth is critical and the Bulldogs are deep. Very deep. Van Johnson and Brett Wheeler are gifted No. 4 or 5 starters.
Offensively, this team hits .300-plus. Adam Piatt, Rob Hauswald and Brian Clark hit for power and average in the middle of the order. Blake Anderson is one of the league’s best catchers. There is depth in the outfield and off the bench. MSU has the personnel to make all the strategic moves in a close game.
As for the holes, they are neither many nor deep. Power-hitting David Hayman has had a disappointing senior year. Piatt has 24 errors and can boot it from any infield position. Closer Scott Polk has struggled lately.
It’s not a team that’s particularly swift afoot and doesn’t manufacture many runs, preferring a hit-and-run or belt-a-three-run-homer style of attack. They’ve run hot-and-cold: 0-4 start, 31-10 midseason, 5-6 finish.
But all things considered, it’s a very solid team. It’s a team that could heat back up and make a serious postseason challenge.
It needs to begin tonight.
Chris Burrows covers college baseball for the Daily Journal.