How important is it for Mississippi State to win tonight’s SEC Tournament opener with Vanderbilt? Head coach Ron Polk says it depends on which issue you’re addressing.
“If you’re talking about the SEC Tournament, it’s a must game, a play-in game,” Polk said. “You lose this game and you’re out of the tournament.
“If you’re talking about the NCAA Tournament, we’d probably become a bubble team with a loss to Vanderbilt. But I believe our conference deserves at least six or seven bids and if that’s the case, I feel we have a great shot of getting into the NCAA Tournament.”
But the NCAA Tournament is still down the road. The issue at hand, as far as the Bulldogs are concerned, is the 7:30 p.m. start with the Commodores at Metropolitan Stadium in Hoover, Ala.
“I think this is the best Vanderbilt team I’ve seen in years,” said Polk of the 29-24 Commodores. “We were fortunate earlier this year to take two out of three from them at our place.
“But they’re a solid club and they’ve got some hitters (All-SEC candidate Josh Paul) that are very scary to us. We’ll go with (left-hander) Eric DuBose and see what happens.”
DuBose brings an 8-4 mark into the contest, including 151 strikeouts in 115 innings. The only problem for DuBose, according to Polk, “has been us. Eric’s been our hard-luck pitcher this year because we don’t seem to score a lot of runs for him.”
Scoring runs hasn’t been a problem for Mississippi State on most game days. The Bulldogs are averaging 7.125 runs per game, hitting at an impressive .311 clip, including 193 extra-base hits.
Six starters hit more than .300, including team leaders Adam Piatt (.370), Rob Hauswald (.361), Brian Clark (.339) and Blake Anderson (.315). Hauswald leads the club in the power categories, with 15 homers and 56 RBI.
If DuBose, who has nine complete games, can get MSU past Vanderbilt, the Bulldogs have a staff deep enough to compete in a six-team, double-elimination format. David Hooten (8-6) and Keith Dilgard (6-3) figure to be the No. 2 and No. 3 starters, respectively.
Saltillo’s Van Johnson (6-1, team-best 2.76 ERA) could find himself serving as the long reliever, No. 4 starter or closer. Scott Polk (3-3) has been knocked around lately in the closer’s role, but has been effective in most opportunities.
“I’d say the tournament favorites are the four teams (LSU, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee) that aren’t in the play-in game,” Polk said. “But this league is balanced and one of the keys is playing well right now.”