CATEGORY: COL Columns (Journal)
HED: Parrish Alford: 2000 Bulldogs spurned the analysts; 2001 team may have to do the same
In the rich annals of Mississippi State baseball, the 2000 season will make a blip on the radar screen but by no means the largest.
It was the first MSU team to advance to the Super Regional round of NCAA Tournament competition, this being the second season of the new format.
There was another regional at Dudy Noble Field – the ninth at the stadium and another record-setter.
State’s season ended at 41-20 Saturday – its fourth consecutive 40-win season – in a 9-4 loss to Clemson. The fifth-ranked Tigers beat the 10th-ranked Bulldogs twice in two games to earn the College World Series berth.
On a side note, in each game Clemson scored more than its football team did against State in the Peach Bowl.
Back to baseball.
The most memory-striking achievement of this MSU team will be that it achieved postseason at all.
It was unranked in the major preseason polls and predicted by Southeastern Conference coaches to put up its bats after the final regular season game.
Coaches picked State fourth in the West and ninth overall. Only the top eight teams make the SEC Tournament in Birmingham.
“Nothing came easy for this club, but you saw their heart and character,” MSU coach Pat McMahon said. “They represented Mississippi State in a first-class manner.”
You have to go back 19 years to find an MSU team that so effectively denied its on-paper expectations.
The 1981 team (46-17, 17-6 SEC) advanced from Clemson – without playing the Tigers – to the CWS. Not much was expected since the 1980 squad was 31-19 and 10-11 in the SEC.
Likewise, this MSU team made an SEC turnaround, going from last place in the Western Division to second. State had a chance to win the division on the last day of the regular season but lost 9-5 at Auburn.
Low expectations are not something McMahon particularly enjoys, but it’s something the Bulldogs will have again next spring.
Six everyday starters and the No. 1 weekend pitcher were seniors this season. Now junior left-handed pitcher Mark Freed has been drafted in the ninth round by the Cubs. He’ll have a decision to make.
The Bulldogs will have holes to fill at designated hitter, second base, third base, catcher, left field and right field.
Junior Phillip Willingham is a wild card here. He could move from right field to the infield, second base perhaps, or remain in the outfield for experience in an area that already will have at least two new starters.
Senior Kevin Donovan will depart, and if Freed leaves, State will lose its top two SEC pitchers. The Bulldogs were shaky in the third spot this year, using sophomore Tanner Brock and then redshirt freshman Joey Collums.
Freshman Chris Young and sophomore Adam Larson pitched well in relief at Clemson and could be rotation possibles next year.
Both had 4-plus ERAs, and Larson had 12 saves.
Right-hander Jeff Hunter was 6-2 with a 3.16 ERA but pitched just 4 1/3 SEC innings.
McMahon would love to see Brock make a Freed-like comeback. It was Freed who was hit hard as a sophomore only to rise to prominence this season to go 9-2 with a 4.02 ERA.
Brock’s last SEC appearance was against LSU when he did not record an out and gave up five earned runs on two hits, two walks and a hit batsman.
There are seven pitchers among State’s 12 signees, but only one, right-hander Allen Buckley, will come with junior college experience.
Chances are good the 2001 Bulldogs will be an untested group in the field, on the mound and at the plate.
That’s not a recipe for high expectations.
But as the 2000 team proved, expectations are one thing, and results are another.
Parrish Alford covers college baseball for the Daily Journal. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.