ATLANTA – Southern Miss has been here, while Mississippi State has not, and it would be tempting to reduce the analysis of today’s meeting to comparative postseason experience.
But there will be many subplots in play when the two teams open this NCAA Regional at Georgia Tech’s Russ Chandler Stadium (2 p.m., CSS).
This will be the ninth consecutive NCAA tourney appearance for No. 2 seed USM (39-17), which won here two years ago en route to a College World Series berth. And while it’s the 31st trip to the NCAAs for No. 3 MSU (34-23), this is the first time since 2007.
None of that seems to matter to either team.
“Like coach (Scott) Berry said, everybody is 0-0 when you get out there (today),” USM outfielder Tyler Koelling said. “State has a great team. They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t have a good team.”
MSU hasn’t been great lately and was two-and-done in the SEC Tournament last week, playing like a team not used to the postseason spotlight. They look for that to change this weekend, and senior catcher Wes Thigpen downplayed the postseason experience factor.
“I don’t think it’ll be an edge (for USM),” he said. “This team is led by seniors, and we know it’s our last shot, and we’ll get out there and give it all we’ve got.”
This is a rematch of April 5, when the Bulldogs beat the Golden Eagles 5-4 in Pearl. The winning pitcher that game was Luis Pollorena (6-5, 4.44 ERA), who will draw the start today opposite USM ace Todd McInnis (8-2, 2.61).
Pollorena has struggled since moving from the bullpen, compiling an 8.82 ERA in three starts. So how he handles himself will be a huge factor.
The sophomore left-hander threw what he called his hardest bullpen session of the year on Monday, with Thigpen describing Pollorena’s fastball as “explosive.”
Thigpen said he thinks Pollorena is becoming more comfortable in his new role.
“I think he’s really gotten in a routine now of starting,” Thigpen said. “He hasn’t really had a starting routine down pat.”
Pollorena has the added challenge of pitching in what’s known as a hitters’ park with unusual dimensions. It measures 328 feet down the left field line, 391 to left-center, 353 to right-center, and 409 just left of the center-field wall.
It’s a challenge for MSU’s hitters as well, especially the left-handers who might be tempted by that short deck in right field. Cohen sure isn’t going to abandon the small-ball approach he’s preached for so long, no matter the park.
“We’ve got to do what got us here,” Cohen said.
USM is having to deal with some key injuries. Koelling, the team’s leading hitter (.367), will be in the lineup today despite a hamstring injury. He said he should be at 85 or 90 percent by game time after not playing in the Conference USAtourney.
First baseman Michael Doleac (foot) is questionable, and left-side infielder B.A. Vollmuth will play first if need be.
Other question marks abound for both teams. Neither is playing particularly well of late: MSU has lost three games in a row and five of its last seven, while USM has dropped six of its last eight.
When MSU is at its best, it can do some damage. It’s beaten Florida, South Carolina and Vanderbilt once apiece, and Southern Miss hasn’t forgotten what happened in Pearl nearly two months ago.
“They’ve been through it, they’ve done it, and when they pitch, play defense and get timely hits, they’re as tough a team to beat as anybody,” Koelling said.
So which MSU team will show up today? Will the players seize the big-stage opportunity or bobble it?
Senior third baseman Jarrod Parks said earlier in the week that he expects there to be a certain level of nervousness today, but he and the rest of the Bulldogs feel they can move past that and play well.
“We’re thrilled to be here, but that’s not our main purpose,” Cohen said. “We really believe that it’s a business trip, even though our kids haven’t had this experience before. We want them to enjoy themselves, but we’re here to try and win a regional.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal