Bulldogs seek ‘breathing room’ in stretch run

By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal

Mississippi State is well-positioned to host its first NCAA baseball regional in a decade, but two formidable obstacles remain.
The first is rival Ole Miss. The No. 21-ranked Bulldogs (36-13, 13-11 SEC) visit Oxford this weekend for a crucial three-game series against the Rebels (33-16, 12-12).
After a three-game sweep of Alabama, MSU is 10th in the national RPI rankings, and third among SEC teams. It’s one spot ahead of South Carolina (33-14, 13-10), which will come to Starkville to close out the regular season on May 16-18.
Some recent projections have MSU as a regional host, and the Alabama sweep certainly bolstered its case. State is third in the Western Division and fifth overall in the SEC, half-a-game behind South Carolina and just ahead of Ole Miss.
So if MSU can win these next two series, it will improve its position in the standings, and thus improve its standing in the eyes of the NCAA selection committee.
South Carolina is ranked 11th in the RPI, while Ole Miss is 20th.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” MSU coach John Cohen said. “But the benefit of playing really good teams is, if you can get wins, you can get RPI out of it. That’s something that can help us when we get to postseason, but again, we’re not there yet.”
The numbers say MSU has the toughest SEC schedule, with the average RPI rank of its league opponents at 26.5. According to WarrenNolan.com, State has played the nation’s seventh-toughest schedule.
MSU is 14-13 against the RPI top 50 and 22-0 against teams outside the top 50.
Aaron Fitt, who writes for Baseball America, last week had MSU listed as “on the bubble” for hosting a regional. He said Tuesday that the Bulldogs “held steady” in his view after sweeping Alabama.
“They’re still kind of in that ‘bubble in’ category when it comes to hosting,” Fitt said.
He added that a 3-3 finish in league play, which would put MSU at 16-14, could solidify its hosting résumé, and a good run in the SEC Tournament can help, too.
“You’d like to do better than that to give yourself a little breathing room,” Fitt said, “because 16-14, there are teams that are 16-14 in the SEC and don’t host. That happens.
“That’s certainly far from a lock, but I’d feel OK about it at 16-14. I’d feel better at 17-13.”
brad.locke@journalinc.com