By MATTHEW STEVENS
The theory to this three-game weekend may be the real game may not start until after ‘Take me out to the ballgame’ is played and the Dudy Noble Field bullpen door opens.
Mississippi State and South Carolina meet with a pair of the Southeastern Conference’s best relievers that have carried them to their 2011 victory totals so far.
The Gamecock bullpen has been a strength for this year's team with 14 different pitchers earning 12 wins and tallying 13 saves heading into the weekend. The group has a 2.40 ERA and 151 strikeouts in 138.2 innings pitched. Opponents are hitting just .205 against the pen.
South Carolina head coach Ray Tanner smiled during his weekly media conference when he was asked if he thinks he made the right decision by leaving right-hander Matt Price in the bullpen.
“Are you confident he might not be starting in two weeks?,” Tanner said. “It’s worked out for us. We like Matt Price, he’s got stripes on his sleeves. We’ve got try to have him help decide games.”
The sophomore is arguably the most feared member of the USC pitching staff after factoring into two wins this weekend with a save in the 3-1 victory on Friday night and a victory in Sunday's 5-3 win in the rubber game vs. top-ranked Vanderbilt last weekend. Price was dominant in his stints with 4.1 scoreless innings of relief and 11 of the 13 outs he tallied were by strikeout. Price is second in the league with 11 saves and in 18 of his 20 relief appearances he has not allowed a run.
South Carolina is 23-0 after six innings with a lead and 27-0 this year after eight innings with a lead. The Gamecocks are 23-2 when out-hitting an opponent and 11-5 in games decided by two runs or less. Carolina is 27-4 when holding an opponent to five runs or less.
“I think that’s the case when you have that mentality individually and you have that perception of the other team that this is their late-inning guy and the guy they go to end the game,” Tanner said. “You have to think about that.”
Mississippi State will try to get an early lead on South Carolina’s starting pitching so they will be able to counter with what they think is the best part of their team – their bullpen arms.
The Bulldogs (23-14, 6-9 in SEC play) are 20-2 when holding the lead after six innings due to six pitchers that MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson can turn to late in a game with a conference earned run average under 3.00.
“It’s funny because we have felt since conference season started that if our starter gets us through four innings then we have plenty of guys every night to close out the game,” junior right-hander Devin Jones said. “It’s how we have won games against Vanderbilt, Auburn and Arkansas and when you have guys like Caleb Reed, (Luis) Pollorena, Andrew Busby, myself and Chad Girodo all throwing their best right now, we feel like we can dominate the end of games if we have a lead.”
Jones, a Eupora native, has been moved out of the Friday night starting rotation spot for what he calls his new role “a jam guy that will get important strikeout” as he was brought in relief last Saturday at Arkansas for 2 2/3 innings.
“When Coach (John) Cohen and Coach Thompson sat down with me to discuss moving up Chris Stratton and Nick Routt, I told them I thought it was a great move because the more I pitch, the better I feel,” Jones said.
Cohen said the gameplan for the junior right-hander, who is second on the team in strikeouts with 39, is to have him ready for a pressure situation out of the bullpen but if he’s not seen in the first two days, he’s likely to be sent out Sunday as the starter.
“I had a lot of pressure in my head about being the Friday night guy and now I come in with runners on and the pressure is already there in front of me,” Jones said. “The more times I pitch, the better I feel.”
The Bulldogs hope they can hand the baseball to junior Caleb Reed, who is fourth in the SEC among relievers with 20 innings of work and an earned run average of 0.88, as he threw 5 1/3 innings to earn his sixth save of the season in a 5-3 win at Arkansas Sunday.
“He’s almost as valuable to us when he's not pitching than when he is because he’s a guy we point out when we’ve pulled aside everybody that’s going to pitch at the Ole Miss game in Pearl and told them ‘do what these guys are going to do’,” Cohen said. “Caleb is a special young man who is the poster boy for continuous improvement.”
Every member of Mississippi State baseball program is in official ‘stop me if you’ve heard this’ mode as one of the nation’s best clubs arrivers this weekend for a three-game series.
“It seems like week in and week out in we’re playing teams that have a chance to win a national championship,” Cohen said. “The thing is with our club is we say that if we can beat teams, we start to ask ‘why can't we be in that mix?”
The Gamecocks (29-7, 12-3 in SEC), the defending national champions, arrive in Starkville hoping to put themselves in position for the top seed in the conference tournament and the top national seed in an NCAA Regional.
“You’ve heard me say it before but when you go to play an SEC series – everybody is good,” Tanner said.
Just like the Florida series two weeks ago, South Carolina will trot out statistically the SEC’s best starting pitcher tonight when the Bulldogs see junior left-hander Michael Roth after he was named SEC Pitcher of the Week.
Roth did not allow a hit until the fifth inning and limited No. 1 Vanderbilt to just one run on three hits in a 3-1 win on Friday night in the series opener last weekend. The three-hit total was the lowest in a game this season for the Commodores, who came into the weekend as the top hitting team in the conference.
For the season, Roth leads the SEC with an 8-1 record and a 1.24 ERA. His 65.1 innings is also the most by a pitcher in the SEC. He is third in the league in strikeouts (62) and fifth in the league in opposing batting average (.209).
“It’s going to sound simple but we know two things about the SEC – everybody is good and therefore everybody can be beaten,” Jones said. “There’s no reason that, with them coming to our ballpark, we can’t take two of three or even get a sweep.”
First pitch for tonight's contest is set for 7:06 p.m. for the game being televised nationally by ESPNU. It’s the first visit to Dudy Noble Field for the national sports network since the Bulldogs’ 2007 Super Regional win over Clemson that clinched State’s eighth trip to the NCAA College World Series in Omaha, Neb. The series continues Saturday game with a 6:06 p.m. on FOX Sports Net and concludes Easter Sunday with a 1:30 p.m. start time.