By MATTHEW STEVENS
Everything and anything.
Those are the three words that perfectly describe what’s at stake and what could happen in this weekend's Southeastern Conference series for the Mississippi State baseball.
As they welcome in LSU for a three-game tilt starting tonight, the Bulldogs are among numerous combinations of scenarios that see them winning the SEC Western Division for the first time since 1989 or missing the league tournament for the fourth consecutive season.
"(Our players) fully know what's at stake,” Mississippi State head coach John Cohen said. “This weekend is everything."
However, in a tunnel vision mentality to the final weekend of the 2011 season, Mississippi State (33-19, 13-14 in SEC play) can punch their ticket to the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala., for the first time since 2007 by winning two of the games this weekend against the struggling Tigers. Therefore there’s no need for scoreboard watching and letting the out of town games dictate their strategy at Dudy Noble Field this weekend.
"I told the team today this weekend is all about us,” Cohen said. “We have a chance to win a share of the Western Division in the best league in America for the first time since 1989. It's been a long time since our fans have had a chance to even say that."
In the laundry list of mind-crippling tiebreaker scenarios, Mississippi State can still qualify for the SEC Tournament even if they are swept by LSU (34-19, 11-16) and in at least one scenario can miss out on the postseason after winning just one game.
However, after taking each of the last two conference series on the road and currently showcasing an 8-1 record in its last nine contests, Mississippi State feels it’s doing what every team hopes to do at this point in the season – play its best baseball in all phases of the game.
“We don't want to let our future be in the hands of anybody else,” senior third baseman Jarrod Parks said.
Four months ago LSU was voted as the favorite to win the Western Division for the third time in four years despite losing 14 total players from last year’s roster (7 position players and 7 pitchers) and in 2011 it appears relying on the youth in college baseball’s toughest conference has caught up with the Tigers program.
"I hate to talk about it before the season is over but, quite frankly, yes," Mainieri told the Times-Picayune on May 10 when asked about a drop off in talent. "I think we don't have the personnel we've become accustomed to the last couple of years. We need to upgrade, there's no question about that."
LSU, which currently stands two games behind the four-way tie in the West for the 2,6,7 and 8th seeds in the tournament, has lost three of its six SEC series this season including being swept by Florida, Vanderbilt and Arkansas. The Tigers salvaged their season by sweeping both Kentucky and Tennessee giving them at least some hope they won’t miss the SEC Tournament for only the second time since 1985.
"The thing is they've had their shot at being Top 5 in the country and haven't live up to the expectations this season," Parks said.
If they lose two out of three this weekend, LSU is also in danger of missing an NCAA Regional for the only the third time since 1989.
In order to qualify for one of the eight spots in the league tournament, LSU is going to need to sweep the Bulldogs in Starkville and get still get a lot of help from the teams in front of them to make the field.
"I just wish we hadn't dug ourselves such a big hole early in the season,” Mainieri said to AP Monday. “I feel we've reached that point where the kids are really jelling. We still can salvage something this week."
The Tigers will be using three true freshman right-handed starting pitchers (Kevin Gausman, Kurt McCune and Ryan Eades) for the second consecutive week and Mississippi State is looking forward to seeing inexperienced arms at the plate instead of the last two season of dealing with sending one out on the mound themselves.
"There are two huge differences in our program (from last year to this year),” Cohen said. “One of them is our pitching staff. That is the story. Our pitching staff has given us a chance to win baseball games. The other thing is we have defended it behind them a lot better. I thought our kids last year got along and had confidence but we had 35 freshmen starts on the mound.”
The only controversy on the mound this weekend for MSU is when the fans at Dudy Noble Field will see sophomore right-hander Chris Stratton. After having his career-worst outing Saturday night at Ole Miss where the Tupelo native gave up six runs in just 2/3 of an inning, Stratton’s sport in the rotation was left ‘TBA’.
However, Cohen attempted to clarify the move Monday saying it was due to LSU being right-handed dominate at the plate (Tigers usually start eight of nine right-handed batters), Stratton may be needed out of the bullpen either tonight (6 p.m., Comcast TV) or Friday night (6:30 p.m.).
“Winning one out of the first two games or both of the first two games are of critical importance,” Cohen said. “I'm not going to leave any stone unturned. I mean that about every pitcher on our staff. With the exception of (Nick) Routt in game two, I think everybody is in play to help us win that first game."
Leaving that Saturday afternoon (2 p.m.) spot open allows Cohen and MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson the opportunity to at least plan for a must-win situation on that day where every pitcher besides Routt could be available to come out of the bullpen.
"Obviously the safety of our kids' arms are priority number one but if the guys are physically able to perform - yeah, we may need everybody and anybody if it comes down to that,” Cohen said. “We will not put our kids in a position that's not physically safe but if we have to have that last game, it's something we're thinking about.”
In all of the confusion over tiebreakers and SEC Tournament seeding, tonight marking the final weekend series for eight MSU position players has been overlooked.
“To be honest I haven't and I don't think anybody else has talked about that yet," Parks said. "When you look at it, it's pretty sad but once I'm on the field it's about trying to get to Hoover and continuing to play at some point, somewhere this season."
Parks and Nick Vickerson, who are ironically roommates at MSU off the field, are the the only players hitting over .300 as Parks (leading the SEC at .398) attempts to be the first MSU hitter to reach .400 since Travis Chapman in 1999 and be only the second player since 1984 to lead the league in hitting.