By MATTHEW STEVENS
Luis Pollorena is the physical representation of Mississippi State’s attitude as they take on Florida once again this season.
He wants to try it again.
The 5-foot-6 left-hander gave up the game-winning grand slam home run to Gators designated hitter Brian Johnson in the last matchup between the two teams at the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Hoover, Ala., and just doesn’t believe that can happen again.
“My confidence is fine,” Pollorena said. “Immediately the next day after it happened I wanted to redeem myself by getting on the mound again.”
Pollorena (7-5), who started and got the win in the opening game of the Atlanta Regional last weekend against Southern Mississippi, has a 3.97 earned run average in 21 appearances this season.
His head coach has no problem giving his left-handed specialist the baseball again to get some big outs despite his and the rest of the Bulldogs recent history against the No. 2 ranked team in the country.
“I’ve been asked several times about him giving up the grand slam to them,” Mississippi State head John Cohen said. “Pollo is one of those kids you feel comfortable giving another opportunity because the guy compete so hard.”
If it makes Pollorena feel better, his right fielder would’ve bet anything that the fly ball Johnson hit at Regions Park would’ve never left the ballpark.
“The wind was swirling that day so when the guy hit it and I thought it was a routine fly ball and I didn’t sprint toward the warning track,” MSU outfielder Jaron Shepherd said. “I didn’t think it was gone and at worst was a fly out near the foul line.”
Cohen assured the local media this week Pollorena “will be a factor in some capacity” and see his team having a rare confidence against Florida despite losing three out of four against them during the 2011 season and having to face them at their ballpark.
“We won that Friday night game and were right there in the Sunday game,” senior Ryan Collins said. “We were one or two swings away from winning that (Sunday) game and the SEC Tournament game. That’s how close it really was.”
In its Regional last weekend Florida (48-16) dominated fourth-seeded Manhattan 17-3, used a walk-off single in the ninth to edge second-seeded Miami (Fla.) 5-4, in a winner’s bracket game and then defeated the Hurricanes again on Sunday, 11-4, to lock up their ninth Regional championship.
This week Florida broke a school-record with 11 draft picks among its 27-man roster in the 2011 MLB First-Year Player Draft. Most of that depth comes on the mound as MSU understands that even the middle relief guys could start at majority of schools across the country.
“What happens is they start guys that turned down lots of money already to be at Florida and then they bring juniors and seniors out of their pen that are nasty and tough to deal with,” Collins said. "What they make sure you do is attack the minute you take a breath. You have to remain focused throughout nine innings.”
The Gators accomplished all of that in dominating fashion despite missing two starters in Austin Maddox and Johnson.
“I think it says a lot about our depth,” Gators head coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. “I think it says a lot about the character of this team, too. We had a lot of guys step up.”
Now the duo is back and Johnson (8-3, 3.66) will make a start on the mound on Saturday of this best-of-three series.
Sophomore Hudson Randall (9-3, 2.38) will start today's opener.
O’Sullivan has directed the Gators to three-straight NCAA Super Regionals after the program had made a pair of appearances under former MSU head coach Pat McMahon (2004, 2005).
The choice for the MSU coaching staff on the mound today is freshman right-hander Evan Mitchell (6-1, 3.47). Junior left-hander Nick Routt (3-3, 3.78 ERA) will start Saturday's game.
“Obviously we’re just so proud of what Routt did and if he pitches like he did last weekend he can beat anybody in the country,” Cohen said. “You really feel good about the way Evan pitched as well especially to left-handed hitting.”
The Bulldogs (37-23) got the best three-day pitching performance over an NCAA Regional leaving Russ Chandler Stadium with a 1.67 earned run average and getting wins from every starter that got the baseball.
What Cohen, who served two years under McMahon as an assistant on the Gators staff from 2002-03, takes issue with is the idea that his squad is the small, scrappy bunch versus the powerful Gators roster.
“I was teasing my daughters last weekend because they said at Georgia Tech that we have a lot of little guys,” Cohen said. “Let’s go around here – is Jaron Shepherd little? Is Brent Brownlee little? You go around and what we have is two or three really undersized kids and everybody jumps on that. I will never short change our kids being scrappy for skill level. We have skill level.”