STARKVILLE — A familiar season-ending situation faces the Mississippi State softball team this weekend against national championship favorite Alabama.
Mississippi State (26-26, 7-15 Southeastern Conference) hopes to force its way into the SEC and NCAA tournaments, but can”t afford repeat of last weekend”s doubleheader loss to Florida.
Tournament scenarios for the SEC include MSU having to finish better than Ole Miss and Auburn, both of which are vying for the eighth and final spot. MSU holds the tiebreaker against Auburn, while Ole Miss holds the tiebreaker against MSU. However, Auburn is a half-game ahead of MSU entering the weekend.
Regardless of how either SEC Western Division rival finishes in its weekend series, MSU must one up Ole Miss and at least finish with a three-game result that equals Auburn.
To make the NCAA tournament, MSU coach Jay Miller believes a .500 record, which would include at least two wins against Alabama or one win against the Lady Crimson Tide and a lengthy SEC tournament run, is enough for the Lady Bulldogs to earn an at-large berth.
The end-of-season deja vu isn”t what All-America catcher Chelsea Bramlett expected after the Lady Bulldogs missed out on the SEC tournament last season but made the NCAA tournament with a 28-26 record.
“I came into the season with high hopes even though we were young,” said Bramlett. “We were showing a lot of potential in the fall, and if you would have told me we”d be where we are now I wouldn”t have believed it. But we are, so we have to fight through this weekend to see what we can do.”
Last weekend, Florida outscored MSU 17-1 in two victories. The losses came on the heels of a five-game stretch in which the Lady Bulldogs won four games.
Three of those wins were by one run, and since April 2 the Lady Bulldogs have played eight games decided by two runs or less.
Close losses to Georgia, LSU, and Kentucky could have easily been wins that would make the Alabama series less consequential.
“Those are games where we had opportunities with the people we wanted up,” Miller said. “Middle of our order coming up with runners in scoring position — we gave ourselves chances. The frustrating thing is we haven”t taken advantage. We”ve been inconsistent, both offensively and on the mound. It”s ended up costing us ballgames.”
Sophomore Lindsey Dunlap has been hampered by a back injury this season, and Lady Bulldogs freshman Kellie Vry has started 18 games.
Vry and classmates outfielder Jessica Cooley, shortstop Erin Nesbit and pitcher Stephanie Becker, are four of MSU”s starters.
The pitching staff”s youth and Dunlap”s injury caused a decline in the team”s pitching numbers before the team”s bats fell off.
“When we lost Lindsey to back surgery right before conference season, we really weren”t competing on the mound like we needed to,” Miller said. “That sort of changed the second half of the conference season as we”re now struggling at the plate. We hadn”t really been able to put both sides of the game together.”
Alabama, winners of 18 straight games and 22 of 24, enter with the nation”s top RPI and a dominant record against MSU. The Lady Crimson Tide has swept each of the last four series against the Lady Bulldogs.
“If we had to pick it, this wouldn”t be the clutch weekend we would want to have,” Bramlett said.
No. 3-ranked Alabama enters the series, which begins at 1 p.m. Saturday with a doubleheader, with a pair of dominant players in the circle. Kelsi Dunne is 22-4 with a 2.19 ERA, while Lauren Sewell is 9-1 with a 2.33 ERA. Opponents are hitting .186 against her.
Alabama”s last loss was March 28.
Miller said adjusting to pitches in the next plate appearance will play the biggest role in his team pulling off a tournament-clinching weekend.
“We won”t win if it takes us three at-bats,” Miller said. “They”re (Alabama) playing very well, but if you”re going to compete at this level those are the kind of teams you”ve got to beat.”
If Alabama earns another sweep, it will mean Bramlett”s last game in maroon and white. Bramlett, a member of the United States National Team, and Jessie Bailey will be honored in Senior Day ceremonies.
Despite the possibility of her record-breaking collegiate career coming to an end, Bramlett said it hasn”t started to sink in.
“I think a lot of the reason it hasn”t hit me is because I know I still have USA ball,” Bramlett said. “It will really hit me next fall when everyone will be lifting and practicing and I won”t.”
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