STARKVILLE — In big moments, individuals and teams can ignore the pressure or embrace the feeling.
The Mississippi State University baseball team is doing nothing but the latter.
MSU coach John Cohen understands the importance of his team’s last Southeastern Conference regular-season series against the University of South Carolina. He wants everyone associated with the program to know it and to love the anxious feeling.
“This is what you want,” Cohen said. “You want to go into weekends like this at the end of the year where everything matters. You want to be totally in the thick of it. Almost every goal we had to start the year, with the exception of winning the Southeastern Conference, is still in front of us.”
No. 24 MSU (38-15, 14-13 SEC) will play host to No. 14 South Carolina at 6:30 tonight in game one of a three-game series that will help sort out the seedings for next week’s SEC tournament in Hoover, Ala. The series will continue at 6:30 p.m. Friday and at 2 p.m. Saturday.
A series victory for MSU would improve its chances of securing a NCAA Regional host assignment for the first time since 2003. A series sweep, which MSU has never accomplished against South Carolina, would greatly increase the Bulldogs’ chances of earning the fourth and final bye into the double elimination round of the SEC tournament. If MSU wins all three games, it only would need the University of Mississippi to win one game this weekend at LSU to ensure the fourth seed.
“I’ve seen clubs, probably not the clubs in our league, but I’ve seen clubs that have said this weekend really doesn’t matter and they can’t get that mojo going down the road,” Cohen said. “Maybe more than any school in the Southeastern conference, we depend on our students to be a huge part of our crowd. I want that for our kids with everything on the line this weekend.”
MSU enters the series ranked 10th nationally in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), while South Carolina is No. 11. South Carolina (37-14, 16-10) has maneuvered through an injury plagued season under first-year coach Chad Holbrook. The Gamecocks have been without ace pitcher Jordan Montgomery, outfielder Tanner English, catcher Dante Rosenberg, and first baseman LB Dantzler, who leads the team in batting average (.337), home runs (12), and RBIs (45).
The Gamecocks, who have won eight of nine series against MSU, need one victory to clinch a bye for the SEC tournament, but Holbrook knows his team also is still in the mix to receive a national seed. But unlike Cohen, Holbrook is trying not to overemphasize the road trip to Dudy Noble Field.
“MSU is playing for a lot this weekend and we are, too,” Holbrook said. “But with that being said, the winner of this series isn’t guaranteed a trip to Omaha and the loser of this series will still be in the NCAA tournament with an opportunity to go. This weekend is not going to make or break our season.”
South Carolina is 7-5 on the road against league opponents this season. It has posted series victories at the University of Missouri (2-1), University of Tennessee (3-0), and LSU (2-1).
“Our players are excited about getting on the bus,” Holbrook said. “We’ve been on the road and played well before, so, hopefully, we can do that this weekend. We’re going to have to in order to win a game or the series down there.”
MSU players hope a comeback Sunday that helped it salvage the final game of a three-game series against Ole Miss Sunday game in Oxford will provide momentum in the a stretch run. MSU built on that momentum Tuesday with a 3-2 victory against Oral Roberts University.
“We need to take the feeling we have and turn it into the most important weekend of our season,” MSU junior pitcher Ben Bracewell said Sunday after the 7-6 victory. “It’s so key for us to stay in the hosting category, and trust us, we all know that.”
Senior left-hander pitcher Luis Pollorena (6-3, 3.86) will face South Carolina senior southpaw Nolan Belcher (7-5, 2.23). Pollorena is one of seven MSU players who will be honored Friday in pregame Senior Night ceremonies.
“We know that because of the Thursday start Luis will be working on one day fewer rest, but we think the fatigue could force him to focus on staying down in the zone,” Cohen said. “And as we all know with Luis, it’s all about staying down as opposed to velocity.”
n Tonight also will be special because MSU will welcome its 5,000,000th fan through the gates. On Friday, commemorative pins will be given to the first 5,000 fans in celebration of the landmark.
MSU enters the weekend only 13,663 fans away from breaking the school’s single-season attendance mark of 233,015 established in 2003.