When Chris Lemonis compares his Mississippi State team to Texas A&M, the similarities leap off the stat sheet.
“The ERA, the stolen bases, the fielding percentage, the home runs, the batting average,” Lemonis noted Thursday. “There’s not a huge difference there.”
Where there is a disparity, though, is in perhaps the one area that really counts.
The Bulldogs (29-10, 11-7 Southeastern Conference) are ranked No. 4 in the country in this week’s D1Baseball.com top 25 poll. The Aggies (24-19, 5-13 SEC) aren’t even close.
So this weekend at Dudy Noble Field, it’ll be one of the SEC’s best teams against a club that typically occupies that position. For the Bulldogs, taking care of business this weekend will be important with just four conference series to go.
“We’re spending a lot of time in the weight room and rehabbing, taking care of our bodies, trying to get ready for this last run,” Lemonis said. “You want to be hot at the end of the year. We’ve had a great season, but we want a great finish.”
NCAA regional host sites will be announced the week of May 10, meaning Mississippi State has two more weeks to make an impression and earn a bid. The Bulldogs, of course, intend to be among the 20 teams selected initially and the 16 who make the final cut — not to mention the eight who host Super Regionals the following week.
No pressure, right?
“You’re fighting to get in the tourney. You’re fighting to be a regional host. You’re fighting to be a national seed,” Lemonis said. “In our world, I don’t know if you’re able to put more pressure on. We deal with this every year. If you want to be a national seed, you have to win a lot of weekends. That’s what our No. 1 goal here is … to be able to host all the way through.”
The Bulldogs have put themselves in position to do so thus far. Even last weekend’s series loss at No. 2 Vanderbilt didn’t ding Mississippi State in the rankings, with the prior week’s series win over then-No. 6 Ole Miss helping considerably.
Now, the Dawgs host an Aggies team that has lost seven of its past nine conference games. A&M was swept at home by Alabama before losing two of three at No. 1 Arkansas and dropping a home series with No. 1 Tennessee.
But that doesn’t mean Mississippi State can afford to overlook the Aggies this weekend. A&M still has dangerous players. Infielder Will Frizzell leads the SEC with 100 total bases and the third-highest slugging percentage (.637) among qualified hitters in the conference.
Lefty closer Chandler Joswiak has 68 strikeouts in 44 innings with a 2.86 ERA, the 10th best mark in the league. Southpaws Jonathan Childress and Dustin Saenz and right-hander Nathan Dettmer form a solid if unspectacular weekend trio in which all three starters carry in ERAs between 3.50 and 4.00.
“They have a good starting rotation,” Lemonis said. “They have a really good closer.”
Of course, Mississippi State can boast the same things. As usual, Christian MacLeod will pitch Friday night, Will Bednar will go Saturday, and Jackson Fristoe will take the ball Sunday. Last weekend, only Bednar picked up a win, keeping the Commodores to one run over five innings.
It was a major bounce-back for the sophomore after being touched up for six runs over three innings against the Rebels on April 17.
“I was more proud of him than anything because he’s never had a start like the Ole Miss start in his career,” Lemonis said. “Every time he’s run out there, he’s been pretty successful. It’s fun to watch a guy bounce back. I wasn’t sure what we were getting because he hasn’t been hit much in his career. We were really pleased with how he pitched.”
When his starters run their course, Lemonis is comforted by knowing he can turn to one of the nation’s deepest and best bullpens. Sophomore Landon Sims, who leads the way, has struck out 53 batters in just 27 innings and enters the series with a 0.67 ERA.
Mississippi State also anticipates having right-hander Brandon Smith available after he missed time with arm soreness. A strong bullpen Tuesday has Smith on track to return this weekend.
Lemonis said the Bulldogs played it safe with Smith’s arm after the junior returned this season from Tommy John surgery.
“It wasn’t anything major; he just didn’t feel right, and coming off the surgery we’re probably a little more passive with it,” Lemonis said. “Trying to slow it down for his health’s sake.”
Smith and Sims surely won’t be the sole relievers deployed by the Bulldogs this weekend, but they’re two of the most important high-leverage bullpen pieces Mississippi State has at its disposal.
Against an A&M team hitting .263 — which ranks 12th in the SEC — the Bulldogs may not need them all. But Lemonis and his staff will be ready for anything come first pitch at 6:30 p.m. Friday.
“We have to bring our A game and be ready to go,” Lemonis said.