In search of a championship|[06/15/07]

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 15, 2007

Mississippi State battles 3rd straight ACC power with Carolina matchup

OMAHA, Neb. – If 34 years of coaching experience have taught Ron Polk anything, it’s that there are ups and downs to every season. Over the course of 50 or 60 games, even the best teams will have a losing streak.

Maybe that’s why Polk didn’t panic when his Mississippi State Bulldogs lost 6 of 8 games to close the regular season, then two straight in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. Polk knew it was his team’s dry spell, not the beginning of the end.

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&#8220I thought we played well in Hoover. We lost to (Ole Miss’) Will Kline 3-2, and he was a sandwich pick in the first round. And we lost to (Vanderbilt’s) David Price 3-1, and he was the first overall pick,” Polk said. &#8220I was never convinced our team wasn’t very good when we lost 8 of 10. We were just injured and playing some very good ballclubs.”

Polk and the Bulldogs persevered, and caught fire after their losing streak. Some of the injured players got healthy, Polk shuffled his lineup to bench struggling players and move others to new positions, and everything clicked.

State landed in Omaha, where they’ll open the College World Series tonight against No. 3 national seed North Carolina (53-13).

After their late-season struggles, along with the fact they were picked to finish last in the Southeastern Conference in a preseason poll, and their first-round matchup against last year’s CWS runner-up, the Bulldogs are a decided underdog.

If not for UC-Irvine and Louisville, both CWS first-timers, Mississippi State (38-20) might even be considered this year’s Cinderella story. That doesn’t mean the Bulldogs are just happy to be here, though.

&#8220I don’t think that’s on anybody’s mine. It’s great to be here. It’s been a long time coming. But we want to win,” said MSU second baseman-turned-center fielder Jeffrey Rea.

Rea was one of several Bulldogs affected by Polk’s late-season shakeup. After losing to Ole Miss and Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament, Polk moved six starters to new positions for the regional in Tallahassee. The Bulldogs haven’t lost since, winning the regional with three straight wins and sweeping Clemson in last week’s Super Regional.

In four of the five wins, State has scored at least eight runs.

&#8220Most of the switches, the boys were still playing. The second baseman went to center field, the right fielder went to first base, the DH played some first base,” Polk said. &#8220It looked like something out of a cartoon, but we had to do it. I talked to the boys that had to sit down and told them this was what was best for the team, and they bought into it.”

Polk’s shuffling has continued in Omaha. Because North Carolina has a lineup loaded with left-handed hitters, he swapped out usual Friday starter Chad Crosswhite for lefty ace Justin Pigott.

Pigott has gone at least six innings in each of his last eight starts, including a three-hit, no-run effort over seven innings in a 3-0 regional win over Florida State.

&#8220It’s a great opportunity. It’s an honor, basically, having the ball for the first game of the College World Series,” Pigott said.

Rea said that with Pigott’s success over the last half of the season, the Bulldogs have plenty of confidence in him to shut down a potent North Carolina lineup.

&#8220You’ve got a good chance every time out with him. You score four or five runs, that may be all you need,” Rea said.

Although their road to Omaha was different – the Tar Heels earned a No. 3 national seed and have surpassed the magical 50-win mark – both North Carolina and Mississippi State play a similar brand of station-to-station baseball.

North Carolina coach Mike Fox poked fun at Polk during a coaches’ press conference Thursday at Rosenblatt Stadium, saying he learned everything he knew from the longtime Mississippi State skipper.

&#8220I used Coach Polk’s baseball playbook to learn how to coach – back in high school,” Fox said with a laugh, before motioning toward septuagenarian Rice coach Wayne Graham and joking to Polk, &#8220You may not be the oldest one up here, but you’re old.”