‘Dogs, Rebels to tangle in SEC series opener|[03/14/08]

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 14, 2008

Most years, there’s a season-long buildup to the Ole Miss-Mississippi State series. Weeks of anticipation, followed by a year’s worth of bragging rights.

Not this time.

Ole Miss and State kick off the Southeastern Conference schedule today at Dudy Noble Field in Starkville. It’s the first time since 1988 the in-state rivals have opened the league schedule against one another and just the third time since 1998 that they’ve played the SEC series in March.

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The teams will also play April 15 in Pearl, in the annual Mayor’s Trophy game at Trustmark Park.

Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said he was glad to get the series out of the way early. Playing it later in the year, when more is on the line, can be a distraction, he said.

“If I had a preference, I would prefer it to be thrown in the middle somewhere,” Bianco said. “To me, it’s unfair to say it has to come at the end. There’s so much more put on players and coaches when you play your archrivals.”

Mississippi State coach Ron Polk said he’d like to play the Rebels later in the year. Not necessarily because of any baseball reasons, but rather because of basketball.

The series coincides with the SEC basketball tournament. State is scheduled to play Alabama tonight, meaning more fans will be paying attention to the basketball team’s stretch run than an early-season baseball game.

The opening game of the series was moved up to 3 p.m. today, and game two pushed back to 6 p.m. on Saturday to keep more eyes on the diamond.

“If you have your druthers, you’d rather play it later in the year,” Polk said. “The only bad thing is that it conflicts with the SEC Tournament. But it’s what comes out of the computer. They can’t always push the rivalry to the back of the schedule.”

Mississippi State has had an up-and-down ride through the non-conference portion of its schedule. The Bulldogs enter the weekend with a 7-7 record following a sweep of a midweek series with Mississippi Valley State. Mississippi State was swept by Baylor last weekend, and has not won more than two, nor lost more than three, games in a row this year.

Polk said the roller coaster ride was largely due to inexperience. Only four position players who saw significant playing time during the team’s College World Series run last season are back this time around, and most of the potential replacements haven’t established themselves yet.

Making matters worse, second baseman Brandon Turner — one of the returning starters — will miss this weekend’s series with a hamstring injury. Turner was second in the SEC with a .389 batting average in 2007.

“When we played Baylor, we went out to exchange lineup cards and coach (Steve) Smith had the same card all three games. I told him I wish I could do that,” Polk said.

Ole Miss was streaking at the beginning of the season but came back to earth fast last week. After starting 9-0, the Rebels lost three of four against Arkansas State and TCU. Ole Miss managed just eight runs in three games at TCU, after scoring at least five in each of its first 10 games.

Bianco said it was more a case of leveling off than going into a slump.

“We are really playing well in all three phases of the game — pitching, hitting and defense. We were almost playing too good early. And by that, I mean we were hitting at a pace I don’t think anybody could keep up,” Bianco said. “I thought we pitched well (at TCU), we played good defense. It just happens sometimes that you can’t push runs across.”