April 22, 2011 7:38:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- There''s a belief within Mississippi State''s baseball team that the big break is coming.
With defending national champion and No. 2 University of South Carolina (29-7, 12-3 Southeastern Conference) kicking off a three-game series at 7:06 tonight (ESPNU) at Dudy Noble Field, this weekend would be a good time for things to start going the Bulldogs'' way.
Facing ranked opponents in the Southeastern Conference is nothing new for MSU, which has played three series against teams ranked in the RPI top 15, according to Boyd''sworld.com. MSU has taken at least one game in series against Florida, Vanderbilt, and Arkansas.
The Bulldogs also have been on the cusp of winning each series, too, losing a pivotal game against each team by an average of 2.3 runs.
In a three-game series sweep to Georgia, MSU didn''t give up more than four runs in any of three games in Athens, Ga.
"The good news for us, and our players realize this, we play week in and week out (against) teams that are really coveted and have a chance to win a national championship," MSU coach John Cohen said, "and you''re right there with them. And you''re making these strides week by week, and our kids are saying, ''If we can beat teams that have a chance to win a national championship why can''t we? Why can''t we be in that mix?''"
Winning seven of its first eight games was a positive sign for a team looking to rebuild from a pair of down seasons. The turning point in confidence, however, came during Game 2 of MSU''s series at Vanderbilt -- a 4-0 loss -- sophomore pitcher Luis Pollorena said.
"That told us we can compete with those guys after getting beat 10-0 the night before," Pollorena said. "The third game showed it even more because went down 3-0 in that first inning and came back and won. Ever since then, no matter how many outs there are or what the score is, this team believes it can win every game."
Cohen has said in recent weeks one clutch hit or pitch has been the difference between key wins and narrow losses.
MSU (23-14, 6-9 SEC) is two games out of first place in the SEC''s Western division and has a RPI of 28.
Halfway through league play, thoughts of the NCAA tournament, far from reality in each of the past two seasons, are tangible goals for the Bulldogs.
Cohen admits the first six weeks of the SEC schedule have been great preparation for the NCAA tournament. His team''s smooth transition into playing with the NCAA''s Bat-Ball Coefficient of Restitution changes also gives him confidence looking ahead.
But Cohen said his team will have to fight its way to the NCAA tournament even though it finishes SEC play against teams with more losses.
"Our team''s just trying to get to the postseason," Cohen said. "I think any team in the SEC that can get to the postseason has a chance to make a run because you''re not gonna experience anything in the postseason that you haven''t experienced in the Southeastern Conference. I think that''s why our league is very successful in the postseason."
South Carolina has taken two of three games from Florida and Vanderbilt, also ranked in the top 5 nationally.
South Carolina hasn''t allowed more than four runs in a game since it defeated the University of Rhode Island 17-8 on March 22 - a string of 17 games.
South Carolina''s pitching staff is led by junior left-hander Michael Roth (8-1, 1.24 ERA). Roth, who is scheduled to start tonight, leads the SEC in wins and ERA. South Carolina enters the series with a league-best opponent''s batting average of .214.
Its bullpen, much like that of MSU, has been a strength, with 12 wins and 13 saves.
MSU will send sophomore Chris Stratton (4-4, 4.66 ERA) to the mound tonight. Junior left-hander Nick Routt (0-2, 4.91 ERA) will start Saturday. MSU''s issue will be who starts Sunday, a spot that has been up uncertain since Cohen bumped up Stratton and Routt and took Devin Jones out of the Friday role.
"It''s gonna depend on a little bit what we feel like we need to do with Devin Jones because Devin pitched so well at Arkansas (in relief)," Cohen said. "We considered bringing Devin into the came yesterday (Tuesday against the University of Mississippi) and he got loose and just felt like it wasn''t there because he hadn''t had to do that yet this year, so we decided not to bring him in.
"The other question is, do we have to use Pollorena? There''s a good chance we will, but if for some reason we didn''t he''s a great option for Sunday. If we haven''t had to use (closer) Caleb (Reed), which I''m absolutely sure we''ll have to on Friday or Saturday, the way we stretched him out on Sunday is a possibility also."