June 9, 2011 2:49:00 PM
STARKVILLE -- It''s easy to say the Mississippi State baseball team is as confident as it''s been this season.
After all, the Bulldogs accomplished feats last weekend in the NCAA Atlanta Regional that they had not reached earlier this season, even during a late stretch in the schedule netted eight wins in 10 games.
For the first time since the Belmont series in late February, the Bulldogs enjoyed quality starts in three consecutive games -- pitching at least six innings while conceding no more than three earned runs. It''s this pitching which allowed the Bulldogs to jump out to early leads in two of the three games and never allow more than three runs during wins against Georgia Tech and Austin Peay.
Defense also played a factor, as the entire outfield earned All-Tournament honors.
What better way to head into a Super Regional against conference rival Florida, which has taken three of four from the Bulldogs this season?
The Bulldogs (37-23) will face Florida in a best-of-three series in Gainesville beginning at 11 a.m. CT Friday (ESPN2). They''ll play again at 11 a.m. Saturday (ESPN) and at noon Sunday (ESPN) if needed.
"We just feel like we''re on a roll," MSU outfielder Brent Brownlee said. "We just have to keep that confidence, keep competing.
We''re not afraid of Florida. We''ve hung in there with them. We know that and I think they know that, so we''re gonna keep competing with them and good things will happen."
Not long ago, the Bulldogs were left to rue a pair of two-run losses to the Gators -- one in a rubber match at Dudy Noble Field and the second in the first round of the Southeastern Conference tournament. But this is a different MSU team. There''s added confidence, if not more, thanks to four games against the Gators.
"Everything about their pitching staff, the way they defend the field and everything about the way their one through nine operates, they''re really good," MSU coach John Cohen said. "So we''re gonna have to be very good against them.
"We feel like two of the games were very, very winnable. The other, it would have taken a couple of hits. But we really only played poorly against them in one game so we feel like we can win.
Still, even he admitted, "It doesn''t matter what John Cohen thinks, it matters what our kids think."
Entering the series, MSU second baseman Nick Vickerson is the only injury concern. Vickerson was hit in the head with a pitch against Georgia Tech, and was initially thought to have suffered a concussion. He has, however, practiced this week without limitations.
"I thought my reaction time was off, but I don''t have any headaches and I''m still swinging," Vickerson said. "Just to be out there, I feel blessed."
Florida''s injury woes became clearer with the return of Brian Johnson, a designated hitter and Saturday starter. Johnson was hit in the head with a throw to second base in the SEC tournament. Johnson, who is batting .312 with five home runs and 27 RBI, sat out the Gainesville Regional but will play against MSU. It''s not yet clear if Johnson (8-3, 3.66 ERA) will draw one of the starts on the mound.
Also, closer Austin Maddox (2-0, 0.74) sprained his foot against Manhattan in the regional and is listed as day-to-day. Maddox has also started 62 games in the infield.
Both are key members of the Gators pitching staff, but the strength of the team is its depth. Without Johnson and Maddox, Florida didn''t miss a beat against Miami in the Gainesville Regional.
"(Nick) Maronde, I saw him pitch so much in high school," Cohen said. "That guy was 94-96 (mph) against us in six innings of relief... You know you got a great pitching staff when a middle guy is that good."
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