May 19, 2014 10:26:28 PM
STARKVILLE -- It's almost become a tradition at the Southeastern Conference baseball tournament to try and find the schools with something to play for and the teams wanting to go home immediately.
Consider Mississippi State one of those teams in it to win the whole thing for no other reason than to put up another banner/flag at Dudy Noble Field.
"The way we look at it, you never know what game will be your last so you have to maintain the idea of trying to win every game that you play," MSU closer Jonathan Holder said.
Holder is a junior on the MSU team who has seen the Bulldogs get to at least the Saturday semifinal round in each of the first two league tournaments he's been involved in.
"You can't take lightly any situation you're in no matter the stakes or the opponent but I can say that it's pretty cool to get on that winning track in Hoover like we've done in the past," Holder said. "I was a 18-year-old freshmen that didn't know anything and was able to be a part of a team that played six straight days to win the 2012 tournament and that was a lot of fun."
A perfect example of teams treating the Southeastern Conference Tournament as a exhibition weekend is South Carolina under legendary coach Ray Tanner. The Gamecocks won back-to-back national championships in 2010-11 but in that two-year stretch went 1-4 in the league tournament in Hoover, Alabama.
In only one of those four games did South Carolina throw one of its weekend rotation starters and it was the one victory they earned as ace Michael Roth defeated Auburn in 2011.
"That's an understatement," Tanner joked when asked about his team's lack of focus during the SEC Tournament in 2012. "The good news is we have done well after not playing well in this thing before and I expect that trend to continue. We can get some extra practices in now."
Cohen, who considers Tanner a coaching model of his own, has historically used the league tournament to generate some positive momentum heading into the NCAA tournament play the following week.
"We've got to focus on the most important part of the season which is the postseason," Cohen said Monday on the league teleconference. "That's all anybody remembers is what you do in the postseason. It's important that we're playing our best baseball heading into the postseason."
The one benefit No. 18 MSU (35-20, 18-12 in SEC) can draw from the tournament itself is the repetition of winning becoming a contagious factor among the entire team as they continue to search for consistency heading into the playoffs.
"I think they feel good about themselves and like every other team in this tournament, baseball is now their full-time jobs," Cohen said. "The kids are very focused on the task at hand and we're looking forward to this opportunity."
MSU will turn to junior left-hander Lucas Laster (0-0, 0.73) as they open up the SEC tournament against Georgia in the final game of the single-elimination format tonight. Laster hasn't pitched since May 11 when he shut out Tennessee for 5 2/3 innings of relief following two solid mid-week starts against Ole Miss and Jacksonville State.
"I think it really helped me to get that extra rest on my arm by not pitching this past weekend," Laster said. "I didn't even make the travel roster for the SEC opening series at Georgia so it's not like anything will be known about either side about my stuff."
Laster Named a Top 200 junior college prospect by national scouting service Perfect Game and then chose MSU over scholarship offers from Middle Tennessee State and Lipscomb.
"Lucas has done such a nice job for us in big ballparks, whether it has been Trustmark Park in Pearl or Dudy Noble Field," Cohen said.
Georgia will start senior RHP Dylan Cole (1-0, 4.72 ERA) versus MSU. It will be his third career start, all coming this year. In his last start, he tossed four scoreless innings in front of 21,310 at Turner Field in Atlanta versus Ga. Tech on May 13. In the MSU series this year, he pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings.
Georgia (26-28-1, 11-18-1 SEC) will be one of the teams in desperate mode as they likely need to win the event to qualify for a NCAA Regional in the first year under head coach Scott Stricklin.
"This was a big step for our program in getting back to the SEC Tournament after not being there last year," said Stricklin. "It's a grind in the SEC as you're facing a nationally-ranked opponent almost every weekend. We're taking the approach that we've got to get to the double-elimination part of the tournament but we're excited about having an opportunity to keep playing in the postseason."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.