May 30, 2014 9:50:14 AM
STARKVILLE -- Gavin Collins knows the Mississippi State baseball team's opponent better than any of his older, more experienced teammates.
San Diego State showed early recruiting interest in Collins, who is from Lake Forest, California, but the 5-foot-11, 200-pounder wanted to play for the best and get to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.
"I knew the best college baseball was in the SEC," Collins said. "I knew this was the best situation for me, and judging by every way I've grown on and off the field since being here, I made the correct decision 100 percent."
Collins' decision to sign with the Bulldogs will come full circle at 1 p.m. today when No. 17 and second-seeded MSU takes on third-seeded SDSU (42-19) in the first game of the NCAA tournament Lafayette Regional. No. 1 and top-seeded Louisiana-Lafayette (53-7) will take on fourth-seeded Jackson State (31-23) at 6 p.m. today in the other first-round game.
"My first thought was, 'Wow, they're going to have to adjust quickly to the humidity of playing in these type of conditions in Mississippi and Louisiana because I know it was a change that took me about a month to get over," Collins said. "The weather and time change in California isn't something you can get over in a matter of days. It'll be an adjustment for them more than any other team in this regional."
SDSU was a projected bubble selection for the tournament before it won back-to-back games against UNLV to ensure their program's 11th regional appearance. SDSU hasn't played a NCAA tournament baseball game outside of the state of California since 1986 when it played in the Central Regional in Austin, Texas.
SDSU and MSU have never faced each other in football, men's basketball, or baseball. MSU split a two-game set vs. ULL in 1991 at Dudy Noble when it was known as Southwestern Louisiana.
Collins hopes he will be able to help the Bulldogs (37-22) duplicate their 2013 postseason run. In his last nine games, the 18-year-old freshman is hitting .451 (14-for-31). He finished the season with a .325 batting average that was second best on the team. Collins' defensive improvement and his production on offense helped him earn All-SEC Freshman team honors. The right-handed hitting Collins said facing some of the nation's elite pitchers in the Southeastern Conference is relaxing considering all of the work he has to do mentally and physically behind the plate.
"I have to go up in the box and execute just like anything else, but there's so much less to think about pitch by pitch when I have that bat in my hands than when I'm playing defense," Collins said. "I've always wondered how outfielders deal with having a bad at-bat because they may have no action, so they're doing nothing but thinking about that AB. I have a bad AB and it's immediately hitting that switch back to what defense we're in and how we're pitching their lineup."
To get back to the College World Series championship series, MSU first will have to work its way through a regional that includes the No. 6 national seed, ULL. MSU last faced a national seed in the regional round in 2012, when it went 1-2 in the Tallahassee Regional, losing twice to Samford.
MSU coach John Cohen has refused to talk about any other game other than the today's matchup in the double elimination format.
"That game doesn't exist because the only game that matters is Friday," Cohen said Thursday when asked about a possible matchup with Louisiana-Lafayette in the winners bracket. "That's not to say you can't win the regional after losing Game 1, but I've always felt like that first game is the most important of any of them. It sets the tone."
Cohen said Thursday that Trevor Fitts (4-3, 2.51 ERA) will start today. He said the right-hander is the best option to counter as many as eight right-handed hitters SDSU is expected to have in its starting lineup. Fitts has started the most games (15) on MSU's staff this season, but he hasn't gone longer than 6 2/3 innings in an outing. In Fitts' last three starts (vs. Tennessee, at Alabama, and vs. South Carolina) he hasn't lasted through the fourth inning. Given that track record, left-handed reliever Jacob Lindgren and the rest of the MSU bullpen could have a pivotal role today.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.