By JOEL COLEMAN
A wild weekend lies ahead for Southeastern Conference baseball and No. 4 Mississippi State is right in the center of it all. As the Bulldogs prepare to begin the regular season’s final series on Thursday in a 6:30 p.m. game at Dudy Noble Field against Arkansas, MSU has a league championship in its sights.
“Everyone is excited,” Mississippi State junior pitcher Austin Sexton said. “We’re not stupid. We know what’s at stake. We’ll play our baseball and take care of business. We’ve got a good Arkansas team in front of us. No weekend in the SEC is ever going to be easy. It hasn’t been easy in any series to this point. I think everyone is real focused and looking forward to this weekend.”
Mississippi State’s path to the overall SEC title rests on the outcomes of several other games around the league. Assuming all games are played as scheduled this weekend, for the Bulldogs to win their first overall regular season championship since 1989, they’ll need to win one more game than does both Texas A&M and Florida. They’ll also need to match or better South Carolina’s win total over the next three days.
“I think it’s an exciting weekend,” Mississippi State head coach John Cohen said. “You’ve got teams trying to get into the SEC Tournament. You’ve got teams trying to win the league. You’ve got teams trying to win divisions. It’s extremely competitive and certainly everybody in the league has something to play for. That’s why this is such a great league.”
No scenario really matters for MSU (37-14-1, 18-9) unless the Bulldogs can take care of business against Arkansas (26-26, 7-20). The Razorbacks have struggled mightily this season. Arkansas brings a 10-game losing streak to Starkville, but Cohen says MSU can’t afford to be deceived by the Razorbacks’ current skid.
“It’s a mystery to me,” Cohen said of Arkansas’ tough times. “Just look at their series against Alabama last weekend. They hit the ball out of the ballpark. They have swing and miss stuff on the mound and can strike you out. They have great stuff. They have great athletes. They don’t make errors. You keep looking at it and you wonder how they are losing.
“They’re scary. They can beat anybody at any time. They can beat us three times. There is no question about it. If we don’t realize that and bring our best game, we’re not going to be able to do the things that we need to do.”
Despite all the pressure, Cohen and his Bulldogs say they’ll keep the same recipe this weekend that has led them to this point. As has been the case all year, Dakota Hudson and Sexton respectively will draw the starts on the mound in the first two games of the series. Cohen says Saturday’s starter is still officially listed as a player yet to be determined, but that man will almost assuredly end up being Konnor Pilkington after his performances the last several weekends.
Mentally, MSU says their approach, much like the pitching staff, remains unchanged.
“It’s the same exact mindset that it was the opening weekend,” Freshman outfielder Jake Mangum said. “Nothing has changed. It’s the same mindset. It’s the same work ethic.”
State is likely to get a bit of a boost this weekend from a pair of guys who have been out with injuries in recent weeks. Cohen said utility man Hunter Stovall is probable to see action this weekend after missing three weeks with a leg injury suffered at Alabama on April 28. Additionally, middle infielder Luke Alexander, who has been dealing with a wrist injury, will be available. Cohen said MSU will continue to be cautious with their banged-up Bulldogs however.
“The issue is, these kids want to play so much that you’re not 100 percent sure how much they are telling you in terms of the pain that they are in,” Cohen said.
Who wouldn’t want to contribute on a weekend that could end with a title? Make no mistake about it, Mississippi State plans on doing everything it can to set off a celebration on Saturday.
“They all want to win a championship,” Cohen said of his team. “The one thing we talk about is controlling what we can do and not watching scoreboards. We just want to compete pitch by pitch. When we do that, we’ve been pretty successful. When we get away from that, a lot of our goals slip through our fingers. Our kids get that.”