Off The Bat: Bulldogs Turn It Around

Mississippi State Completes Historic Turnaround

Down one run in ninth inning Saturday, Texas A&M loaded the bases with one out against Mississippi closer Wyatt Short. If the Aggies could pull out a win on the final day of the regular season, they would win the Southeastern Conference championship for the first time since joining the league for the 2013 season.

But Short got cleanup hitter Hunter Melton to foul out and induced a ground ball from Ryne Birk that shortstop Errol Robinson flipped to second baseman Tate Blackman to preserve a 3-2 victory for the Rebels. The result resonated two states over, where Mississippi State was leading Arkansas in the sixth inning. If the Bulldogs could hold on for a victory, they would be the SEC regular season champions for the first time since 1989.

The crowd of 8,421 at Dudy Noble Field in Starkville, Miss., knew it. When Mississippi recorded the final out, they began cheering in the middle of an Arkansas at bat.

“The thing about our fans is they’re so in tuned to college baseball,” Mississippi State coach John Cohen said. “There was a remarkable phenomenon that happened when Ole Miss won, instantaneously, five or six thousand people started cheering in between pitches.”

Word quickly filtered to the Bulldogs players (“When you have as many people in the outfield as we have, you don’t think they’re saying stuff to our outfielders?” Cohen said.), but they tried to remain focused on the game at hand. At the time, Mississippi State held a 6-2 lead. It added three runs in the seventh to remove much of the drama, and went on to a 9-4 victory.

Righthander Blake Smith struck out the final two Arkansas hitters, setting off the celebration. A season after going 24-30 and finishing last in the SEC, Mississippi State was 40-14-1 and conference champions. The Bulldogs became the first team in conference history to win the regular season title outright the year after finishing in last place.

It was a turnaround predicted a year ago to the day by third baseman Gavin Collins. In an Instagram post on May 21, 2015, Collins confidently predicted “At this point in time next year, there won’t be any disappointment because of what we will be accomplishing.”

Cohen said Collins personified one of the three reasons Mississippi State was able to flip the script this year. Collins suffered a broken hamate bone one week before the 2015 season and was sidelined for a month with the injury. After being the conference’s preseason catcher of the year, he never really found a groove at the plate and hit just .228/.313/.299.

But Collins was able to get healthy over the offseason and is hitting .301/.412/.516 this season. His resurgence, and that of several other injured Bulldogs, was the first piece of the puzzle. Mississippi State also got a boost from players who took a step forward over the summer, such as Dakota Hudson. The righthander went from throwing 16 2/3 innings out of the bullpen last year to becoming the Bulldogs ace and a likely first-round pick next month.

The final piece of the puzzle was the injection of talent Mississippi State received from its newcomers. The recruiting class, assembled by recruiting coordinator Nick Mingione and former pitching coach Butch Thompson (who left to become Auburn’s head coach in October), ranked fifth in the country and have provided instant impact in the form of two freshmen, outfielder Jake Mangum (.427/.479/.532) and No. 3 starter Konnor Pilkington (3-1, 2.11) and more.

“We had some kids get healthy, we had some kids have great summers and you add the pieces of the class Nick and Butch did a great job to put together,” Cohen said. “I think that all those components had to happen and they did.”

The result is Mississippi State’s first regular season championship since Cohen was playing outfield for the Bulldogs. He said winning the title this time was much different. In 1989, Mississippi State clinched the championship with a win at Kentucky, but Cohen said the Bulldogs didn’t know they had done so until David Murray, who ran “Dawgs Bite”, a Mississippi State magazine, came into the dugout after the game and told them.

But Cohen said the differences between the two championships go beyond the technological advances that made Saturday night’s dramatic ending possible.

“Winning the SEC when you’re a kid—as a player you don’t realize how difficult that is,” he said. “As a coach, you’re much more appreciative of how difficult the task is.”

Cohen has now won the SEC regular season championships—in 1989 as a player, in 2006 as the head coach at Kentucky (also a worst-to-first turnaround) and now, 10 years later, back at his alma mater as head coach. He joins Ron Polk as the only coach to win SEC championships at two schools (Polk won his at Georgia and Mississippi State).

Mississippi State still has a difficult task ahead of it. First up is the SEC tournament this week in Hoover, Ala. By virtue of winning the SEC, the Bulldogs will likely receive a national seed in the NCAA tournament when the field is announced on Memorial Day, but they don’t want to coast into Selection Monday.

“Winning the league is great, it’s a tremendous honor and a great accomplishment,” Cohen said. “But they all know we have bigger goals than that. You’ve got to be playing well at the end of the year if you have national championship aspirations.”

Tulane Back On Top

In a weekend marred by inclement weather in Houston, Tulane fought through one final rain delay Saturday. After three-and-a-half hours of waiting, the Green Wave returned to the field and defeated the Cougars, 4-3, to capture the American Athletic Conference regular season championship.

Rain washed out Thursday’s series opener and forced the teams to play a doubleheader Friday. Houston won the first game in 13 innings, but No. 11 Tulane (37-17) rebounded to win the final two games of the series and stave off East Carolina in the standings. The Pirates finished just a half-game off the pace after sweeping Central Florida.

Coach David Pierce said the weekend was a fitting conclusion to Tulane’s regular season.

“It means a lot,” he said. “Our team has just fought through so much and persevered. They did the same this weekend.”

Tulane’s strength this season has been its pitching and defense, and this weekend at Houston was no different. The Green Wave held the Cougars to 10 runs and committed just two errors in the series.

The Green Wave leads the AAC with a .972 fielding percentage, and with starters senior Emerson Gibbs (6-2, 2.24) and freshman Ross Massey (9-3, 2.42) leading the way, they rank the conference with a 3.19 ERA. Tulane has already thrown a program-record 12 shutouts.

The key, Pierce said, is the way Tulane’s pitchers have attacked hitters.

“Probably more than anything, just attacking the strike zone better than we did in the first month,” he said. “Even though we had success with our weekend starters, we’re just doing a good job pounding the zone of late.”

Tulane’s championship is the first the school has won in any sport since the conference was created for the 2013-14 school year, and it’s first in baseball since it won Conference USA in 2005. The Green Wave went on to reach the College World Series that season. Since then, however, Tulane has not advanced past regionals.

It has been a long road back, but in Pierce’s second season with the Green Wave, they are once again in position to make some noise in the NCAA tournament. He said it has been a group effort to get Tulane back to contending for championships.

“The history at Tulane is just so special and so many people are a part of this year’s team,” he said. “From the administration all the way through to the players and coaches, everyone is just committed so hard to what we’re trying to accomplish. We reaped the benefits at the end. It’s really rewarding for our team.”

Eight for Omaha

Florida, Louisville, Miami, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Vanderbilt, Virginia

This might be a strange week to drop South Carolina, as its coming off a sweep at Alabama to win the Southeastern Conference East Division. But for the past few weeks I’ve been trying to figure out how to get Virginia back in the field. The Cavaliers are rolling, winners of their past five weekend series, and, as expected, their young pitching staff has come together. South Carolina will be an extremely tough out, but Virginia’s big-game experience leads me to give the Cavs the edge.


Five players or programs who stood out this weekend.

Alabama State: After defeating Texas Southern, 7-5, Sunday in the Southwestern Athletic Conference Tournament championship game, Alabama State (38-15) will make its first appearance in the NCAA tournament since it moved up to Division I in 1982. The Hornets set a program record for wins and completed an undefeated season against SWAC opponents—24-0 in the regular season and 4-0 in the tournament.

Anthony Kay, lhp, Connecticut: With seven strikeouts Thursday against South Florida, Kay (7-2, 2.49) became Connecticut’s all-time strikeout king, breaking the record previously held by Red Sox righthander Matt Barnes. Kay, a junior, has whiffed 249 batters in his career, including 97 this season.

Louisiana Tech: Entering the weekend, the Bulldogs looked to be on the NCAA tournament bubble. But after sweeping Rice—the first time the Owls have been swept in a conference series since joining Conference USA for the 2006 season—Louisiana Tech has improved its RPI to 37 and has positioned itself to make its first appearance in regionals since 1987.

Joey Lucchesi, lhp, Southeast Missouri State: With 13 strikeouts Thursday against Belmont, Lucchesi increased his season total to 136 and broke the Southeast Missouri State and Ohio Valley Conference single-season strikeouts record. The senior is 9-4, 2.11 and has thrown 93 2/3 innings this season.

Brendan Tracy, 2b, Fairfield: With a game-winning grand slam Friday, Tracy gave Fairfield an 8-4 victory against Quinnipiac and its first Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference regular season championship since 1983. To make the moment even better, the grand slam came on Tracy’s senior day.

Looking Ahead

Three conference tournaments we’re most excited for:

Atlantic Coast Conference (10 teams, begins Tuesday in Durham): The No. 1 ranked RPI league in the country will again convene for its tournament in the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. This year’s event has some fresh faces, as Boston College (2010) and Duke (2009) both snapped extended tournament droughts. Regular-season champion Miami will be looking for its first tournament title since 2008.

Conference USA (eight teams, begins Wednesday in Hattiesburg, Miss.): If the final weekend of the regular season is any indication, the CUSA Tournament should be a wild one. Rice and Southern Mississippi, which looked to be two of the best teams in the conference, were swept over the weekend, leaving Florida Atlantic as regular season champions. Marshall, meanwhile, surged to second place and will try to prove it can compete with the conference’s traditional powers.

Southeastern Conference (12 teams, begins Tuesday in Hoover, Ala.): This will be the 18th and possibly final year the tournament will be held in Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, as the conference is evaluating bids from other cities for the event. If this is the end for Hoover, it will go out with a bang. The SEC has seven teams fighting for hosting spots in the NCAA tournament and plenty of scouts will be on hand to see several potential first-round picks.

Two regular-season series you shouldn’t overlook:

(23) Cal State Fullerton at (22) Long Beach State: This has long been one of the best rivalries in college baseball. This year, it will decide the Big West Conference title. Cal State Fullerton enters the final weekend of the season with a one-game lead on Long Beach State, but the winner of this weekend’s series will get a championship and the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Dirtbags won series at Fullerton earlier this year (which didn’t count toward the conference standings), and, with a repeat performance, would be Big West champions for the first time since 2008.

Washington at Utah: The Pac-12 Conference championship will also be decided with a winner-take-all series. Utah leads Washington by a half game, going into its series finale Monday at California. Regardless of the outcome of that game, next weekend’s series will determine whether Utah or Washington gets the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Utes definitely need to win to reach regionals for the first time since 2009, as they are 22-26. The Huskies (31-19) are in better shape, but could spare themselves an anxious Selection Monday with a series win in Salt Lake City.

One conference tournament to keep an eye on:

West Coast Conference (four teams, begins Thursday in Stockton, Calif.): The WCC Tournament has a smaller field than most, but that means its first day sets up two promising pitching matchups. St. Mary’s and righthander Corbin Burnes (9-1, 2.06) will take on Pepperdine and righthander A.J. Puckett (9-3, 1.07) in the first game, followed by Gonzaga and righthander Brandon Bailey (8-3, 2.45) facing Brigham Young and righthander Michael Rucker (11-0, 2.58). Runs will likely be at a premium, as the teams try to start their weekend with a win.

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