The way Mississippi State is playing, it’s unlikely the Bulldogs are going to be intimidated by anyone. But if any team in the country has a fear factor on its side, it’s Vanderbilt, State’s opponent tonight in the College World Series. Vandy, the SEC regular season and tournament champion, is the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, is ranked No. 1 in one national poll, has won 15 of its last 16 games, has set a school record with 55 victories and, most significantly for tonight, is sending to the mound a touted freshman right-hander who appears to be peaking. Kumar Rocker is an imposing 6 feet 4, 255 pounds and can touch 98 mph with his fastball. He has won his last three starts, beating LSU in the SEC Tournament, Indiana State in the Nashville Regional and Duke in a must-win Super Regional game. That was the 19-strikeout no-hitter you might’ve heard about. Rocker, son of former Auburn and NFL star Tracy Rocker, was one of the top recruits – and pro prospects — in the country last year. He was not an immediate success at Vandy. He got shelled in his college debut and lost his first SEC start. He has had other rough spots, as his 10-5 record and 3.50 ERA would suggest. But the Super Regional no-no generated national fame and certainly raised expectations. As Vandy coach Tim Corbin told the Nashville Tennessean: “I know when you pitch like that one time there’s a certain level of anticipation. But he’ll handle it well.” The Bulldogs are one of the best hitting teams in the country, making for a most intriguing matchup. P.S. Here’s an obscure Mississippi connection in Omaha (as noted by Doug Shanks): Michigan coach Erik Bakich played for the Greenville Bluesmen in the old Texas-Louisiana League. A third baseman, Bakich played nine games for the independent club in 2001 during his brief pro career. His Wolverines are 2-0 in the bracket opposite State’s.
Friday is the main event in college baseball’s regular season. Typically, Friday means the conference series opener. It means the aces are out. It’s a night when the lights are brightest and the tension most palbable. It’s when momentum is seized for the best-of-3 series. Or is it? Mississippi State and Ole Miss open their annual SEC battle tonight in Oxford with their best starters on the mound. State left-hander Ethan Small has been dominant: 6-1, 1.85 ERA, 122 strikeouts and 18 walks in 73 innings. UM’s Will Ethridge doesn’t have that kind of stuff but has been solid: 5-4, 2.80. Meanwhile, Southern Miss, trying to keep a grip on first place in C-USA, visits Rice and will throw its most reliable starter, Walker Powell (5-2, 2-79). State (15-9 SEC) has won six of its eight conference series. Only once have the Bulldogs lost the opening game and won the series. Ole Miss (also 15-9 in league) has won five SEC series, three of those after winning Game 1. Like State, UM only once has lost a league series after winning the opener. (Notably, the Rebels lost the opening game at LSU last weekend but came back to win the series in a wild rubber game.) USM (18-6 C-USA) has won five of eight series, winning none after losing the opener. What’s it all mean? Friday is a pretty big deal.
Good week to be a hitter from a Mississippi college. Three – count ’em, three – won conference player of the week honors at three different levels. Hats off to Mississippi State’s Elijah MacNamee, Mississippi College’s Grant Barber and William Carey’s Sloan Dieter. MacNamee, who claimed the SEC award, went 9-for-17 (.529) with two homers (one a grand slam) and eight RBIs in four games last week, including a 2-1 weekend at Florida. MacNamee, a senior outfielder, is batting .380 with three homers and 22 RBIs for the 18-2 Bulldogs. Barber was named the NCAA Division II Gulf South Conference POW after a week that saw him bat .615 with four doubles, five runs and three RBIs, including a walk-off that capped a Choctaws sweep of Lee University. Barber, a junior second baseman, tops MC in batting at .369. (His teammate Blaine Crim could easily have won the GSC award; he hit .429 with two homers and nine RBIs last week.) Dieter, who won the NAIA Southern States Athletic Conference award, batted .636 with eight RBIs as Carey took two of three from Mobile. Senior first baseman Dieter, who also won the SSAC top player honor the week before last, is batting .375 with four bombs and 17 RBIs for the Crusaders. Worth noting: Southern Miss’ Hunter Slater didn’t get a C-USA award but certainly had an honors-worthy weekend in the Golden Eagles’ sweep of Louisiana Tech, batting .462 with two homers, six RBIs and five runs, and SWAC voters somehow passed over Alcorn State’s Travaris Cole. All he did was hit .389 with three homers, seven RBIs and four runs in a SWAC weekend series against Prairie View A&M. The NJCAA names its players of the week on Wednesday, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see an MACJC hitter earn the Division II award.
The Magnolia State’s NCAA Division I schools should get some good barometer readings this weekend. Mississippi State, 16-1 and ranked in everybody’s top 10, gets its first true road test of the season when it opens SEC play at nationally ranked Florida (14-5). Nationally ranked Ole Miss (12-5) starts league play with a home series against Alabama, 16-2 but unranked. Southern Miss, wobbling a bit at 8-6, begins defense of its C-USA regular season title at Louisiana Tech (11-5), which features a bunch of Mississippi connections, including coach Lane Burroughs, a former USM assistant. And at Magnolia Field in Itta Bena, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State, both still feeling their way, will lock up in a big SWAC series. JSU is 5-13 (1-2 SWAC) against a schedule that has included Boston College, Mississippi State, UNO and Miami (Fla.). Weather issues have limited Valley to six games; the Delta Devils are 1-5 (0-1 SWAC), including an 8-1 loss at Memphis on Tuesday, and have not played a home game. Equon Smith leads JSU hitters with a .348 average and has scored 15 runs. Raul Hernandez is at .309 with two homers and 16 RBIs. Wesley Reyes (.208) and Dezmond Chumley (.190), preseason All-SWAC picks, have yet to click. Morgan Lomax is hitting .409 for Valley, and Billy Leflore checks in at .381. Neither club has pitched particularly well, and that’ll probably be the key to the series. JSU has a 5.89 ERA, though Kevin Perez (2-1, 3.38) and Garth Cahill (2.18 in nine appearances) have been solid. Valley is at 9.56, having only once held an opponent to fewer than eight runs. Aaron Barkley has the lone win and a 1.50 ERA in six innings of work.
Mississippi State’s Bulldogs are in Nashville this weekend, and the burning question is: How did this Bulldogs team get here? Not here, as in Nashville, but here, as in this Super Regional, as the last Mississippi team still playing in 2018? You look at their numbers, they aren’t too good. Middle of the pack in the SEC in batting average and runs, dead last in on-base percentage. Tied for 12th in homers and tied for 13th in steals. Only two SEC clubs made more errors. Bulldogs pitchers had just the 11th-best ERA in the league; they were third in strikeouts but also third in walks allowed. Yet here they are, playing league rival Vanderbilt in a best-of-3 for a berth in the College World Series. It was a long strange trip. They started 0-3 and saw their coach fired. They also started 0-3 in the SEC – swept by Vandy – and were 10-10 overall on March 18. They were 19-19, 5-10 SEC on April 20 when they pulled off a three-game sweep of No. 3 Arkansas. Where’d that come from? Alas, after losing two of three to Kentucky in mid-May, the record was 27-24 and 11-15 and an NCAA bid looked doubtful. Then, out of nowhere, the Dogs swept No. 1 Florida. And yet, even that momentum was quelled when they lost their SEC Tournament opener to LSU. Then they were routed by Oklahoma by a football score in the Tallahassee Regional. That’s gotta be it, right? Well, no. Out of the loser’s bracket, seemingly against all odds, they won four straight to take the region title. And now the NCAA has sent the Dogs to Nashville, a somewhat controversial decision, to play a Vandy team that has also had a tumultuous year. Can this long strange trip possibly reach Omaha? For State, it’s like the Grateful Dead once sang, “Together, more or less in line, just keep truckin’ on.”
Tuesday was a test of resilience for three college programs that endured serious disappointment over the weekend. Ole Miss, William Carey and Millsaps all showed a little something. The No. 4-ranked Rebels, coming off an SEC series loss to scuffling Mississippi State, bounced back with an 11-3 win against No. 12 Southern Miss before a crowd of 5,772 at Trustmark Park in Pearl. Chase Cockrell and Thomas Dillard drove in three runs each and Houston Roth improved to 5-0 for the Rebels (28-6), who’ll take a 7-5 conference record to Vanderbilt this weekend. Carey, ranked 11th in the latest NAIA poll, was swept at home by top-ranked Faulkner in a big Southern States Athletic Conference series last weekend. The Crusaders rebounded Tuesday with a 7-1 win in the opener of a doubleheader at LSU-Alexandria behind the bat of Marcus Buckley and the arm of Lake Robertson. WCU lost Game 2 7-4. The Crusaders (26-14, 10-5 SSAC) travel to Loyola (La.) for their next league series this weekend. Millsaps, hoping to make a late push in the Southern Athletic Association standings, was swept at home by Sewanee over the weekend, falling to 8-10 in the conference. Fueled by the hitting of Christian Cooper and six innings of stellar relief from Chris Guerin, the Majors responded Tuesday with a 6-4 victory at East Texas Baptist. NCAA Division III Millsaps (20-16) finishes SAA play at Centre this weekend. P.S. On the day he was named to the Golden Spikes Award Watch List, Delta State’s Zack Shannon smacked his nation-leading 23rd home run in an 8-3 win vs. Harding. Shannon is batting .445 with 70 RBIs for DSU, 29-6 and ranked as high as fifth in Division II.
There are several big series on tap this weekend in college baseball (see Ole Miss at Texas A&M in the SEC; Southern Miss at Florida Atlantic in C-USA; Jackson State at Alcorn State in the SWAC; first-place Millsaps at Birmingham-Southern in SAA play; and first-place Blue Mountain at NAIA No. 1 Faulkner (Ala.) in the SSAC). If the recent past is prologue, we could be in for a wild weekend. To wit: On Thursday night, Ole Miss rallied for three eighth-inning runs to upend Texas A&M 5-4 in a battle of nationally ranked SEC foes in their series opener at College Station. Rebels ace Ryan Rolison wobbled, but relievers Will Ethridge (three innings, six strikeouts) and Parker Caracci (two innings, five K’s) picked him up. … On Wednesday, Mississippi Valley State beat Delta State for just the 16th time in 103 meetings, getting a 10th-inning, tie-breaking double from Aaron Barkley – who also pitched two shutout innings – at Itta Bena. Division I Valley is 5-16, D-II No. 1-ranked Delta State 19-4. In Jackson, Tougaloo spanked Alcorn State 9-1 as Lige Mims threw a complete game and drove in two runs. The NAIA Bulldogs, who visit MUW on Saturday, are 12-11; D-I Alcorn, which might have been looking ahead to its series with JSU, is 6-14. In the juco ranks, unranked Hinds Community College went to Ellisville and handed third-ranked Jones County Junior College its first home defeats of the season. Staton Todd (homer, double) and Andrew Beasley fueled the 6-5 Game 1 win with their bats, and the Eagles (14-3, 3-1 MACJC) rode the arms of Caleb Morgan and Josh Banes to a 4-1 victory in Game 2. Jones slipped to 15-5 (10-2 at home) and 2-2 MACJC. Meanwhile, East Central, ranked 13th, moved to 4-0 in the league with a sweep of Southwest behind the hitting of Wyatt Ball, who cycled over the two games. Pearl River, at 2-0, is the only other team still unbeaten in league play.
Conference play starts this weekend for the state’s Big 3 Division I schools. Each is playing at home, and there should be an upbeat vibe for all three. Southern Miss is nationally ranked, sports a 12-4 record and just blasted Tulane 12-3 on Wednesday night in New Orleans. And there’s even more good news for Golden Eagles fans: Matt Wallner is heating up. The 2017 national freshman of the year homered against the Green Wave, just his second of the year but second in the last three games. Wallner, a .336 hitter with 19 bombs in 2017, is batting .298. USM opens Conference USA play against Texas-San Antonio in Hattiesburg. Ole Miss, which welcomes Tennessee to Oxford to launch SEC play, is on an even steeper roll. The Rebels, a top 10 team, bashed Georgia State 16-2 on Wednesday in Atlanta to move to 17-1. Who’s hot? Cole Zabowski, to pick just one. He went 3-for-4 with a home run and four RBIs vs. the Panthers and is at .310 with three homers and 13 RBIs on the season. Mississippi State stumbled on Wednesday, losing to Southeastern Louisiana 11-5 in Biloxi. Jake Mangum continued to swing a hot bat, however, going 2-for-5. He is hitting .351 with 11 runs and seven steals. The Bulldogs take a 10-7 record into their SEC series against Vanderbilt in Starkville, but note they are 4-1 at renovated Dudy Noble Field, where the home-field edge is palpable. P.S. Jackson State, 5-1 in the SWAC, takes on Alabama State (4-2) this weekend in Montgomery in a key league series. JSU is 12-4 overall after a twinbill split at Morehead (Ky.) State. In a 4-0 win that was halted by snow on Tuesday and completed Wednesday, Jesus Santana hit his fourth homer of the year. Jarvis Warner has boosted his average to .364.
Mississippi is having a heck of a year on the college diamonds, and it ain’t over yet. Southern Miss’ Dylan Burdeaux won Conference USA player of the year honors today, giving the state four such honorees. Burdeaux joins Mississippi State’s Brent Rooker (SEC), Delta State’s Zack Shannon (Gulf South) and William Carey’s James Land (SSAC) as top dogs in their league. (Rooker beat out Burdeaux and Shannon for the Ferriss Trophy that goes to the state’s best player.) For what it’s worth, Jackson State’s Bryce Brown had a pretty good case for SWAC POY, and Itawamba Community College’s Tyreque Reed (a State commit) led NJCAA Division II in hitting with an amazing .504 average. DSU, Carey and Hinds CC are all bound for the World Series at their respective levels. The NCAA Division I schools are only just beginning their quest for Omaha, with USM looking like it might have a realistic shot.
In a recent online chat, a Baseball America scribe made a prediction for this summer’s college Team USA roster that included three players from Mississippi: State’s Konnor Pilkington, Ole Miss’ Dallas Woolfolk and Southern Miss’ Matt Wallner. They are worthy candidates – and certainly worthy of keeping an eye on this weekend as the Big 3 charge toward tournament season. Pilkington, the sophomore left-hander out of East Central High, is slated to start today at Georgia. He is just 5-4 in 12 starts, but his wins have been big ones for the Bulldogs, 32-17 and 16-8, tied for best in the SEC. He has a 3.82 ERA with 84 strikeouts in 73 innings. Woolfolk, a sophomore out of DeSoto Central, has been a solid closer for Ole Miss, which faces a crucial series against nationally ranked Texas A&M in Oxford. While both State and USM are projected as regional hosts in Baseball America’s latest mock NCAA Tournament field, the Rebels (29-20, 11-13) aren’t in at all. Woolfolk has 10 saves, three wins and a 1.91 ERA in 23 appearances. USM (37-12, 19-5 C-USA) can clinch the conference title this weekend against UAB in Hattiesburg. Wallner, a freshman from Minnesota, has been just one of several mashers in the Golden Eagles lineup. The 6-foot-5 outfielder leads the team with 15 homers and is batting .328 (.447 on-base) with 47 RBIs. He also has three saves and a 1.84 ERA on the mound. P.S. East Central Community College has advanced to the NJCAA Region 23 Tournament with a two-game sweep of Mississippi Delta in their best-of-3 series. Game 1 winners on Thursday were Hinds, Northwest and Pearl River. No. 1-ranked Jones County and LSU-Eunice received byes to the six-team region tournament, which starts next week at Ellisville.