Scattershooting, while contemplating another huge upcoming weekend of college baseball in the Magnolia State …
And this is a really meaningful weekend as conference races wind down and teams jockey for post-season positioning. If the season ended today, Mississippi State, Southern Miss and Ole Miss all would be in the 64-team NCAA field, while Jackson State would be favored to win the SWAC Tournament and thus gain an automatic berth in the tournament.
A quick progress report on each:
• Mississippi State, 30-16 and 14-7, is tied for the SEC West lead with Auburn, and those two are tied with Kentucky for first place in the overall standings with three league series to play. State plays a huge three-game set at Texas A & M Thursday through Saturday. A&M is one of four teams tied at 13-8, meaning that seven teams are within one game of the overall SEC lead. That’s parity.
State, with a No. 18 RPI, will finish its league season with a road series at Georgia and then a home series with LSU. The Bulldogs enter the final three weeks squarely on the bubble as to whether or not they can host an NCAA Regional. Winning a series at College Station would help immensely.
Brent Rooker, featured in an earlier column, continues to have perhaps the greatest hitting season of any individual in Mississippi college baseball history. Rooker enters the weekend hitting .413, which ranks him third nationally and tops in the SEC. He has 19 home runs, which is third nationally and best in the SEC. His slugging percentage of .913 is best in the nation and over 100 points higher than Morehead State’s second place Niko Hulsizer and more than 200 points higher than LSU’s Greg Deichmann, who is second in the SEC. That’s right: Rooker leads the SEC in slugging by more than 200 points.
• Southern Miss, 34-12 and 16-5, has a slender one-game lead over Florida Atlantic in the Conference USA standings. And guess who comes to Hattiesburg this weekend for a three-game set. Yes, Florida Atlantic.
USM is No. 21 in NCAA RPI, which would likely make the Eagles a No. 2 seed if the season ended today. The Golden Eagles might have to win out to earn a host bid, which would be next to impossible if pitching ace Kirk McCarty can’t go. The left-hander exited a Sunday game at Middle Tennessee State with a tingling sensation in his throwing arm. His availability for the FAU series is questionable.
The Golden Eagles continue to hit like few teams in college baseball, ranking fourth in the nation in scoring runs and eighth in the nation in home runs. Freshman sensation Matt Wallner, featured in an earlier column, continues to amaze. He leads the club in home runs with 14 and in slugging (.691), while hitting .345 with 46 runs batted in. He is a leading candidate for national freshman of the year, despite the fact that a hip problem has shut down indefinitely his 97 mph fastball on the mound.
The injury to McCarty is particularly troubling for the Eagles. USM has allowed 88 runs in its last 11 games, or eight per. It is a credit to the team’s productive offense the Eagles have sitll managed to win seven of those 11 by averaging 11 runs per game during the same period.
• Ole Miss, 27-17 and 11-10, currently ranks No. 34 in NCAA RPI, which would put the Rebels safely in the tournament. Winning two of three at Arkansas last weekend was much needed. Most impressive on the Rebels’ post-season resume: The Rebels are 14-9 against ranked teams this season and have won two three-game series against Top 10 teams.
Mike Bianco’s club has a chance to make that three series victories over Top 10 clubs when the Rebels play at No. 5 Florida this weekend.
It is a credit to the Rebels’ league-leading pitching staff that the record is what it is, despite a team batting average of .254. Ole Miss leads the league in earned run average at 3.03. Opponents are hitting only .226 against Rebels’ pitching.
• Jackson State, 25-14-1 and 17-4, has an RPI of 209, thus will have to win the SWAC Tournament at Wesley Barrow Stadum in New Orleans (May 17-21) in order to secure an NCAA bid. If the Tigers make the field, their offensive statistics should scare the bejeezus out of any first-round foe. JSU leads the nation in stolen bases, is sixth in the nation with a .325 team batting average and fifth in the nation in runs scored.
• • •
Rick Cleveland, Mississippi Today’s sports columnist, this year was named Mississippi Sportswriter of the Year — an honor he achieved for the 10th time — by the National Sports Media Foundation. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out other news at mississippitoday.org and follow us on Twitter @MSTODAYnews.