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April 9, 2008

SCS.comLast season, Mississippi State was expected to finish at the bottom of the SEC. Then Ron Polk's Bulldogs turned around and surprised everyone by contending for the SEC West title down to the last weekend of the regular season.

However, the skid that they went on towards the end of the season might have been viewed as them coming back down to earth, but an unexpected regional win in Tallahassee and a super regional win in Starkville, the Bulldogs were one of the last eight teams standing.

After returning to the College World Series for the first time since 1998, MSU was expected to be a player in the SEC, as the league's coaches picked them second in the West behind archrival Mississippi.

However, through the first half of the season, things haven't gone as expected, as they currently stand at 14-17 overall and last in the SEC at 3-9.

A lot of things have gone wrong thus far, most notably on the injury front. Sophomore infielder Brandon Turner, who led the team in hitting last season with a .399 average, has been limited to only eight games thus far due to a nagging hamstring injury. That's made a difference in a lineup that lost juniors and leading power and run producers Ed Easley and Mitch Moreland to the draft, along with the school's all-time hits leader Jeffrey Rea, who manned the top of the order for the last four seasons.

Last week, the lineup took another blow with hot-hitting freshman catcher Cody Freeman (.397, 7 doubles, 2 homers, 11 RBI in 24 games) being put on the shelf for the next few weeks with shoulder and knee injuries.

The lineup does boast six hitters who are batting at least .322 and four at .350 or better, including power hitters Jason Nappi (.351/8/32) and Connor Powers (.350/9/33), who have both had three-homer games this season, and new leadoff hitter Grant Hogue, who's hitting .323 and leads the SEC in stolen bases with 18. But, many an inning has been thwarted thanks to 50 double plays, a number that's just one shy of their total from all of last season.

Pitching, which was supposed to be the strength of the team this season, has experienced a lot of struggles through the year, and that hasn't been helped by injuries to weekend starters Justin Pigott and Chad Crosswhite, and rocket-armed reliever Aaron Weatherford, who's regarded as the team's top June draft prospect.

The fact that luck hasn't been on MSU's side is no doubt especially frustrating to team and fans alike, due to the fact that this year marks the end of an era in Bulldog baseball. Two weeks ago, longtime head coach Ron Polk confirmed that he'll be stepping down at the end of the season, his 29th as MSU's head man and his 35th as a collegiate head coach.

But, despite the rough start, there's still time yet for his team to send him off in style, as the second half of the SEC slate is a lot more friendly than the first, where they've had to face Mississippi, South Carolina, Georgia, and Kentucky, all top-20 teams, with another one on tap in Vanderbilt. Their second-half slate could allow them to make up a lot of ground and potentially put themselves in position to either claim an at-large bid or get into the field of 64 through winning their third SEC Tournament title of the decade. The second half of their conference schedule doesn't feature a single ranked foe, though it goes without saying that there are no easy weekends in the SEC.

The Bulldogs have taken steps in the right direction in the last couple of weeks, winning the opening games of their series against Georgia and Kentucky, but haven't been able to finish the weekend on the right note.

They were on track for a big series win at Kentucky last weekend, with a 6-2 lead in the rubber game on Sunday, but the Wildcats rallied for a 9-8 win and the series victory, overcoming five home runs, including a trio that Powers powered over the fence.

That latest setback hurts, but with Turner, Crosswhite, and Weatherford back in the fold, MSU is starting to get back some of its key players at a key time, and that could prove to make a difference for how things play out for Polk's last litter of pups.

They face another serious test with Vandy coming into Dudy Noble this weekend, but building off of how close they came to turning the page in Lexington, the series against the Commodores will be the perfect opportunity not only to head into the second half of the conference slate on the right track, but also give them renewed hope that they can overcome a rough beginning to make Polk's 29th and final season roaming the Dudy Noble dugouts a success.

Read more from Eddie throughout the week at

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