By: John Lockwood
Winners of the Atlanta Regional Mississippi State will travel to take on the second seeded Florida Gators in the Gainesville Super Regional. At the outset, this series appears to weigh heavily in the home team’s favor. However, the Bulldogs have made a living upsetting the status quo in 2011, and they will look to do the same against arguably the most dangerous team in the country.
The Bulldogs have at their backs against the proverbial wall since the first pitch of the season. After going 23-33 (and just 6-24 in conference) in 2010, and losing four of their top five hitters, Mississippi State was originally slated to finish last in the SEC in pre-season polls. However, the Bulldogs bested their previous record by fourteen wins in 2011, including a ten-game turn around in conference, finished the season tied for second in the SEC West and went on to upset #19 Georgia Tech as the No. 3 seed in the Atlanta Regional.
Although their starting rotation has been in-flux and ad-hoc all season, starter Nick Routt came up huge for his team against theYellowjackets in the regional final. Routt (3-3), who had not gone longer than six innings in any game all season, tossed a complete game, allowing just two earned runs on six scattered hits and a walk while striking out six. Although third-baseman Jarrod parks and second baseman Nick Vickerson have been cogs in MSU’s offensive machine this year, it was freshman centerfielder CT Bradford who led the Bulldogs on the day, going 3-5 with a double and four runs batted in.
The Bulldogs will need their pitching to be on top of their game as they take on a Florida Gators offense that led the SEC in homeruns. In their four games this season, UF outscored MSU 33-13, including an 18-0 shellacking on April 9th. As a team, the Gators are a well-oiled, finely tuned machine—their .311 team batting average is second best in the SEC; they own the third best team ERA at 2.97; and, oh yeah, their .974 fielding percentage is a league-best as well. At the plate, six hitters are batting over .300, including Johnny Bench Award finalist Mike Zunino (.371, 21 2B, 16 HR, 62 RBI).
On the mound, the Gators have no shortage of electric arms. Starters Hudson Randall (9-3, 2.38 ERA), Karsten Whitson (8-0, 2.42 ERA), Brian Johnson (8-3, 3.66 ERA) and Alex Panteliodis (6-2, 3.76 ERA) have each proven their ability to win in big games, and the Gators’ have no shortage of talent out of the bullpen: three relievers have sub-2.25 ERA’s in at least 31 innings pitched (not including closer Austin Maddox and his ridiculous 0.74 ERA in 24.1 innings pitched).
While injuries threatened to disrupt the Gators’ line-up and rotation heading into the weekend, Coach Kevin O’Sullivan announced Wednesday that designated hitter/starting pitcher Brian Johnson is cleared to play in Friday’s opener. Johnson had been sidelined with a concussion after being hit in the head by a throw from catcher Mike Zunino in the SEC tournament. Austin Maddox, also a question mark with a foot injury sustained in the Gators’ opening game of the regionals against Manhattan, will be a game-day decision.
While the Bulldogs run in 2011 is reminiscent of their 2007 trip to the College World Series, the Bulldogs went two and out in 2007 and haven’t been back since. The Gators, who had nine players selected in this year’s MLB draft, will be looking to return to their first College World Series since last year, where they were likewise bounced after two games.
Game one begins Friday 12 pm EST at McKethan stadium in Gainesville, FL and will be broadcast on ESPN2. Game two is slated for a 12 pm EST start Saturday and, if necessary, game three will be played at 1 pm EST on Sunday. The remaining two games can be seen airing on ESPN.
Prediction: Florida 2-0