PERKINSTON — The 2021 Mississippi Gulf Coast baseball season has been a strange one in a strange time, but the Bulldogs are official entering the postseason, where things are exactly as they have been.
Gulf Coast (20-19, 16-12 MACCC) travels to Fulton to play No. 16 Itawamba in a best-of-three NJCAA Region 23 qualifying series. The winner advances to the region tournament at Pearl River which starts a week from Monday. The loser, as usual in the playoffs, goes home.
"You're playing to keep playing," Gulf Coast coach Wes Thigpen said. "I told the guys today, you're never going to have the same group of guys in the room ever again. Let's do what we can as long as possible. We're playing for keeps now."
Friday's game begins at 6 p.m., with Game 2 set for Saturday at 2 p.m. A third game would be played immediately following that contest, if necessary.
Gulf Coast played Itawamba less than three weeks ago in the MACCC baseball regular-season doubleheader. The Bulldogs were within two outs of a sweep of the then-No. 12 Indians before losing a one-run lead in the seventh inning.
One difference this time around will be the venue. Itawamba (23-13, 19-9) finished tied for third in the conference but got the four-seed in the postseason. Gulf Coast finished tied for seventh and got the seven-seed.
"Going up there it's always a tough atmosphere," Thigpen said. "They're going to come out with a lot of energy, but I expect our guys to try to match that energy. They know what to expect on the road because we've had some tough games on the road recently. Hopefully, that's seasoned us a little bit and got us ready."
Gulf Coast has been led at the plate by Alex McWhorter (Fr., Mobile Ala./Faith Academy), who ranks fifth in the MACCC with a .443 batting average. His 49 RBIs are tied for second and he's one of only 12 players in the league with double-digit home runs.
"All season long, Alex has led us offensively," Thigpen said. "Dawson Walters has really come on strong with the bat recently, and he's hitting close to .400. He's also really picking it at shortstop. He's been a difference-maker for us on the infield."
Since March 27, Walters is batting .491. He finished 12th in the league with a .393 average and his .489 on-base percentage is 17th-best.
Having three games max on the schedule this week means Thigpen can tweak how he uses his pitching staff. At least one of his starters will move to the bullpen to give the Bulldogs more depth there. After a midseason lull, the bullpen has pitched better lately.
"In the playoffs, you want to win each game in front of you and try not to think of the next one behind it," Thigpen said. "Three nine-inning games in two days is tough on anybody's staff, so we might have to extend a few guys longer than you would like to. To get through 27 innings, it's going to take everybody."
NJCAA Region 23 Qualifying
Friday-Saturday, May 7-8
Higher seeds host
No. 9 Copiah-Lincoln vs. No. 2 Meridian, 7 p.m.
No. 8 Northwest vs. No. 3 East Central, 6 p.m.
No. 7 Gulf Coast vs. No. 4 Itawamba, 6 p.m.
No. 6 Jones vs. No. 5 Hinds, 6:30 p.m.
No. 9 Copiah-Lincoln vs. No. 2 Meridian, 2 p.m.
No. 8 Northwest vs. No. 3 East Central, 2 p.m.
No. 7 Gulf Coast vs. No. 4 Itawamba, 2 p.m.
No. 6 Jones vs. No. 5 Hinds, 1 p.m.
For more information on MGCCC's 10 intercollegiate athletic teams, follow @MGCCCBulldogs on Twitter and MGCCCBulldogs on Facebook, and go to mgcccbulldogs.com.
BY Don Hammack
Sports Information Director
Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College