Weekend Preview: Mississippi State

LSU currently ranks last in the SEC West, but that could all change this weekend during a big series against Mississippi State. These bitter rivals square off for a three-game set starting Friday night at 6:30 p.m. in Alex Box Stadium.

The storied rivalry between LSU and Mississippi State added a nasty chapter last season, but it's one both teams have decided to forget.

In the series finale, then-Bulldog pitcher Kendall Graveman threw a fastball in the area of Mason Katz' head. The Tigers thought it to be intentional, creating a verbal back-and-forth that fortunately didn't escalate to anything more than that.

SCHEDULE/PITCHING MATCHUPS

GAME 1: Friday 6:30 p.m. (Cox Sports Television)
LSU - RHP Aaron Nola (5-1, 0.55)
MSU - LHP Ross Mitchell (5-1, 1.55)

GAME 2: Saturday, 6:30 p.m. (ESPNU)
LSU - LHP Jared Poché (5-2, 2.61)
MSU - RHP Tevor Fitts (2-1, 3.09)

GAME 3: Sunday, 1 p.m. (Cox Sports Television)
LSU - TBD
MSU - TBD
But the ill will's in the past, and nobody from this year's LSU team has plans of seeking retribution this weekend when the two square off for a three-game series at Alex Box Stadium.

"This is a new team we're playing, just like we're a new team," said senior Sean McMullen. "I know there's a rivalry and people look forward to it, but I'm just treating it as another SEC series. I don't have any bad blood toward them."

Neither team could afford to let the rivalry affect their play anyway, especially LSU. The No. 10 Tigers (20-8-1, 3-5-1 SEC) find themselves in last place in the SEC West, 2.5 games behind Mississippi State (20-10, 6-3), who's tied with No. 21 Alabama for the division lead.

LSU did snap its four-game losing streak Wednesday against Mississippi State, and the Tigers will look to end a four-game SEC winless streak Friday.

"We've got some things to prove to everyone in the SEC," said freshman pitcher Jared Poché. "They're all doubting us a little bit. We haven't been underdogs in a long time. If we can take at least two, hopefully three, then that would be huge."

The Tigers will have one other opponent this weekend though — Mother Nature. Rain has already wreaked havoc on LSU's season thus far, prematurely ending a game against Louisiana-Lafayette earlier this season, and forcing doubleheaders against both Vanderbilt and Florida.

LSU was swept in each of those doubleheaders, and the Tigers will hope to avoid another this weekend. Though the forecast has cleared for Friday night, there remains high chances of rain for both Saturday and Sunday.

"Between now and Sunday it could change again, so I'm not going to overly panic about it," said LSU coach Paul Mainieri. "But I'd really like to avoid a doubleheader if I'm being 100 percent honest. I'm tired of these doubleheaders. They haven't been too nice to us."

The weather forecasts have caused some changes to the pitching rotation this weekend. Mainieri originally planned to throw Aaron Nola on Saturday to give him full rest after pitching last Saturday against Florida. Poché was scheduled to pitch the opener after only tossing five innings in his start against the Gators.

But with Friday having the clearest forecast, Mainieri wants to make sure Nola gets an uninterrupted start, so he will take the mound Friday night to kick off the series.

Poché will pitch Saturday, but the Sunday spot remains to be determined. Kyle Bouman hasn't started since the Vanderbilt series, but he did strike out the only batter he faced Wednesday in his first action on the mound since spraining his ankle.

Mainieri won't make a final decision for Sunday's starter until after the game Saturday. He hopes Bouman can go, but it will come down to whether he can properly field his position without pain.

"I don't know if you saw him run in from the bullpen [Wednesday], but it was a bit of a labor for him to get all the way to the mound," Mainieri said. There was a pronounced limp there. But in the pitches he threw, he didn't have any pain."

BREAKING DOWN THE BULLDOGS


SEASON OVERVIEW

The Bulldogs, who were a preseason No. 1 according to some rankings, had a slow start to the season, dropping non-conference games to Western Carolina, Memphis and a pair to Holy Cross. But Mississippi State has rebounded strongly since the start of SEC Play and haven't dropped a series yet.

The Bulldogs took two-of-three this past weekend from Arkansas and have a big 17-2 victory against Vanderbilt on their resume.

PITCHING STAFF

Mississippi State's weekend rotation has also seen some flux due to injury. The Bulldog's typical Friday starter, Preston Brown, is questionable this weekend while suffering from shoulder soreness. That moves their ace, Ross Mitchell, into the opener to square off against Nola.

Mitchell doesn't throw exceptionally hard, relying on a deceptive change up, and that's brought him success this year. He's already tossed a pair of complete games in SEC play and leads his team's starters with a 1.55 ERA. Trevor Fitts will throw Saturday. He hasn't given up more than an earned run in any of his three SEC starts, but he's only lasted more than five innings once in conference play.

Their Sunday spot remains TBD as well while they'll gauge whether Preston Brown is healthy enough to go. In the bullpen, Mississippi State relies heavily on Jacob Lindgren and Jonathan Holder. Lindgren's seen a lot of action as the team's long reliever and leads the Bulldogs with a 0.93 ERA. The hard-throwing Holder has four saves this season with 23 strikeouts in 17 1/3 innings.

LINEUP

As a team, Mississippi State ranks in the middle of the conference with a .255 batting average in conference games. But the Bulldogs can produce runs, ranking behind only South Carolina with 45 runs in SEC games.

Leadoff man Jake Vickerson leads the team with 20 runs scored all season, and he has a .353 on-base percentage with seven stolen bases on nine attempts. The production comes from the 2-through-4 hitters. Alex Detz, Wes Rea, and Brett Pirtle have combined to drive in 57 runs this season, with Rea blasting three dingers this season.

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