Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

The Buzz and the Bulldogs are Back; Mangum Still Leading League; Changing the Pitching Pace

Dudy Noble Field has that post-season baseball buzz again. It’s been three Junes since NCAA play here, and even with a late schedule switch for Friday the house will fill up. Advance sales of all chairbacks along with general admission tickets and, of course, access to the outfield speaks to pent-up demand at the college game’s benchmark venue.

Of course there was a time when regionals were practically presumed at Starkville. That’s a long longer ago than many like to think, because before 2013 the last previous Regional was in 2003. Still trends are positive that once again Diamond Dog fans can reasonably plan their Junes around the hope of hosting.

Dudy Noble Field, naturally, set the NCAA Regional campus-crowd record. That was in June 2007 when 13,715 were counted on the Saturday those Bulldogs completed a sweep of Clemson to win the super regional round. On Friday the crowd was listed at 12,620. Ever since popular impression is State’s official counts were a bit low, intentionally since ticket revenues are turned over to the NCAA and there are few free admissions with no discounted ducats. Everyone who was there, and it sure seemed everyone was there, attests to breathing-room-only conditions for the 11:00am start times each day.

 

BIGGER HOUSE: Something else worth noting about that NCAA campus post-season record crowd? It’s still just the 7th-largest ever at State.

And in 2014 Mississippi State announced plans and released renderings of a new baseball stadium and grounds. A.D. Scott Stricklin confirmed to Dawgsbite.com last week that the projected price will be around $55 million, up from an original $40 million; and that construction should begin in summer 2017.

Details as to whether the project will be done in stages, over two years; and capacity have yet to be determined. But based on a tweet last week, State could be close to making an announcement soon.

Stricklin has been at the SEC’s annual spring meeting this week in Destin. There among other topics will be the future of the SEC Tournament, with the league weighing proposals from minor league parks in Memphis and Nashville to host the event which has been held annually at Hoover-Met since 1998. The Met lost its full-time occupant four years ago and is used now for the SEC tournament in spring and high school football in fall.

 

GOOD TIMES RETURN: The return of NCAA play to campus also reminds that 2016 marks a return of Bulldog baseball to tournament season, period.

True, finishing flat-last in the SEC for 2015 did set up what likely is the greatest single turnaround in program history. And a first true worst-to-first run to the ’16 SEC Championship makes for a great story. But it still means every ’15 Bulldog missed out on post-season play.

So, to get back where the program is supposed to be? “It’s awesome,” SS Ryan Gridley said. All the more because the regular season was just about a complete reversal of record. “I mean it’s incredible.

“I remember last year at this time we’re sitting in the hotel (at Tennessee). One of the seniors texted us and said hey man I know you guys are out of it, just try to have fun tomorrow. And that was like a killer.”

By complete contrast these Bulldogs killed it through the regular season to take the outright SEC crown. And know what? “I feel like I knew it was going to happen,” Gridley said.

“And if you look at last year I feel every game we lost we were there at the very end and then something would happen. So I was confident we would have a real good year this year.”

Really, really good as it turned out. Gridley’s confidence was confirmed with a title and now with hosting a Regional. Oh, and that SEC trophy handed to them last week at Hoover.

“It’s so fun I can’t even tell you, it’s awesome. Even in the locker room and when we go home, we’re always hanging out. Winning just makes chemistry, losing kills chemistry. So the more we win the better it is.”

 

CHANGING PACE: It’s been well-accounted how Mississippi State’s rotation of Dakota Hudson and Austin Sexton can send opposing batters spinning. We can talk styles and schemes and such. Sexton himself keeps the difference between these junior classmates really, really simple.

“He throws like 98, I throw like 88!”

Well, yes, that is a difference. And in college baseball ten mph can look like twenty. Though to be fair, Seton’s fastball has gained a little zip down the season stretch. But he’s still a curve/changeup guy looking for swing-and-miss with movement and location.

The real change-up though is not as much going from fastball/cutter Hudson to Sexton one game to the next. No, it is when Sexton hands the ball to, say, Zac Houston. Or more so Reid Humphreys. Talk about a change of pace…

“As in he throws 95!” Sexton said of Humphreys. That by the way is on the Dudy Noble Field radar. At other venues like LSU the readings are even higher. And at Hoover, Houston was humming it at 96-97. For an order which has seen Sexton’s stuff two or three times, adjusting to these Dogs can be overwhelming.

Or overpowering.

“Yeah, I trust any of them,” Sexton said. “But Reid comes in with that heavy fastball and throws a 90 mph cutter. That’s my fastball on a good day!”

True, Humphreys’ heater might not move a lot side-to-side or up-and-down. It just plain moves. Take that two-strike fastball he threw to get the final out against Arkansas and secure the SEC Championship.

“That last pitch was 95, on the black,” Sexton said. “So any time he comes in you feel confident he’s going to get the job done.”

 

CHANGING PACE, PART II: Obviously it’s an instant switch for batters going from Sexton to Humphreys. But what about fielders?

It is one thing to charge after a bounced changeup. It’s entirely another watching somebody tag a 95 mph fastball on the nose. “It’s completely different,” SS Ryan Gridley said. Meaning, infielders and especially the middle-men must adjust. For one thing, “You have to know the tendencies of the hitters. And we go through that before the game.

“But I try to read what’s going to happen before the play and try to position myself where they’re going to be. If we’ve got a pull-righty up I might play at second base and have Gavin play short, just mix it around. But the coaches do a good job letting us know where to be as well.”

Much as Humphreys will keep Gridley on the adidas cleat-toes…the shortstop does enjoy the great view of #12 going about his late-inning business.

“He’s freaking awesome. Every time he comes in we know he’s going to throw gas and have an absolute hammer. He’s got a really good cutter he mixes in as well. I know as a righty hitter especially a ball that can tail away and go that fast is so hard to hit.”

 

OUT IN FRONT: By his lofty standards, OF Jake Mangum did not have a great SEC Tournament. He hit ‘only’ 4-of-11 in the three games which most batters would boast about in any post-season setting.

Mangum is not most batters. He’s the freshman phenom who is not just leading the league in hitting. He’s running away with the unofficial batting title race. Mangum begins NCAA Tournament play with a .423 average, 77 hits in 182 official at-bats.

Up to the waning weeks of the regular season Mangum was trailing Texas A&M’s star Boomer White in the batting race. Then the Aggie infielder—though not his team—went into a late-May slump just as Mangum picked up his own pace. The pair passed each other and now Mangum is way out in front. White is now at .395, 92 of 233.

SEC statistical categories, team and player, all include the entire season. So this batting battle will continue until both are done with 2016. A showdown in Omaha would be fun for everyone.

Mangum is on pace to be the fourth Bulldog freshman to lead the league in hitting. He would join Mike Kelly 1976, Rafael Palmeiro 1983, and Brandon Turner 2007.

Team-wise, Texas A&M (.316) and Mississippi State (.312) are the only conference club hitting over .300 for the season so far. LSU is third at .295.


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