Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

One Season to Celebrate; Another Season to Anticipate?

Overachieved? Underachieved? Bunch of both? Or, just baseball?

It’s dangerous grading a long and strong season on this immediate day-after. Wait, make that day-of since Mississippi State tourney staff and media crew didn’t leave the premises until 1:00ayem. Or later as Dudy Noble Field lights still burned while I exited.

Either way. Season’s end is too raw and emotions too high for absolute evaluating. Still…some sort of Bulldog benediction seems right & proper today. Just don’t look for gloom and doom here.

This was a very, very good Diamond Dog team and year.

Great? Gimme a while on that. Oh, not because the 2016 squad stopped short of Omaha. So did a few of the undeniable greatest teams ever here, like 1978, 1984, and 1989. By same token teams which were good-to-pretty good made the College World Series and that’s part of the eternal charm of Bulldog baseball. Exhibit A: 2007.

Which also was the only prior super regional played on DNF. Now we’ve seen two, and naturally the four largest NCAA Tournament campus crowds. Good work, y’all. Related to this, it’s hard not to suggest in the coming weeks Mississippi State make some sort of update or even better presentation of plans for the splendid new stadium, with work to begin a year from, hopefully, today. Right after a ’17 super regional.

About this ’16 edition? Well, sometimes ya gotta say the obvious because it gets forgotten in frustration. But those were two basically-equal but very-different clubs colliding for two games. If State and Arizona had played two weeks ago, or met on Ameritrade twice two weeks from now, the results could so easily have been reversed. Likely literally as it still would have been one-run decisions. We also tend to forget the impact of simple timing in this sport.

No, State ran into a hot squad at the wrong time. For their part the Dogs weren’t what you’d call cold.

But neither were they as sharp as during their amazing—yes, that’s the word for it—SEC regular season title run. A title which as said here before I did not really believe would be achieved again in a non-lottery state program.

These Dogs did it. They won outright, no backing-in or lucking-into the SEC Championship with the first, ever true dead last to alone on top run in league baseball history. This fact alone makes 2016 worth considering for greatness. So does running through what we now know was one of the best regional fields in the ’16 NCAAs.

Speaking of which, what a wild weekend, huh? I heard 1-7 today as the score so far for national seeds and hosts in the first two days. Surely enough of them will bounce back and win through to Omaha, but it shows the unpredictable nature of the 2016 season.

And if there was an un-predicted contender in 2016, it was Mississippi State.

See, what we’ve also let forget in the frenzied fun of these past three months…is the ‘worst’ part in making the worst-to-first SEC history. Not that we like recalling how awful 2015 went, no. We just need the perspective. Or as a trio of fans I visited with upon leaving the stadium asked, rhetorically, to their peers enraged about how ’16 ended: would you rather have this season or last season?

John Cohen guarded his post-game words. It’s not just players who get emotional about such sudden endings to dream seasons. And remember, Cohen played on the team which is ‘16s closest parallel now: that ’89 bunch which beyond question rates ‘great’ and along with 1985 counts as one of the two best ball clubs ever to call DNF home.

They too won the SEC, sputtered through the league tourney 1-2, then got stumped in a home regional by the one wrong matchup at the one wrong weekend. Mercy, how history can rhyme, as old Mark Twain said it.

Let’s let Cohen give his short summary of his eighth Bulldog team. “They’re champions. They won the most difficult league, in my opinion, in the nation. They won a regional. I don’t want this to come out the wrong way but that’s not a common occurrence in the annals of Mississippi State baseball.

“I think they achieved a lot. But they wanted to get to Omaha, that was their goal and we’re one run short two days in a row…”

That close. Yet again, this was a team not projected to get this close to any sort of title or tourney victory, either. Sure, we saw some encouraging summer statistics and recognitions. Fall ball showed some struggling ’15 regulars were not only better but bigger and healthier. Oh, and that those newcomers, the jucos and the freshmen, were going to be really good ballplayers.

I’m not claiming any special insight. But watching a scrimmage I came away and told a MSU admin that if there wasn’t a pure position in the lineup for him, then State needed to make-up one for that Mangum kid somehow.

Ultimately, they did. And an update: Jake Mangum ended his freshman, make that SEC Freshman of the Year and Freshman All-American year hiting .4077. That was up on Texas A&M’s Boomer White who was 2-of-9 in the Aggie super regional after two games. Mangum is bidding to be the fourth freshman to lead the Bulldogs in batting and, best I can tell, the first State freshman ever to do so.

If not for his youth Mangum would certainly have been snapped up in the just-ended MLB draft. Eleven of his elders were, an all-time record at State. And again for contrast, remember: there were no Bulldogs drafted in 2015. None. For the first time since 1976. From zero to a record draft class? That might be as meaningful a feat as worst-to-first, come to think of it.

Still, much as fall and preseason looks liked Mangum, Nate Lowe, Jack Kruger, Hunter Stovall, et.al.,; and for all the encouragement in healthy Gavin Collins and Reid Humphreys and such offered…did anyone outside the locker room really think the club could contend for the SEC crown?

Not that it mattered what we outside thought. What those inside believed, mattered. They spoke their goals in February. Then, they went out and did it. Sure, I recall social media moaning after those losses on opening weekend. And oh, the woe when State stumbled against Eastern Kentucky and Oral Roberts days before opening SEC season.

I and my media peers had to mute or block quite a few Twitter twits after those losses. Good thing I’m not vengeful enough to dredge-up their prolonged proclamations that this team wouldn’t make Hoover, much less the NCAAs and host. It’d be fun, though…

Anyway. The entire season’s tone, or maybe I should say tune since it happened in Music City, was set days later. That extra-inning victory at Vanderbilt, followed by a game-two win, can’t be over-emphasized. It also exemplified just how weird and wonderful this game is…the biggest hit of the game and thus maybe season came from Cole Gordon for the go-ahead RBI. Gordon would have only seven more ABs the rest of the year and two meaningless hits! Yet this is college baseball in all its stupefying glory and grit. It also leads later to why expectations for 2017 should remain high.

That opening won-weekend sent these Bulldogs on to series successes with Georgia, Ole Miss, and most impressively to me both at Florida and at LSU. The stumble-sweeping by A&M proved an aberration, fortunately. If any club in any conference played a tougher and better first-half league schedule, I want proof. What looked in winter like a pure-brutal slate assigned by a sadistic SEC Office actually served to meld a ball club that was better than its individual parts.

And those parts were pretty Dog-goned good as the post-season honors list and draft days proved. At my age and tenure maybe I should question the concept of ‘chemistry’ in sports teams. But I don’t. I’ve seen it before and just saw it again. The 2016 team had the chemistry. It had to because some good ball players accepted backup or reserve roles without any observed irritations. Winning mattered that much.

Alright. Summary time. This team did in some sense overachieve by winning their SEC Champoinship, first here since yes again 1989; and topping even that team’s total league victories with 21. Maybe, maybe a tough grader can say it underachieved in spots; and since the spot that claims the spot-light is hosting as a national seed that’s how some will choose to remember the team. I won’t argue either way.

I will say, despite the draft damage to the varsity roster and losing some of the very best high school signees, there is no reason to forecast a big drop-off in 2017.

Wait, what? Lose two-thirds of the regular rotation as well as the arm which had just moved into that third slot? Lose the best left-side reliever? Lose at least three of the leading extra-base batting threats and RBI producers? Lose the fastest centerfielder if not player in the college game? And no big drop-off?

Nope. There shouldn’t be. Some retrenchment, surely, since several Dogs are going to have to raise their games, take on larger roles and responsibilities, and just plain play more innings. By the way, any who wonder why Dakota Hudson and Mangum lapsed this late in the year should think. Hudson went from 16 innings as a sophomore to 113 this year. The wonder is he held-up so long, so strong.

And Mangum, he went from high school to SEC starter…but he didn’t become a regular until mid-March. In retrospect his limited early-season innings let him last this long once he did go every-day for 43 games. Now, he also knows how to break a bad habit of slashing at pitches out of the zone and will come back in ’17 a proven SEC star.

He’s one reason next season should be good again. If, as fingers-crossed-hopes hold, Brent Rooker and Jack Kruger pass on the draft and come back for senior years to have college fun, the middle of the order behind Mangum is solid. Plug-in a healthy Luke Alexander after his off-season wrist fix, a matured Gordon on one corner or the other, figure out where to put Stovall—a truly versatile and exciting talent—and plug in the recruiting class; and that’s a lineup to like. A lot.

Oh, and here’s one area where ’17 needs to be better. Yes, Mississippi State was the SEC’s second-best order in batting average. That’s a terrific turnaround in itself. But…they should have scored more runs to my mind.

In fact, I’ve done a little fast number-crunching. It’s nothing in-depth, and a real metrics master could do a real job here. Still, by my math State averaged 0.59 runs-per-base hit. To compare, Texas A&M has scored 0.66 runs for every hit. Ole Miss was also 0.66, as was Florida. Now here’s the surprise: Tennessee was 0.63 and even lowly Arkansas averaged 0.63! Haven’t done all SEC teams but Vanderbilt was at 0.73 runs-per-hit.

Yes. The Bulldogs played a week longer than Vandy and Ole Miss, while the Hogs and Vols finished in May. The point is not to compare so much as suggest, the scoring didn’t mesh quite enough with the hitting to push State on to Omaha. It’s just one idea, take it for what it’s worth if anything.

The equal point is, or at least a personal hunch, State’s overall offense could be better-balanced and matured in many ’17 ways. If not, save this and throw it in my face next June. It won’t be the first time.

While Zac Houston is the one drafted pitcher who could truly benefit with another year in school, he’s gone along with Hudson and true Bulldog grinder Austin Sexton. As is Humphreys, and we’ll forever more wonder how that hurt hand in the regional impacted his super regional stint. Please, gripe and groan all you wish about one late-game defensive move impacting the batting order; a 5-1 lead isn’t lost by batters.

I was watching the scoreboard speed readings and it was scary how suddenly and completely Humphreys fell from 95-96 in his first inning, to 91-92 the next. If he hadn’t lost time to the bruised hand, maybe those few mph would have been there to seal the deal in the ninth and we’d be playing again today. We’ll never know, but he gave what he had on the mound. It was a good ’16 story.

For ’17 the stories should be the maturing of Konnor Pilkington to build a rotation around. Then there’s no lack of candidates for the other slots. Who doesn’t love what Blake Smith showed under pressure? Next year he’s a senior and should be stronger, longer. Though he hung one pitch which will take a long time to forget, if ever, Ryan Rigby will be all the better for experience both good and bad.

We got to see enough of Ryan Cyr, Keegan James, and Jacob Billingsley this year to feel good for the future. If Ethan Small can follow Houston’s lead and suddenly find strike zones, State has a fireballing lefty to stop with. Or more.

Almost forgotten down the stretch, there’s Kale Breaux and Jared Padgett who got limited innings but enough taste to know what needs working on in summer ball now. They’re on schedule, just fine.

I’m not gonna run through everyone, everywhere here. Much less break down the incoming class, that’s for Gene Swindoll to project now that the draft is done. All that needs saying now is, Mississippi State will have a good baseball team in 2017. Probably a very good one and perhaps…? Or is it a better way to say it, that the boom-and-bust cycle seems finished and the program could become consistent? Time will tell.

And speaking of time… A naughty trade secret, and one I suspect more’n a few fans share but don’t admit, is that the best thing about college baseball is the worst thing that can happen is this.

Summer has begun. Vacation time. Relax and refresh time. That’s OK, you don’t have to publicly agree, we know. Goodness knows all-around Bulldog fans need to rest-up after the sports year we’ve just completed.

There was a near-beating in the media room in the wee hours of this morning. The young punk of our cozy press corps not once but twice reminded that SEC Media Days is now exactly a month away.

That merited a thorough thrashing…but we all were too tired to whup him.


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