Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Cannizaro, Bulldogs Setting Up for Opening Weekend; Pilkington Draws Friday Start vs Texas Tech

The first pitch is six days away and already Mississippi State is exceeding Andy Cannizaro’s expectations of the job.

“I always had a feeling this was an incredible place for college baseball. It’s been even better than I anticipated.”

Keep in mind, the first-year Diamond Dog coach is only talking about getting settled-in to his new job. Getting to know his 2017 team. Scrimmaging for a couple of weeks with one more to go. If this is incredible…what will 4:00 next Friday be like?

“I’ve been out of the game seven years,” Cannizaro grinned. “But opening day I might run out there to shortstop and take ground balls with Ryan Gridley.”

Well, whatever the skipper does during warmups, come game time he will be in the Bulldog dugout and Konnor Pilkington will be on the mound facing Texas Tech. The opening weekend finds Mississippi State hosting both the Red Raiders and Western Illinois, with four games for the home team over three days.

Cannizaro and requested Bulldogs met with media before Fan Day and another afternoon scrimmage. These intrasquads are not mere tune-ups either. As the season looms Cannizaro and staff are still settling lineup plans and possibilities for the full 36 innings ahead. “Creating completion every day is the best way we can do this.”

Yet even with continuing competition for innings, at-bats, daily spots and pinch-settings, most of the opening day lineup seems set. The starting pitcher certainly is. Sophomore lefthander Pilkington (3-1, 2.08 in 2016) will throw the first strike.

“He will be the next great Mississippi State pitcher,” Cannizaro proclaimed.

From there? The pre-SEC weekend starters are strictly TBA. “If I knew who was our Saturday-Sunday starter was going to be, I promise you I’d let you know!” said the coach. He did indicate that this first Saturday RHP Ryan Cyr (1-1, 1.04) is very likely to have the ball in one of the games. After that several candidates keep contending, including likely starting first baseman Cole Gordon who hasn’t tossed for-real since high school in 2014 but has turned in some solid scrimmage innings.

New pitching coach Gary Henderson has plenty of relief choices, with these February and early-March games key to setting some specific roles. Cannizaro does say RHP Ryan Rigby, RHP Blake Smith, and RHP Spencer Price right now are the leaders for late innings and closing duties.

Who they throw to will change, maybe daily. “The catching position might be the single most important position on the field,” Cannizaro said. “We go three-deep behind the plate right now.”

A healthy Josh Lovelady leads the list, with his strengths being leadership and a better grasp of how to handle a pitching staff. 2016 co-starter Elih Marrero is the most athletic backstop and has been gunning down runners regularly in scrimmage situations. But freshman Dustin Skelton, also a third base option, has shown strong offensive potential.

“I anticipate all three playing for us next weekend,” Cannizaro said. Though whether they take turns starting, or sub-in and -out for matchups or pitchers or whatever is all to be seen.

Defensively the infield has taken shape nicely. Luke Alexander has committed to third base, as well as hitting only right-handed this year. Gridley didn’t just break into the ’16 lineup at shortstop, he grabbed that job and kept it. He is also 100% healthy after years of left knee issues which did not impact his fielding but was a factor at the plate.

Now, “I really believe Ryan is going to be one of the surprise breakout players in the SEC this year,” Cannizaro said. This meaning much more offense after batting .284 a year ago. Gridley is even showing real power in practice now to go with the gap-doubles.

Though there has been lots of scrimmage testing at second base, sophomore Hunter Stovall has fended off everyone so far. “He’s a gritty player who loves to play the game,” the coach said. Stovall also had some mid-season health issues as a freshman but when full-speed he can sting the ball, get on base, and keep moving.

“First base has several options,” Cannizaro said. “Two guys who are going to get the bulk of the time are Cole Gordon and Cody Brown.” Gordon of course has been groomed for this job and is a much-improved fielder of hit and thrown balls alike. He’s not a finished product with the glove though, and pitching means another Dog has to be on call daily.

After getting a look at middle-infield senior Brown has settled in on this corner and gotten comfortable. He’s also a lefthander like Gordon in a right-heavy infield.

Gordon’s other trump card is power, and in scrimmages he and RF Brent Rooker have each slugged five homers. All-American as a rookie, now-soph OF Jake Mangum is poised for even greater things after leading the SEC in hitting. Cannizaro reports Mangum gets about twice as much BP as any other Dog daily since he is serious about improving his right-side swinging.

Leaving him in centerfield is the obvious call…except redshirted junior Tanner Poole has even more range. Poole is likely to find time there too because Mangum will have a role in left-handed relief pitching. Cannizaro said he was skeptical until Mangum got on the hill and “the first bullet was 92.” Like his predecessor and now boss John Cohen, Cannizaro is already thinking of bringing Mangum in for specific situations in late game; then sending him back to the outfield immediately.

From the day he arrived at Dudy Noble Field this new coach has lived up to his reputation for aggressive offensive approach. He repeats it now, with even more emphasis.

“We are going to play the game offensively. We’re going to put pressure on the defense, we’re going to put the ball in play, we are not going to strike out.”

Not fan while attacking good pitching? It seems a contradiction, until hearing Cannizaro’s reasoning. First, “I believe the defense has to handle the baseball.” This coach doesn’t care of opponents know he expects them to make mistakes off Bulldog batters. That is the idea.

It worked well for his two years at LSU where the Tigers had the least strikeouts in the league whatever the count. Besides, “Once you get to two strikes, it’s going to be a fist-fight in the batters box. It becomes a pride thing.”

That pride applies to Bulldog pitchers and defenders just as much. Cannizaro and Henderson want to make the other orders put the ball in play where it can be gloved and thrown. Routinely, at that.

“We want to play good ‘catch’,” Cannizaro said. “That means keep it simple. I’m not looking for web gem plays.” Of course if State’s glovemen do come up with jewels, so much the better.

In build-up to the season, Mississippi State is not getting the attention or rankings that a defending SEC Champion club should. Cannizaro understands. That team lost a program-record dozen Dogs to professional baseball with the starting staff taking the biggest hits. National analysts may have heard some of the names other than Mangum and Rooker and perhaps Pilkington. They just need convincing about the rest of the lineup and rotation.

What they can’t know without having really watched the ’16 team is there are more veterans than recognized. They couldn’t have seen any of the redshirts, and only know the rookies and transfers by reputations. So, while a preseason ranking is always nice…it isn’t necessary.

“What I can tell everybody is that there are players on this team that are going to be the next stars at Mississippi State,” Cannizaro promised. “The fact we’re not in any top-25 polls, that’s a perfect spot for us.

“And trust me. Our expectations don’t change.”

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