(Photo: Brent Rooker) Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Cannizaro Keeps Competition Going into Week-Two of Schedule

Third day, fourth game into the season and already Bulldogs were having a mid-inning meeting to talk comeback. “We’d been in this situation before,” 2B Hunter Stovall said. Pausing a moment then, “Which is kind of weird.”

Weird, maybe, for the first weekend of the schedule. But if other such situations work out as this one did, it’ll be wonderful too. Or, “Awesome, just awesome!” as first-year and first-time head coach Andy Cannizaro called the debut weekend for himself and for Mississippi State.

The Diamond Dogs came out winners. Not on opening night itself, as ranked Texas Tech looked like a veteran team from the 2016 College World Series in a 5-2 final. State shook that off to beat Western Illinois 8-2 on Saturday; then shot better and last to start Sunday with a 10-9 win over WIU in eleven innings.

Then in another rematch, the Bulldogs rallied from a fast 4-0 deficit to knock off the Red Raiders 8-5. If not a perfect weekend on the scoreboard, it was close enough for the new club and coach.

“I’m really proud of our team, an outstanding effort on the weekend,” Cannizaro said. “You beat a nationally-ranked team on Sunday night after they beat you on Friday night, it says a lot about our young club.”

OF Brant Blaylock had a word for it. “Yeah, just resilient.”

Because, the Bulldogs also trailed WIU as much as 5-0 before tying, then leading, then giving the margin away. So opening weekend gave this ball team all sorts of opportunities to test themselves indivdidually and collectively. Oh, and come out ahead in the end.

“It’s good to get the wins under our belt, get that out of the way,” said Blaylock.

Some else was gotten out of the way: a roster of Bulldogs made debuts as starters, in positions or roles, or just period. One of the, true freshman RHP Riley Self, noticed.

“We had a lot of guys this weekend was kind of ‘first’ for something. First outings, first hits, times stepping on the field. So it was a big weekend for us freshmen and redshirts and newcomers.”

A big list of ‘em, too. No less than 13 first-timers of whatever classification played in the four games. Naturally the longest group was made of pitchers with nine new ones toeing the Dudy Noble Field rubber. One, RHP Peyton Plumlee, even started and picked up the game-two decision.

So did Self, though in a relief role as he went the last five frames in beating Texas Tech. True frosh LHP Graham Ashcraft went the first four innings in the game-one Sunday win. Also getting first-time relief innings were redshirt frosh Trysten Barlow and Parker Ford; true freshman Denver McQuary, and juco transfers Jacob Barton, Trey Jolly, and Spencer Price.

New faces in the field and order were OF Blaylock, a redshirt; jucos OF Tanner Poole and 3B/DH Harrison Bragg; and true frosh C Dustin Skelton. No wonder “We’re really young, we’re really inexperienced,” Cannizaro said.

But then he knew this going in. Cannizaro also knew he had a small but well-known core of returning starters, at least in the lineup/order, and a good group of experienced backups from the SEC Championship team to graft these pups onto. This has allowed Cannizaro, pitching coach Gary Henderson, Will Coggin and Mike Brown to take an intense approach to everyone’s first year together.

“We’ve talked all the time since I’ve been here, every single day is going to be a competition. We’re always looking for our starting guys. This weekend was the very first.”

The Bulldogs heard it, and liked it. Now they are living it. In fact, Blaylock said, nothing surprised them about opening weekend. “Coach prepared us. He told us this is what to expect and you’re going to get playing time.”

That confidence showed Sunday with the repeated deficits which would have challenged an all-veteran squad. Yet, “We in our hearts knew we had better talent, we just had to put it all together,” said Stovall, one of the ’16 alternates now starting. “It clicked and it happened.”

Yes, Stovall meant, better even than a ranked Tech team coming off Omaha. Given maybe one more Friday inning, the Bulldogs could have put together their first real rally and swept the weekend.

Though competition continues a goodly part of the lineup seems well-settled. Making Luke Alexander an exclusive third baseman has paid off for the sophomore. So did using him as a two-hole hitter with a .294 result and four runs scored already. SS Ryan Gridley and 2B Stovall also started all four games.

1B Cole Gordon did debut the season at first base, as expected. The rest of the weekend though he DH’d or threw relief. Three-year outfielder Cody Brown has worked to become a first-sacker and in three starts he handled the position without error. This corner looks likely to be back-and-forth for a while yet, until either one claims it with superior batting; or Gordon gets more stints on the mound; or whatever. It doesn’t seem a choice of any urgency to Cannizaro just yet.

The same holds in left field where either Blaylock or Poole started. Both were outstanding defensively, in fact Blaylock (.222 average) had a couple of Sunday ‘gets’ that will be seen in end-of-season reviews. Poole (.364) did start once in rightfield so RF Brent Rooker could rest a little but still swing at DH. Poole also was the big batter in the game-two rout of WIU with a triple, two RBI and two runs.

Everyone’s all-American CF Jake Mangum was, mostly, himself the first weekend of his second season. Mostly meaning a .412 average with ‘just’ seven hits. That reflects the incredible expectations of the best young batter to call Dudy Noble Field home in decades. Swinging first, of course, he led the team with seven of the 28 runs. Yes, one-quarter of the total came with Mangum crossing the plate.

Mangum also extended that hitting streak to end the rookie year by four more games, to 17 now.

Yet Mangum was only the second-best batter. It was Stovall putting up a 8-of-15 weekend. He even leads for now in ‘slugging’ thanks to a couple of doubles. He did it all batting ninth in all four orders.

Move him up? Not for now, Cannizaro said. “I think he’s a perfect nine-hole guy.”

This doesn’t mean things are set. Or, that the coach will make big changes immediately, either. Though Gridley was a curious three-hole pick and hit just .176, Cannizaro believes his healthy shortstop can produce in front of Rooker and the rest of the middle-order. Speaking of which, Gordon only had one hit his first weekend…but it was a biggie, his first home run coming Saturday.

The other Bulldog longball was courtesy of Blaylock against Tech on Sunday. State tallied nine extra-base hits, one more than a perfect weekend on the paths with 8-of-8 on steal tries. Wellll, almost perfect; there were a couple of Dogs picked off as well, showing just how aggressive Cannizaro wants to be getting leads and getting going.

Or as the coach has called it, lighting up the scoreboard. Gordon agrees. “And I think what happened was only a sneak preview of what we’re capable of. We have a lot of weapons.”

Mississippi State has a lot of pitchers, too. This though will take a lot more games and innings and situations to shake-out. Re: all the new arms that got turns over first weekend. Others hoped to toss Tuesday if weather allow.

These debuts weren’t one-time acts, Cannizaro stressed. “Those guys are going to pitch. All these guys made their first appearance and there’s a lot of pressure and nerves that go into that. It says a lot about their makeup and competitiveness.”

Pitting soph LHP Konnor Pilkington against the veteran and big-swing Raiders on opening night was an easy choice, even if it left the lone returning starter from ’16 with first loss of ’17. For now Pilkington seems set for Fridays. After that…

Plumlee made a good case for why he’s already opening games with 6.0 innings Saturday. Ashcraft showed flashes in the Sunday rematch with WIU for 4.0 innings, too. Reliever-turning-starter RHP Ryan Cyr didn’t enjoy his first ’17 inning Sunday with four fast runs, but showed poise to keep the deficit there for another three turns. Cannizaro is ready to give Cyr his next shot, just as he hoped (weather permitting) to put RHP Jacob Billingsley on the midweek mound.

Yet it was Self and to a little lesser extent Barton who raised eyebrows with their strong and long relief stints. Barton went 4.2 scoreless Friday turns and showed strikeout stuff; while Self finished that game before taking over in game-four against the same club and just about shutting them down again.

These Dogs would love to start of course; the four already-openers want to keep their status. Yet Plumlee speaks for all with “I just want to do my best. No matter who steps on that mound when SEC play I’m going to have their back. And I know they’ll have my back. We all want a good product as a whole.”

Scoring 46 strikeouts in 38 innings is a good product for this staff against 16 walks. The aggressiveness Cannizaro wants in the batters box and on the basepaths? Yes, that applies on the pitchers mound, too.

“We’ve got a lot of options,” the coach said. “It’s a constant competition.” Competition in practice, in midweek if the game can be played, and again this weekend with four more contests.

Perhaps the most meaningful fact to come out of opening weekend was not who did what when and where on the field. It was, who didn’t get requested for interviews or were topics of post-game questions.

Cannizaro clearly noticed. “We didn’t even talk about Jake Mangum, we didn’t talk about Brent Rooker, any of those guys. Every guy we talked about made their debut for Mississippi State this weekend.”

Now that was strange. Kind of weird, even.

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