(Konnor Pilkington) Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Shoring-Up Bullpen Roles Key to Coming SEC Season; Injuries to Smith, Rigby Shorten Road Roster

As the Diamond Dogs make their cross-country trip, most players will be watching movies, scarfing snacks, reading, napping…killing flight time. Their coach? Andy Cannizaro’s mental wheels will be turning turbine-fast.

“There’s several things I’ve kind of got going on in my mind right now.”

It’s a long way to go and a short time to get some things settled for Mississippi State ahead of the weekend series with Oregon. Settled in pitching terms, that is, and most specifically “Things to strengthen the back-end for us,” Cannizaro said.

“We have to find guys that can pitch at the end of a ball game.”

To be fair all Bulldog pitching remains a work in progress. After two weekends and nine games Mississippi State’s staff ERA of 5.31 is not a strong start. Or relief or close or whatever. It also contrasts with the early and encouraging success from Bulldog batters. This re-vamped offense is averaging .313 and has already knocked around 34 extra-base hits in 319 official at-bats.

So scoring has not been a Bulldog issue so far. Pitching is another matter.

It certainly was in week-two with one blown big lead for a loss; another last-inning outburst allowed; then a Sunday shelling the offense couldn’t quite overcome with its own late rally.

Every aware fan surveying the 2016 draft damage, as well as knowing the names of expected pitchers lost long before ’17 to surgeries, anticipated some starting struggles this year. But the Bulldog bullpen was expected to be a strong point. So, with two weekends left before SEC season, Cannizaro and Gary Henderson are focused on that larger part of the staff roster.

“Everything has the full priority of strengthening that bullpen to keep the score down and get better on the mound,” said Cannizaro.

To that end, Mississippi State is only setting starters for the first two days in Eugene. LHP Konnor Pilkington (1-1, 3.18) has the usual game-one job; and RHP Peyton Plumlee (2-0, 0.64) Saturday.

“And we’re just going to TBA Sunday right now,” Cannizaro said.

This is not because there is no clear third starting option. State has one. Maybe two, though RHP Ryan Cyr (0-1, 13.50) has only managed six innings in two game-four starts the past two weekends. But RHP Graham Ashcraft (1-0, 5.00) has been developed as a freshman starter all along…

…or until now. “Graham is going to be in a floating type of role right now,” Cannizaro said. Not drifting, floating between the bullpen on Friday or Saturday (maybe even Friday AND Saturday if that is the matchup); and if not used either day to start Sundays.

Cannizaro does not at all see this as a demotion for the hard-throwing Ashcraft at all. “It’s more of a promotion for him,” the coach said. “I know I can bring him out of the bullpen and attack guys with a 96-98 fastball and a sharp slider and shorten a game with Pilkington and Plumlee starting.”

And if not needed, well, that firepower is fresh for game-threes. In that aspect, this weekend trip is extremely well-timed. It isn’t a four-game deal so Henderson doesn’t need to save a fourth starter, obviously. It also is a test run of sorts for SEC season ahead.

Though not a heat-thrower on the same scale, RHP Riley Self (1-0, 0.96) has been solid. Some suggest he might make a fine starter, too. For now coaches like Self best in either long or short relief settings. RHP Spencer Price (1-0, 3.86) is settling in as the regular stopper. So if Pilkington and Plumlee can get, say, two-thirds of a game done, State has the option of saving Ashcraft in reserve.

But… “We have to find more guys than that that can pitch at the back end of a ball game,” Cannizaro said. “This is a long season. If I keep going to the whip with Riley and Spencer three times on a weekend, then we’re going to get into SEC play and they’re going to be on fumes halfway through the season.”

This is an increasingly serious situation too with more injuries adding-up. State was already short five pitchers from surgeries. All are supposed to be ready for 2018.

Now two ’17 pitchers are down. RHP Blake Smith (0-1, 18.00), one of the few roster seniors, is having his throwing elbow examined again. Cannizaro said Tuesday there was nothing to announce “Other than there is something going on with his elbow. He’s going to be down for the foreseeable future so I’d expect to move forward without Blake.”

Meanwhile the groin condition which hampered RHP Ryan Rigby all fall seemed to be taken care of. The veteran entered to throw two innings the first weekend and threw well, Cannizaro said.

“Then the next morning he could barely walk. We have to find out what is going on with him. That’s two key pieces to your bullpen.” Which means several other, healthy arms have to rise to the larger opportunity now and fill gaps in middle or matchup roles. “If the back end becomes strong, we start talking about a three-headed monster with Graham Ashcraft, Spencer Price, and Riley Self.”

“It’s important to develop guys on the mound where we can’t have to keep going to them every time we get a lead. We’re going to need those guys’ bullets in SEC play and need them fresh.”

Mississippi State (6-3) will spend Wednesday on travel, and have Thursday practice plans. They won’t like the weather much as the Eugene forecast is typically late-winter cloudy and chilly, and precipitation of some sort every day.


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