Jake Mangum (Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page)

Hot Dog Offense Faces Test in Chilly Oregon Conditions

He’s currently hitting .474, and is coming off a league-leading freshman season. So naturally Jake Mangum isn’t satisfied.

“It’s just working every day on keeping your swing right. You just keep closing holes in your swing.”

The idea Mississippi State’s sophomore star has any opening at the plate will surely surprise. Here’s a Bulldog who not only bats his way onto base routinely, but also can turn an infield chopper into a scratch single. Or absorb a plunking (though he’s learned a painful lesson on that approach lately).

Nine games into the second Mississippi State season and this leadoff Dog is reaching at a 56% rate. And yet he talks of closing holes in his hacks?

Yes. He does, and he is.

“People keep working your different. So that’s why you have to close holes in your swing. They’re going to find it. As much scouting reports and video as there is on hitters, you’re going to see what people struggle with.”

As the stat sheet shows there isn’t a whole lot Mangum misses. Or that pitchers get past his hot bat. While nobody will expect him to continue connecting at a .474 average over a whole season, surpassing his freshman league-leading .408 is a real goal.

Especially so if the rest of this Bulldog order keeps up their own early pace. Check what the 2-3-4 batters are doing so far. Luke Alexander at .378; Ryan Gridley .447; and Brent Rooker .394. The latter is coming off a SEC Player of the Week weekend himself with three homers and 14 RBI. Though, Gridley could just as easily earned the honor on his own four-game average.

Which is actually part of the larger early-season story: that trio of State swingers, as well as a gimpy comrade held-out over the second weekend, have been getting the attention and honors. Not Mangum, whose efficiency is almost assumed nowadays. Fine by Mangum.

“Rooker is seeing the ball really well. Gridley had a tremendous weekend, L.A. had a great weekend. And Stovie didn’t play, he’s hitting .600!” Actually .500 even for Hunter Stovall, who had to sit out the weekend with a hamstring but is expected to be back in the order and the nine-slot Friday.

Regardless, “There’s a lot of talent and Coach has done a tremendous job of getting them ready,” Mangum said.

Coach as in Andy Cannizaro. His hiring last fall sent a signal Mississippi State was really going on the offensive again. Early results affirm this idea. The Bulldogs have averaged 8.4 runs and scored eight or more in eight-straight games for the first time since 1999. Back when the bats were lots livelier and pitchers lived in fear.

Now the 2017 team is off to a frightening start of its own, leading the SEC in runs, RBI, home runs, etc. and so on. This is an order, remember, that had to replace a lot of the average and most of the power from the 2016 SEC Champions.

So, “Coach Canni has done a tremendous job with the hitters,” Mangum said. “We spend a lot of time on it, too.” As reflected by Mangum’s own focus on closing perceived holes. Of course pitchers already are antsy facing the leadoff Dog. But having to fret letting him reach with that order behind Mangum?

“Having those guys in the lineup with you helps tremendously. They don’t want to walk you.”

Once on first base most Dogs don’t intend to stop there. This is also the SEC’s top team for steals after two weekends, 23-of-26. For reference last year’s league champs only tried 68 steals all season. This is the Cannizaro difference.

“Oh, he’s an aggressive coach,” Mangum said. “He loves running.” So much that every Dog has the green light. Most notably Rooker who is 8-of-8. “And I think his career he’s 2-for-3 stealing bases!” Mangum reminds. “Gridley has like six steals. We’re going to run. We’re going to run a lot.”

The Bulldogs want to run this weekend too, but conditions aren’t looking ideal as of now. First, the weather for their three-day series in Eugene, Ore., is overcast, chilly, and wet. Maybe very wet.

Second? It’s that home team. Oregon (4-3) is as Cannizaro says a classic west coast club. They pitch, they defend, and they control running games. In seven games there have been just five steal-attempts against Duck defense…which is a typical game quota for the Bulldogs.

Mangum was just breaking into his own rookie season as part of the ’16 squad which scored an unexpected sweep of Oregon in Starkville. That Duck team struggled the rest of the year to go 29-26 and it was Mississippi State that started the struggles. Thus Mangum anticipates a bit of revenge motive from the home team this rematch.

As far as the bigger Bulldog picture, this weekend is something of a sneak-preview of how Cannizaro and staff will approach conference play. This is the only true three-game series with the rest of the pre-league weekends being four-game affairs. So it’s a valuable test, Mangum thinks.

“A lot of the first-year guys have never been a part of a SEC weekend. So this will be their first taste of what a true weekend will be like in the league. It’s a little different and you have to get your rotation, your starters set up. And you have to get some guys step up in the batters box, too.”

Or as February has already show, in the bullpen too. Which leads to the question, when will Mangum make his mound debut as a Dog? He’s a left-handed option for relief work and matchups and has practiced pitching fall and preseason. If not for taking a 92-mph fastball off his hamstring Mangum might well have gotten the ball this past weekend.

He said the hammy is feeling fine now. “I’m just staying ready. If my name is called I’ll try to come in and throw strikes.”

Mostly though, Mangum will keep hitting strikes. And closing whatever holes might be there.

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