Like, 29 innings in ultra-uncomfortable conditions. And a truer test than even Andy Cannizaro expected in their first real ‘series’ of the young season. “This was an outstanding preparation,” Mississippi State’s coach said.
Outstanding in every aspect but one. After three intense contests, all settled by a single run and even a single swing, the Bulldogs were edged out twice by Oregon. The host team took Friday 1-0 with the lone score coming on a mid-game home run. Mississippi State evened things up turning a 2-0 deficit into a 5-4 Saturday win.
So Sunday naturally had to top that, even as the thermometer bottomed-out. The Bulldogs did rally from a fast 4-0 hole and briefly led before the Ducks forced it into 11 innings with a 6-5 final. At which both ball clubs headed for shelter, and State to prepare for Monday’s return to campus.
Chalk up a couple of tests passed for the Southern squad, Cannizaro said. “All in all we would have liked to have won the series. But in terms of going on the road and winning a game I thought that was big for us.”
Instead Mississippi State (6-5) returns wondering what one or two other things they could have done to change either or both of the losses. In each, the Dogs had two runners on in their last at-bats ready to tie and/or take leads into the bottom of the final frames.
By same token, twice Cannizaro watched his team limit damage and then take leads. Once it held up, the other not. The takeaway? “It really is a resilient group,” Cannizaro said. In the process coach and club achieved another goal of going far, far from home this early. “An opportunity to see what we’re made of.”
Then, what is this ’17 State squad made up of?
One obvious piece is LHP Konnor Pilkington’s place, first in the pitching plans. His 7.0 Friday innings with just the one home run-hack among five hits and seven strikeouts showed the sophomore is on-track to toss the opening pitch of SEC season.
“You saw what he is going to be able to do for us this year,” Cannizaro said. “I am really happy Konnor will be going for us on Friday nights. He gives us a chance every time out.”
As for the rest of the taking-shape rotation, RHP Peyton Plumlee took some Saturday knocks but not any loss. The soph righty battled in less-than-ideal conditions for nearly five innings and if unable to shut down the Ducks Plumlee did keep the score close enough.
Sunday was another issue. In one way the rotation worked-out exactly as planned, as RHP Graham Ashcraft didn’t have to throw any relief the first two days. This kept the freshman in a starting role. But Oregon hit Ashcraft for four runs on six hits in just 1.2 innings.
Does this change anything? Perhaps and equally perhaps not. The hard-throwing Ashcraft remains very much an early-weekend relief option; and if not used thus Cannizaro and Gary Henderson keep confidence this kid can start Sundays. Reading too much into one weekend is risky any season and especially so this one with a new coaching approach and so many un-settled situations.
The twist to this first real series was a much, much stronger showing from the bullpen Bulldogs. Relievers ended up working 14.0 of the innings and allowed just five or Oregon’s 24 base hits. The collective ERA was an eye-opening 1.93, which is even more impressive seeing relievers were always thrust into high-pressure situations in hostile conditions.
By comparison, the starters posted a 4.15 ERA and that was biased downwards by Pilkington’s strong evening. So compared to the first two home weekends, the Bulldog bullpen comes back home with much more confidence. The biggest beneficiary was veteran Ryan Cyr. Having been tagged for nine runs in his two Sunday starts, Cyr replaced Ashcraft and worked 5.2 innings with just one run on two hits while striking out seven. “That’s what we were looking for from him,” Cannizaro said.
Does this send Cyr back into a starting spot? Does it matter? Probably not immediately with one more four-game weekend ahead. A week later at Arkansas might be another case but at same time having Cyr and Ashcraft both able to start or sub is a positive for everyone. State certainly seems settled on keeping reliable RHP Riley Self in the pen, too, even as he looks completely capable of starting too.
It wasn’t a lot of fun at times but after dominating the stat sheet two weeks Bulldog batting needed a real test. They got it.
Oregon pitching attacked and produced 40 strikeouts in the 29 innings. Dogs fanned 18 times Friday, 13 more Sunday and the link to losing was obvious. So was the fact that in both defeats, no Bulldog worked a walk.
However, this also is a little bit of a clue. There were not a lot of called strikeouts any day. Dogs may have missed but they were going down swinging. If the cost was not taking some possible ball-fours, so be it.
Also, and this will startle many, Mississippi State still batted at a .316 rate for the series compared to .241 for the home team. There was no lack of aggression with the sticks. The top-four in the order was as productive as before, too, a combined 21-of-52.
Leadoff Dog CF Jake Mangum ran his hitting streak to 25 games and went 7-of-15. Three-hole batter SS Ryan Gridley was 5-of-12, and cleanup Dog RF/DH Brent Rooker stayed hot at 6-of-12.
This does point up a concern about the last-half of the order of course. A positive sign was 2B Hunter Stovall’s return to action after a hamstring problem. He didn’t hit the first two games but Sunday was 2-of-5 in the nine-hole.
Yet between Rooker and Stovall it wasn’t a complete void. Cannizaro was pleased with C Josh Lovelady’s clutch Saturday work with two key RBI in the comeback. 1B Harrison Bragg came off the bench that day to go 3-of-3 and score twice, too. There also was the increased duty given to soph OF Elijah MacNamee, as he got two starts in rightfield. That field and left as well continue to alternate with Tanner Poole and Brant Blaylock, allowing Rooker to stick to DH.
“We pitched it well, defended well, picked up a bunch of hits,” Cannizaro said. “We just weren’t able to score enough runs in the end.” But this was exactly why the coach wanted to play a real three-game weekend series. “That’s going to prepare your team for SEC play better than anything we could have done at home.”
The Bulldogs had a long trip back Monday, and a short turnaround before Tuesday’s 6:30 home game with Louisiana Tech, now coached by former John Cohen aide Lane Burroughs.
“They’re an outstanding club, a regional club from a year ago,” Cannizaro said. “They’re an older, junior-college laden team we know is going to show up and expect to win the game.” Mississippi State had not named a Tuesday starter as of 2:00 Monday.
Then it is the final four-game weekend of pre-league play, and a last chance to evaluate all sorts of combinations and matchups. In, Cannizaro said, a much more familiar and hopefully warmer setting.