Final Four-Game Weekend Key to Setting SEC Season Pitching Plans

Andy Cannizaro isn’t trying to hide any information. The coach is more eager than anyone to know how his Diamond Dogs will line-up for the weekend. Just, “It will truly be a work-in-progress.”

Work for sure. Progress? That will be better measured after Mississippi State completes another quartet of home games over the next three days. It begins 6:30 Friday with South Alabama, after the Jaguars play Columbia in the afternoon. State and Columbia meet at 1:00 Saturday, then it is South Alabama again in an optimistically-booked 4:00 start time.

Sunday after the Jags and Lions play, it is a scheduled 2:00 start for State and Columbia. This is the third four-game event in Mississippi State’s first four weekends, meaning the information of most interest is about pitching plans. Especially since now State (7-6) is also working around midweek games that require lots of arms.

“We’re going to attack with the same guys we’ve had, pitching in the same type of roles we used them against Oregon and Louisiana Tech,” Cannizaro said. “We’re going to keep running out to the mound the guys we have available to pitch.”

Cannizaro can name guys for those two matchups with South Alabama. It will be LHP Konnor Pilkington “Obviously Friday night,” the coach said. RHP Peyton Plumlee gets the rematch Saturday. The Columbia games are TBA and those announcements won’t be made until well after Friday’s first results are in.

“That’s what we’re willing to announce right now,” Cannizaro said. “Just trying to see who is going to be available, ready to start, those type of things.”

The Pilkington/Plumlee combo has been used all weekends so far, with soph southpaw Pilkington (1-2, 2.45) opening every time. Plumlee (2-0, 1.93) also seems to have solidified his second spot in the rotation based on the only true ‘series’ of the season so far, starting last Saturday’s win at Oregon. They are practically equal in innings for their three starts, too.

This TBA ‘plan’ reflects the ongoing search for that third surer starter. It isn’t that either RHP Graham Ashcraft (1-0, 5.73) or RHP Ryan Cyr (0-1, 7.30) can’t open a game. They can and already have out of four-game-weekend need.

Now with an eye to upcoming SEC series’ needs, Cannizaro and Gary Henderson are hoping to see a regular rotation fall into place. Or, are they? At this point the coaches don’t want to lock hard-throwing freshman Ashcraft down. Though, Cannizaro agrees, his fastball/slider stuff do suit late-game situations, as he showed in a short Tuesday matchup against Louisiana Tech.

“He can just air it out and not have to be so fine with all his pitches. I feel that role fits him perfectly right now.” Walking in to toss a 96 mph heater, then end his one batter-faced with two strong sliders, showed it. “And he was begging to go out the next inning.” Coaches said no since Ashcraft had started and struggled Sunday at Oregon. And, because he was being evaluated for what the weekend ahead needs.

“We’re going to see what kind of role he will be in,” Cannizaro said. “Moving forward I’d anticipate him coming out of the pen Friday and Saturday, maybe the possibility of starting on Sunday.”

Cyr has a couple of Sunday starts already. Not at Oregon, as he relieved a battered Ashcraft in the second inning. But Cyr supplied four-plus frames to stop the bleeding while State’s offense took a lead. It was just more data to digest as the SEC pitching plans take clearer shape.

Though, Cannizaro updated, RHP Ryan Rigby’s status just got cloudier. The proven mid-reliever has battled a groin problem since fall ball and now it has become real trouble, with a Thursday trip to the doctor.

“It’s a day-to-day thing with Rigs. Some day he feels really good, some days he has trouble walking.”

The offensive and fielding rosters are fuller-strength now. Not 100%, as C Elih Marrero remains semi-suspended for unreported reasons. Senior Josh Lovelady (.174) and freshman Dustin Skelton (.103) will continue splitting games.

Their averages show backstops haven’t given a lot of offensive support, though Lovelady did come through with the clutch hit in the win at Oregon. In fact this is a markedly ‘split’ batting order based on averages. Four of the top-five on the stat sheet hit first-through-fourth naturally; and the fifth, 2B Hunter Stovall (.364), has been batting #9.

In fact, Cannizaro set that 1-2-3-4 order on opening day and has not changed it since. Leadoff Dog CF Jake Mangum (.456) brings a 26-game hitting streak into Friday, with 3B Luke Alexander (.333) and SS Ryan Gridley (.415 swinging behind him. These Dogs get on base and provide cover for RF/DH Brent Rooker (.396) with 18 RBI already and three home runs.

Rooker will stay in clean-up. Staying in a position? Not lately as the junior alternates between rightfield and purely DHing. If anything Rooker has done more of the latter while Cannizaro picks from a trio of Tanner Poole (.194), Brant Blaylock (.189) and Elijah MacNamee (.222) for the outside outfielders.

Not surprisingly this is about defense, Cannizaro said. “We’ve got several players who are elite runners that can really defend and cover a lot of ground. It’s nice to be able to run those guys out there to defend.” However the coach said there are times these first-year varsity Dogs need to wait and watch, and Rooker’s experience in the outfield is of more use to the entire lineup.

“But at the same time if you can DH Rooker you have a chance to have a really athletic team that has a chance to hit some home runs and drive runs in.” There is a little bit of matchup option too; where both Poole and Blaylock hit right side MacNamee is a lefthander.

South Alabama (7-5) is a familiar foe to old Dogs. The schools have played 68 times since 1976, including a 7-3 Bulldog win last spring. Cannizaro is a relatively new coach but he knows Jaguar baseball well, and praises fifth-year Coach Mark Calvi for “resurrecting” their program with three Sun Belt Conference championships in four seasons.

South Alabama is coming off a seven-inning rout of Auburn, “and earlier this year I think they scored five touchdowns against somebody.” That was Eastern Illinois with a 32-0 final.

“They are one of the best teams in the country and doing some gigantic things this year. We have a tremendous battle ahead.”

Columbia is 0-3 having just opened its season last weekend with a snowbird-series at Florida. The Gators swept by scores of 7-0, 7-2, and 8-4.

Mississippi State doesn’t exactly have a head of steam coming into this final pre-SEC weekend. The Bulldogs have played five-straight games settled by a single run. Four were losses, including Tuesday’s late-innings rally by #24 Louisiana Tech. So their first-year coach sees a club “capable of beating anybody right now. We are capable of losing to anybody right now. We just have to learn how to win those close ball games.”

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