“Last year we’re 12-5-1 going into SEC play,” Mangum said. “This year we’re 12-6.”
It is a fair and accurate point. After pre-league struggles that ’16 squad stormed to a SEC Championship, as then-rookie Mangum and all older Dogs well remember. Still this is a new year and a much-different Mississippi State squad.
Oh, and under new management as well. Andy Cannizaro puts his first State squad on a conference diamond for the first time Friday.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge, the opportunity of playing a really good Arkansas team and go see what we’re made of.”
Of course the Bulldogs have had a month already to learn lots about themselves. As that record shows pre-league play has brought very mixed results. This includes two losses in the only true series played so far, a split at Oregon with three one-run finals. That was part of a stretch where State lost four one-run decisions with such midweek setbacks.
Since then the Bulldogs have bounced back with five wins to change momentum. Attitudes, too. “This last week, ten days has been really good for our team,” Cannizaro said. “It’s a young team learning from all the experiences we’re going through right now.”
The learning has been painful at time. Literally so. The Bulldogs came into the season short-handed already, most notably on the mound. The pitching roster was ravaged by summer, fall, and winter surgeries State at least knew about and can count towards 2018.
Pre- and in-season play has added more to the injury list. Some are temporary, at least hopefully. Another appears permanent for ’17 though official word hasn’t been given on LHP Kale Breaux. Nor has Cannizaro updated the status of RHP Blake Smith, expected to be a fixture in relief this season.
What the coach can say for certain is the one/two starting combo. LHP Konnor Pilkington (2-2, 1.73) has been named lead Dog for the entire season in fact.
“He really is what your Friday night ace in this league looks like,” Cannizaro said. The 33 strikeouts in 26.0 innings certainly suits, with just seven walks and a .183 average-against. That alone makes the sophomore an ace.
“And he’s that innings-eater workhorse guy. With our shorter staff right now having him as your Friday night guy is a good way to get your weekend started,” said Cannizaro.
Which is the coach calling on Pilkington and RHP Peyton Plumlee (2-0, 1.88) to devour as much of their starts as possible. Maybe more. Not only will this reduce strains on a limited middle-relief staff, but leave Cannizaro and Gary Henderson more game-three starting options.
For now, “We’ll just go TBA on Sunday, and a lot of that will depend on who is used out of the pen and what the weekend is looking like. We’re going to be able to send out somebody good and competitive on Sunday. Just, not sure who that is going to be yet.”
There is more mixed news on the pitching health front. RHP Riley Self (2-0, 2.84) has not pitched for-real since March 7 with arm soreness. The rest has done him good so Self ought be available again in long or late situations. RHP Ryan Rigby (0-1, 0.00) is another matter with that nagging groin problem. Cannizaro only rated him “50/50” for the weekend.
It isn’t just the mound crew with ailments. Second baseman and nine-hole hitter Hunter Stovall (.352) has been battling a hamstring strain and sat out the last two games. Cannizaro said treatment “three, four times a day” should have Stovall ready for Friday but chilly conditions will mean watching him closely.
C Josh Lovelady has missed the last seven games, throwing all the catching load on true freshman Dustin Skelton. Cannizaro said the older backstop could have played Tuesday against Arkansas-Pine Bluff but was held out just a little longer so he can work this weekend. And take some load at last off the rookie Skelton (.196). Third catcher Elih Marrero remains on week-to-week suspension, the coach said.
Bulldog defense has been sound whatever the lineups. Offensively, the top half of the order has been resounding. The first four are averaging a collective .384 with 72 runs scored among them.
RF/DH Brent Rooker (.431, third-best SEC) has scored 28 of those and driven in 27 more. Mangum (.403, 26 runs) leads off the order backed in turn by 3B Luke Alexander (.324) and SS Ryan Gridley (.380). And when Stovall is healthy hitting ninth, he essentially becomes part of that sequence.
The obvious challenge is getting consistent contributions from five-through-eight batters. Skelton has the excuse of just being worn-down by so many freshman innings. Others have no reasons not to be delivering, whatever combinations of outfielders Cannizaro assembles from Tanner Poole, Brant Blaylock, Elijah MacNamee, et.al. With a larger relief role taking shape 1B/RHP Cole Gordon (.161) can step aside so multi-position IF Cody Brown (.256) is in the regular lineup now.
Mangum is confident in the offense.
“I’m seeing a lot of quality at-bats strung together. A lot of guys who had a hot start are staying hot.”
Arkansas’ club average of .285 is just behind the Bulldogs’ .298 in this week’s SEC stats. What the Razorbacks do is slug the ball, with a league-leading 25 home runs. And though he’s just been in the league two years as a LSU assistant before, Cannizaro has worked a series at Baum Stadium where the balls fly out. Especially so to rightfield.
“There’s a really big jet stream there,” he said, meaning his staff has to avoid serving up something for Hogs to hit that way. “But you have to do the things you do well.”
What State can do well is starting-pitch deep enough to hand the ball to Self, RHP Graham Ashcraft (2-0), and closer RHP Spencer Price (2-1, four saves). Oh, and gets a lot of runs out of the order’s top-half and hopefully some support from the rest.
“I mean, we’ve got some guys that can get the job done,” Mangum said. “A lot of guys are starting to hit the ball really well. A lot of experience is starting to come in. I really like where we’re at going to Arkansas.”