“It’s all hands on deck,” the Bulldog coach said. “Who feels good, who hasn’t thrown too many pitches lately, and all those things.”
Or all the hands and things Cannizaro can cobble-together as Mississippi State hosts Tennessee for the coming weekend. The first home SEC weekend, too, after the Bulldogs (12-10, 0-3) were swept at Arkansas to begin league play. Tennessee (13-5, 0-3) also were broomed in their opening weekend, at home by South Carolina.
The SEC season is long, certainly. But falling too far behind in March is a dangerous way to start for anyone. For a Mississippi State team already in the hole, and coping with a roster reduced by injuries and other issues, this weekend is suddenly crucial.
Not that first-year head coach Cannizaro presents things in such terms. “I’m excited to get back home in front of our fans again. It will be a tremendous weekend of baseball,” he said. “We’re going to use last weekend as a learning experience and hopefully grow from that as a team.”
Growing a ball team isn’t easy with a shrunken roster. There are no new injuries to report fortunately, and getting C Josh Lovelady back to health has doubled the backstops available as C Elih Marrero remains suspended and not participating. Lovelady has also hit the ball better since returning.
But after starting again last Friday, 2B Hunter Stovall has aggravated that hamstring problem and missed three more games. Cannizaro ruled him out for this weekend as well. “The best thing is get treatment. We feel it’s getting closer to being able to play at full-speed again.”
Mississippi State will also have CF/LHP Jake Mangum back in good graces after serving a one-game Tuesday suspension.
“Jake will play centerfield and lead off against Tennessee. I’m looking forward to him being the All-American he has been.” Though, the sophomore’s form has fallen-off at the plate to ---- since getting real pitching duties this month.
Cannizaro and pitching coach Gary Henderson have had little choice in this. The mound crew has been devastated going back to last summer’s round of surgeries and more since. A pair of righty regulars expected to see weekly work is out for now and maybe the long term in Ryan Rigby and Blake Smith. Cannizaro said Rigby’s status will be updated; he was more ominous saying “We’ll know something definite with (Smith) soon as well.”
RHP Ryan Cyr is definitely done, dismissed this week for violating a team rule. A starter the first two weekends and long-reliever four other games, this depletes the staff further.
“We are piecing this thing together,” Cannizaro said.
The one pitching piece State can count on is LHP Konnor Pilkington (2-3, 2.12). He has opened every weekend and will do so again here. The sophomore is having a special season under pressure with 46 strikeouts against just eight walks, and a .174 average.
From there? “TBA the rest of the weekend,” said Cannizaro. This is a change as RHP Peyton Plumlee (2-1, 3.51) has handled game-twos in both true three-game sets so far. Nothing is wrong with the sophomore transfer. He certainly is the leading choice for Saturday…unless State is thinking he has an even better chance of success in game-three?
Still somebody has to start each day. Several have tried their hand so far such as RHP Graham Ashcraft (2-0, 5.94), RHP Jacob Billingsley (----), and even Mangum (1-1, 4.76) at Arkansas. All also are very much in relief roles, particularly Ashcraft.
Cannizaro and Henderson are only going to plan as far as 6:30 Friday and let the series play-out from there.
“I wish we had a healthy staff where I could give you Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday,” Cannizaro said. “This is my closer, this our set-up guy, our middle-relief guy, our left-on-left specialist. All those things I dream about as a head coach. But the reality is we’re not deep enough to do that.”
The added aspect is just how badly the Bulldog relief staff now needs Pilkington, Plumlee, et.al. to go deeper into games. For that matter Cannizaro said middle-relievers must expect to stay on the hill a while and even work out of their own jams.
“I’m not going to over-use guys and burn-out Spencer Price (2-1, 2.25) and Riley Self (2-0, 3.07). Those are the two that have been locked-down in back of the bullpen, but you can’t go to those guys every day. Other guys have to carry those innings and get guys out.”
By same token Bulldog batters must stop getting out so often and of late so easily. The hard-hitting lineup of early weeks is still swinging and now missing. For an offense meant to put baseballs in play any way possible this is the worst practical result.
Strikeouts have infected the top-half of the order as well, so nobody is excused by the coach. Not even RF/1B Brent Rooker (.430, 6 HR, 32 RBI), who leads the SEC in average, slugging, on-base percentage, doubles, total bases…and stolen bases. In Mangum’s Tuesday absence the clean-up batter hit leadoff.
Which is not what Cannizaro wants. Like a whole lot else at the moment, this was a forced adjustment. It is not an excuse though.
“It’s a matter of cutting down on strikeouts, putting the ball in play with two strikes, executing pitch in a pressure situation. Starting a double-play to get out of an inning. Backing up the right base, not going brain-dead on the field.
“All the little things we need to get better at. And once we clean up those things and start playing a complete nine innings of competitive baseball, we’re going to start winning these close games.”