Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Senior Catcher Finds His Groove At and Behind the Dish

A weekend full of hitting and scoring and winning? That certainly was a change for the Bulldog better…but it was not a surprise to the squad itself. “We were waiting for that explosion to happen,” Josh Lovelady said.

Mississippi State’s offense does seem to be blowing up again. At a fine time, too. After a struggling spell the bats are back and the Bulldogs playing with renewed confidence.

“The dynamic of the lineup is good,” said Lovelady.

Lovelady himself has a pretty good dynamic going of late. He arrives in Oxford for the upcoming conference series averaging .300 even, and on a hot streak too.

In Tuesday’s win over Memphis at AutoZone Park the senior catcher went 2-of-4. Lovelady’s two-run double pushed the Bulldog lead out to 5-0 after just one inning and en route to an 8-3 final. This came after a .500 swinging show over the weekend when Lovelady went 4-of-8 in Mississippi State’s sweep of Tennessee.

This, Lovelady said, is what he expected of himself now that he is back in action. Lovelady missed all but the first four games of 2016, remember. A torn knee ligament sidelined him during the SEC Championship run.

Now here he is at full-strength for the senior season and showing why as a 2015 transfer he started 20 of the 24 games as alternate catcher. Lovelady was already being counted on by new coach Andy Cannizaro to take care of catching, and in this he’s done just fine with only one error in 14 games played.

The bat was slower to rehab, so to speak. “For me it was just kind of being consistent for our team,” Lovelady said. Consistency took time, and an interruption as a minor ailment sidelined Lovelady for nearly two weeks. Though, he did have the key two-run Saturday single for what was State’s win in the Oregon trip.

Still after the Arkansas series where the Dogs were swept Lovelady was batting just .160. Since then? Only 8-of-15 with six RBI, and four victories as well.

“It’s doing what I need to do,” Lovelady said. “If it’s bunt, do that. Hit-and-run, do that. If it’s two outs in the late game and there’s guys on second and third do what you can to knock them in.”

Late game or whenever, there have been more guys on bases since State’s sticks heated up. Make that more guys from middle-order. The top group has produced all season of course, though Cannizaro made a semi-shakeup last week by shifting big-hit cleanup Dog Brent Rooker to second in the order, behind leadoff and leading hitter Jake Mangum.

Lovelady applauds the protection plan here. “I like Rooker in the two because (Ryan) Gridley is swinging it well behind him. You pretty much have to pitch to him. And you’ve seen that guy swing. (Elijah) MacNamee is starting to swing it.” That’s in the four-slot, with Luke Alexander slid down to fifth.

“And us guys at the bottom of the lineup are starting to swing it, too. And that’s big for us. Because we’re going to have guys on in front of us.”

Lovelady is, or at least was, still batting eighth as of Tuesday. This naturally is from both his slow start and two-week absence. Does he move up now? Or will Cannizaro stick with the catcher down at the end of the order, especially if and when contact-guy Hunter Stovall returns from his hamstring problems to bat ninth…ahead of Mangum, Rooker,

The catcher will leave such calls to his coach. “Have a good at-bat and fight through it and a lot of times things will work out.” Besides, true freshman backstop Dustin Skelton will have to get his starts and swings over the weekend as well.

Whoever is catching is working with a still-developing staff. Not so much the starters in the first couple of games as Konnor Pilkington and Peyton Plumlee set their tones. The back-end is just about set, too, between Riley Self and Spencer Price.

Much like the batting order, it is what happens in-between that will likely make the difference. Catchers have a big part to play in settling all those middle- and long-relievers down, making them produce. Lovelady sees good signs right now.

“These guys have grown comfortable. And it’s all about confidence. Anything you do it’s about confidence. I think we’re going to keep growing. It’s all about filling up the strike zone.”

Oh, and about supporting the pitching with the same sorts of hitting and scoring. This next series though matches Mississippi State’s energized offense with a Rebel staff which leads the SEC in most everything that matters. The challenge could be clutch hitting over consistent hitting.

Or just trading blow for blow since such an intra-state series is typically unpredictable. “It’s going to be a fun week,” Lovelady said.

“Y’all know it’s a battle over there. I played there two years ago and it’s a toss-up. Any time it’s a rivalry it’s a toss-up. We’re going to play hard, play fast, and do our best to win.” To hit and score, too, of course.

“As long as we’re able to hit 1-through-9 it’s going to be good for us.”

The Bulldogs and Rebels have first-pitch at 7:00 Thursday for ESPNU. Friday and Saturday times are 6:00 and 1:30 for the SEC’s on-line broadcast only.

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