Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

State's Hot Offense Matches Up with League-Leading Ole Miss Arms

The records are just about equal. So are the stakes when Mississippi State and Ole Miss square-off tonight. The difference in this edition of the annual rivalry?

The Bulldogs (16-10, 3-3 SEC) bring one of the league’s leading offenses to Oxford. The home team (16-9, 3-3) features the best statistical pitching staff in this conference. By Saturday evening one will have come out ahead.

Coach Andy Cannizaro has some experience playing Rebel teams as a former Louisiana State assistant. This is a whole ‘nother matter for the first-time head coach.

“I’m excited to get into the rivalry of Ole Miss against Mississippi State in baseball, and putting our own mark on the rivalry moving forward.”

The rivalry resumes tonight at 7:00 for ESPNU as one of the SEC’s early-starting series. Texas A&M is at LSU for the other as the Western Division owns Thursday. State’s series continues with a 6:00 Friday time for the SEC Network, then 1:30 Saturday.

This is the longest-running baseball rivalry in the whole SEC. Mississippi State took the 2016 series at home, but the last Bulldog win in Oxford was back in 2011. Cannizaro wasn’t even in coaching back then though as a scout he knew something about both programs. Two years coaching at LSU gave him another neutral look.

“I have the complete respect for everything Mike Bianco has done at Ole Miss,” Cannizaro said. “They’ve got an outstanding group of players, the number-one recruiting class in the country last year. Their young arms have done an outstanding for them. It’s going to be an ultra-competitive series.”

Arms young and older have Ole Miss at or near the SEC-lead in ERA, strikeouts, batting average, etc. and so on. The Rebels will open with righthander James McArthur (1-1, 1.77), then come back with lefties David Parkinson (4-1, 1.93) and Ryan Rolison (3-0, 1.80).

Cannizaro has only named one part of his series rotation. It’s the key part of course, and LHP Konnor Pilkington (2-3, 2.75) ranks with any league’s leaders in sending batters back to their dugouts. The sophomore hasn’t failed to fan at least six in all his starts this year and leads the SEC this week with 53 total.

“From there we’ll TBA it. More than likely it will be Peyton Plumlee (3-1, 2.84) on Friday.  Then Saturday is a definite TBA.” Or maybe not so definite? Not if game-three trends from the first two SEC weekends holds into the third.

“Jake Mangum (1-1, 6.48) has thrown the ball really well,” Cannizaro said Monday, though “We want to see how he bounces back and kind of go from there.”

While much of Bulldog pitching has been hit-and-miss, so to speak, there are strong points. State even has thrown more strikeouts. But Dog hurlers have also been hit harder and given up the most walks in the league. This mostly reflects an injury-limited staff still looking for lots of settled roles beyond starters Pilkington and Plumlee, and closing tandem Riley Self and Spencer Price.

Mississippi State counters with offense. Or it is, again. The SEC season debut saw Bulldog bats chilled in an Arkansas sweeping. “After the first weekend there were probably a lot of doubts in guys’ minds whether they could perform and produce,” Cannizaro said.

Since returning though the Dogs have heated up. Five games have produced 39 runs and hitting at over .400. Power and extra-base speed are on display, including a run of triples lately to go with longballs and doubles. Coincidentally State is 12-4 in games when hitting a homer…and as all know, deep drives exit Oxford-University Stadium confines regularly.

This is another good reason to have 1B/DH Brent Rooker hitting earlier in the order. State’s junior slugger leads the SEC with a .427 average, in slugging, on-base rate, as well as with his eight homers, 38 RBI…and his 14 successful steals. Moving him from cleanup to second raised some eyebrows last week but this does give Rooker the chance for another cut or two over a series course.

But Rooker isn’t alone in this week’s SEC stats. CF/LHP Mangum is right behind at .407, and SS Ryan Gridley is 7th at .381. As for those questions about taking the league’s biggest bat out of cleanup, inserting RF Elijah MacNamee has worked out well. The sophomore transfer went 6-of-13 in a sweep of Tennessee hitting fourth.

The top-four order spots have been producing all season of course. Now Cannizaro hopes to get another piece back at the end of the order. 2B Hunter Stovall has missed nine of the last ten games, and only played part of the Friday at Arkansas, with a bad hamstring. Healthy, Stovall is as good a nine-hole hitter as the college game finds, which would give Mangum, Rooker, Gridley, increased odds of driving somebody in when they come up a second time.

Tonight provides the next test of what kind of road team Cannizaro has. The record so far in true road games with Oregon and Arkansas is just 1-5, and of course the latter trip put State in a fast SEC hole.

“It was a trial by fire, grow up on the job kind of trip,” Cannizaro said. “We came out on the short end. But what we did allowed us to play really well at home. It’s going to prepare us to play really well this weekend.”

The rivals will meet again April 25 in Pearl for the annual Governors Cup game.

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