Andy Cannizaro has assuredly put a mark on the rivalry. And, on the rivals. The first-year Diamond Dog coach took a team to Oxford, and came back with three wins. This is Mississippi State’s first sweep in the series, home or away, since 2003.
The Bulldogs (19-10, 6-3) also return third in the Western Division and just a game back of both Arkansas and Auburn having swept both Tennessee and Ole Miss. This gives Mississippi State some real momentum going into a packed home week of five games. That includes the visit from an equally-hot Kentucky club for Super Weekend.
For the moment, Cannizaro and club can savor sweeping his first exposure to the SEC’s oldest rivalry. One which might not count any more or less in the league standing, but absolutely matters more in Mississippi minds.
“It was a great weekend for baseball in the state,” State’s coach said, though the host team wold probably argue that. “The crowds were great and there was so much energy. We won three games and we did it three different ways.”
State definitely was different this sweep than the previous. Where the Bulldogs had battered Tennessee with .406 hitting, it was just a 29-of-103 weekend. Oddly after belting longballs on the home field the Dogs only hit two out at cozier Oxford. State did double six times with a triple, that worthy of notice as it came from C Josh Lovelady…not known for his basepath speed.
But totals don’t reflect timing. Those two homers came in the same Friday game, for three of the RBI in a --- final. The Dogs also showed a knack for timely, for two-out, or for both types hitting and reaching. Even when runs didn’t result this stressed a talented Rebel pitching staff just a bit farther and harder.
This was also the rare weekend where every in-game move worked, or worked out. Most notable was giving RHP/1B Cole Gordon the series’ key pinch-hit situation. Though hitless since March 4 and having barely batted or even played much, Cannizaro sent him up with two outs and two on in a 3-2 Thursday game.
Gordon belted the base hit to tie it up. He was even at the plate for the game’s strangest play, striking out but on a wild pitch plating the go-ahead runner. So that switch worked twice.
Gordon’s clutch hit was set up by another call, if that’s the word for it. Down three with two Dogs on and a 3-0 count, Rooker was given the green light. Rooker took the anticipated fastball and grooved it for a pair of RBI.
Or take Sunday with a much less obvious call. Having taken over pitching, RHP Riley Self was due to bat because State had started LHP/CF Jake Mangum again. With a shrinking lead the ‘book’ call was put a real batter up. Cannizaro left Self in to strike out harmlessly so as not to substitute for Mangum and diminish outfield defense.
An irony was in a mock pre-game lineup, for April Fools, the media relations director had listed Self as DH and starting pitcher. Given how much went right who will say this would not have worked fine, too?
The real risks were taken on the mound. Not that some looked iffy on the surface. But sticking with LHP Konnor Pilkington for five full innings while State fell behind 3-0 proved big-picture crucial. Coach Gary Henderson was able to hold a limited bullpen an inning or two longer, until the offense got going, and then call on relief regulars.
At the same time, Cannizaro and Henderson didn’t hold any bullets back thinking of three games. They used the best set-up and closing Dogs to seal Thursday’s comeback. Then, as game-two starter RHP Peyton Plumlee struggled through just 27 pitches with one out, Friday reliever Jacob Barton was called back for a longer stint. A 3.2 inning one, and while Ole Miss expanded their lead Barton kept it in striking distance.
So one day State rode the starter; the next he was lifted promptly. Different ways, indeed.
The constants? Righties Riley Self and Spencer Price in late-game situations. Self (4-0) picked up the game-one win in 2.0 innings before Price saved it. Then Saturday, Self was called on in the eighth…to throw just four pitches for two outs preserving the lead.
A lead Price used to notch his SEC-leading ninth save. The closer can’t be discussed without reference to Self, of course, who sets him up to work just last innings. As Cannizaro said, “We’re trying to limit the number of pitches he’s throwing.”
Pilkington (2-3, 3.05) was merely mortal again opening a series. But his team won, and the soph still has 58 strikeouts against 13 walks. Pilkington also has an extra day, along with the other starters, to prepare for this weekend.
The mound moves can’t be over-stated in State’s sweep. Such as calling on RHP Trey Jolly to throw just two pitches, get the necessary out, and hand over the ball. “Gary Henderson is a phenomenal pitching coach,” Cannizaro said.
“The bullpen contributed, we got lifts from so many guys. Every inning we were in tight spots.” In the end the home team tightened-up and the Bulldogs swept.
Again, the offense wasn’t poor. It just didn’t dominate, nor need to. Though whatever the rest of the order does, Rooker is always big. ‘Only’ 5-of-14 he still had the margin-padding homer along with four doubles. Rooker has run his hitting streak to 14 games. In this stretch he is 27-of-56 with 24 RBI and 15 runs; along with nine homers and 18 doubles.
Mangum was only average at 4-of-13, falling under .400 and raising his strikeout total to 19. As long as he keeps throwing strikeouts on day-three State will take the tradeoff just fine, as Mangum is now 2-2 and only improving as a pitcher.
The weekend wild card though was an older Dog. Senior Cody Brown had a slow start to the season and has shuttled between first, second, even third bases as State uses longer and faster corner outfielders.
Yet in his last series with the rivals, Brown showed up with seven hits including his game-changing Friday line-drive that just cleared the rightfield fence for two runs and a never-lost lead.
OF Tanner Poole had four hits, and C Josh Lovelady that clutch Friday RBI as well as his triple. So State did not need big batting numbers; just the right knocks at right times and right places. If anything this can do more for a club’s confidence over the long season haul, that somebody will get something done.
There are still issues ahead. Bullpen depth won’t improve without a grant of free agency. State still strikes out too much, with 30 in Oxford and just six walks. All of which is easier to work on in the afterglow of putting a big mark on the rivalry. And the rivals.
“I love where we’re at,” Cannizaro said. “I love the way we’re playing. The confidence is building.”
State needs confidence and endurance for the week ahead. Florida International is in town for a rare midweek set at this stage of a schedule. Then it’s Kentucky, headed by former MSU aide Nick Mingione-who inherited his team from Henderson.