“There’s never a moment I see bullpen guys not paying attention. Because they know every day there’s a really good chance they’re going to pitch.”
Mississippi State’s coach might be understating the attention. Every Diamond Dog game the relief staff can practically count on throwing. If not in the game, then certainly in the bullpen. Because of how this 2017 season is developing, and moundsmen keep getting sidelined, the healthy hurlers darned well better pay attention.
“Every day it’s all hands on deck,” Cannizaro said. “It’s just a matter of who is feeling well, who didn’t throw that many pitches the day before, who can give us what.”
Back in February this would have raised alarms. Early-season relief work was not a strong point by any stretch or in any stint. The situation has changed, radically.
“Our guys have been sensational out of the bullpen,” Cannizaro said. “They’re pounding the strike zone, throwing their secondary stuff for called strikes. They really have embraced what’s going on right now with the lack of depth.”
Lack of depth is another sort of understatement. Mississippi State began the season already down several starting and relief arms. More have joined that MASH roster since. Going into SEC weekend #4 there are a dozen pitchers, total, available against Kentucky.
Yet as the staff shrinks, wins have increased. Most obviously in conference play as after being swept at Arkansas the Diamond Dogs have swept both Tennessee and Ole Miss. State has won eight of the last nine games, interrupted by Tuesday’s hiccup against Florida International. The next night squared that set with a walk-off, two-run homer by this staff’s best supporter and SEC-leading hitter 1B Brent Rooker.
Conventional wisdom would seem get the longest stints possible by middle- and late-relievers to save other arms during weeks and series. Not so.
“We’ve gone back and forth with the best way to use guys,” Cannizaro said. “I just think for what we have right now the best thing is get guys as often as possible in short stints. Go out and get us three, four, five outs. Don’t ask them to go extended time.”
Cannizaro and Coach Gary Henderson prefer this approach, at least as of today, for two sound reasons. First, a short outing makes a repeat performance practical. Maybe even each game of a SEC weekend. RHP Spencer Price, ‘ace’ of the bullpen, threw all three games at Oxford with a save each time.
Yet Price (3-1, 1.45, 9 saves) was able to come back and close out Wednesday’s non-league win and get that decision in the process, without hurting his availability for Kentucky. The same holds for RHP Riley Self (4-0, 2.38) to set-up Price. LHP Trysten Barlow is the left-side matchup man with a team-best 13 appearances but just 9.2 innings; while RHP Jacob Barton (2-0, 3.92) has worked 12 times already in middle-stints.
The second reason? “It lets them attack, lets them throw with conviction and not try to space out their stuff,” Cannizaro said. Meaning relievers come in using their best tools only and not dialing back as they would if asked to go more than X-pitches or a couple of fast innings.
“We’re getting guys in-and-out just so we don’t drive up their pitch count so they can be available the following day,” Cannizaro said.
The other obvious aspect of this is Mississippi State, and Kentucky, can count on just one thing: who is going to throw the first Friday pitch. LHP Konnor Pilkington (2-3, 3.05) is the lone known. The sophomore hasn’t been his sharpest of late but worked long enough and got enough offensive support to start series sweeps. Pilkington also has 58 strikeouts in 44.1 innings and can throw quick frames of his own.
“After that, the entire rest of the weekend is TBA,” said Cannizaro. “That is not to throw anybody off, it is what it is.”
Up to now RHP Peyton Plumlee (3-1, 3.67) would have been an all-but-official starter for Saturday. When he only went one out into game-two at Ole Miss, a true bullpen win, State brought him back Tuesday. Plumlee was rattled for five runs in 55 pitches.
That count and recent struggles probably push Plumlee back to Sunday now. Cannizaro does believe the soph has built-up enough strength to rebound in time and be available for “some type of extended outing.” Starting or subbing, though, is what the coach won’t say today.
What is suspected is LHP/OF Jake Mangum (2-1, 4.72) will get the Saturday start if not the game-three as he has all SEC season so far. Each outing the soph gets stronger and goes longer and he was the winner completing last week’s sweep.
One option though is out. RHP Graham Ashcraft started Tuesday and left after three innings with groin injury. Ashcraft was to get the test results today and Cannizaro doesn’t think it will be a long layoff. “But I’m thinking he’s not going to be available this weekend.”
2B and #9-batter Hunter Stovall has not been available since the opener at Arkansas. The nagging hamstring seemed almost over last week before a hard practice showed, it wasn’t. Stovall was to give practice a go Thursday, then be evaluated again.
“If he’s available it will definitely be a great shot in the arm,” Cannizaro said. “It will be another great player on the field and it allows Cody Brown to move around a little bit.”
Senior IF/OF Brown has already moved around a lot. Mostly he has settled at second base ever since Rooker moved to first base full-time. Brown has also settled into the middle of the batting order since Brown (.302) was moved up to hitting second. He is 15-of-37 the last ten games and his two-run homer was pivotal in sweeping the Rebels.
Of course Rooker (.436) is the offensive story. Of the whole SEC. Rooker currently leads the league in average, by 39 whole points; with 12 home runs, 50 RBI, 18 doubles, total bases, and still in steals at 14. He was named the NCBWA ‘Player of the Month’ today and could well be the country’s best first-half season player of any position.
The key of course is who hits around him. Leadoff Dog Mangum’s pitching seems to be taking a toll at the plate but he still is fourth in SEC batting at .380 and is second in runs-scored. Moving 3B Luke Alexander has helped his recent average and the bottom-half of the order as well, which is the weak link as long as Stovall is missing.
This weekend brings the best by-average offense in the SEC to town. Kentucky (21-9, 7-2) is hitting a collective .319; State is third at .294. The Bulldogs surprisingly have hit more home runs despite the well-known difference in field dimensions.
But the Wildcats specialize in average and doubles, put the ball in play and run the bases. Kentucky’s pitching has also been much better than State’s as a staff and gives very few bases away. It is, as Cannizaro said, a sign of “A veteran, older club that’s been through the battles in this league.”
Under new management, just like State. Longtime Bulldog aide Nick Mingione took the job left open by MSU pitching coach Henderson’s departure. The fresh approach has invigorated a team already on the development path. The Wildcats began by sweeping Texas A&M, then won series with Ole Miss and Vanderbilt which has them atop the Eastern Division this week.
“Kentucky is going to be an outstanding opponent,” Cannizaro said. “They are playing at an extremely high level, and their head coach is doing a tremendous job leading their team.”
This series schedule adjusts a bit for the annual Super Bulldog Weekend. Game times are now 6:00 both Friday and Saturday, then 1:00 Sunday. All games are on-line available with the SEC Network-Plus.