Gary Henderson (Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page)

Mississippi State pitching coach Gary Henderson spent 14 years coaching in Lexington.

Mississippi State (20-11) will host Kentucky (21-9) this weekend as the Bulldogs celebrate Super Bulldog Weekend. The three game series will bring a pair of ranked teams together, but will also provide a two fold reunion of sorts as Diamond Dawg pitching coach Gary Henderson will face the team he coached last season and new Wildcat skipper Nick Mingione will be in the visiting dugout at Dudy Noble field for the first time after spending eight years on John Cohen's staff in Starkville.

While the personal asides are intriguing, Henderson is more focused on trying to find a way to help Mississippi State win a third straight weekend series in the Southeastern Conference. On Thursday, Henderson shared that it will be an interesting match-up, but that what happens on the field matters most of all.

"It really boils down to three ball games," Henderson said. "I know a lot of those kids really well and I have a two to three year history with a lot of those guys. I know what they can do. I am glad that things are going well for them, but I hope we come out and play well."

Mississippi State enters the weekend having won eight of their last nine games. While the Bulldog pitching staff has faced some real adversity due to injury, Henderson has found a way in recent weeks to piece together a staff that has played winning baseball.

"We still have some guys who aren't very predictable," Henderson said. "We have a lot of guys who are getting better. That's pretty clear. Some of the young guys are making some really positive strides. We are getting a lot of mileage out of freshmen and sophomores. We feel really good about that, but we still have some guys that haven't reached the level of consistency out of the bullpen that we would like. We are going to keep working on that to see if we can't get there."

The Bulldogs have used position players in the past as closers and part time relievers. Long time Diamond Dawg fans certainly remember Bobby Thigpen and Pete Young taking the hill to secure a State weekend win. Last season, outfielder Reid Humphries aided in the late innings as the Bulldogs won an SEC Championship.

While having a member of the regular starting eight toe the rubber for an inning every now and again is a somewhat regular occurrence in college baseball, having two position players in the pitching rotation is a rarity. Such is the case in Starkville as both Cole Gordon and Jake Mangum have made the line-up as starting pitchers. 

"You know it's rare to have one in our league and to have two is really rare," Henderson said. "I certainly didn't expect this in the fall.

"I guess in early March, it became evident to me that we were going to be able to get some mileage out of Cole. He has really improved over the last three or four weeks. It's reached a point where it's exciting. If he can keep getting better, then he is going to have a substantial role here.

"With Jake, you have to be careful about the number of throws that he makes that aren't game related. I think that's what you really have to measure on Thursday, Friday and Saturday if he's going to be your Sunday guy. That's really more of a challenge than the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday throws, because the normal post throw soreness sort of takes care of that for the kid.

"You get later in the week and everybody is amped up, excited and ready to go. You have to be able to manage all of that a little bit, so that he doesn't do too much before the game."

The Bulldogs have had to play a bit of musical chairs in the bullpen as well as the starting weekend rotation as guys have settled into roles and then seen those roles change due to attrition and injury. The one constant for Henderson and the State staff has been Friday night starter Konnor Pilkington. 

Pilkington enters Friday's start with a 2-3 record, a 3.05 ERA and 58 strikeouts against just 13 walks. While run support on Fridays have come at a premium, that Bulldogs are getting a consistent effort from the talented sophomore each week.

"To see the jump he has made with the breaking ball has really been impressive," Henderson said of the lefthander. "He is like a lot of guys early in the year that didn't get tremendous change feel. He is getting so much mileage out of his fastball, that you don't want to get beat on his third pitch. That's not a new concept, but a lot of guys in his situation face the same challenge. How do you make that third pitch better when the first one is so effective?

"The curve is way better than it was when I first got here in the fall. That's a real tribute to him and how hard he has worked. The change is just going to keep getting better and he is going to keep getting better.

"He has the right physical traits and the absolute right mental traits. That doesn't mean he's perfect or that he's always going to be great, but he's going to keep making progress. He's going to be fun to watch as we move forward."

Near record crowds are expected this weekend as the Bulldogs host the Wildcats as part of an event fulled three days in Starkville. Henderson reports that job one for the baseball staff is to find a way to win ball games and move ahead in the SEC standings.

"My thoughts are on the best way for us to find the best and most efficient way to get 27 effective outs," Henderson said. "I know we're excited to play in front of a bunch of fans. It's a big weekend for us. We can make a nice statement by playing well against one of the top team's in the conference so far this year. We're coming in off of a great weekend and it would be nice to put another nice weekend together."

First pitch is set for 6 PM on both Friday and Saturday. Sunday's game is scheduled for a 1 PM start. Pikington has been announced as the Friday starter, while the rest of the weekend's pitching duties are officially "to be announced". 

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