Andy Cannizaro (Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page)

Three Series Wins have State Tied for League Lead

The first weekend knocked them down. Now they are knocking everyone out. What changed? Why, these Bulldogs are boxing.

And winning. Even if Mississippi State doesn’t bring these special ‘mitts’ to the field, those boxing gloves are a sudden symbol of success. “The boxing gloves have I think two losses since we got them,” OF/LHP Jake Mangum said. “They’ve got some wins in them.”

Mississippi State certainly has knocked out wins since Coach Andy Cannizaro broke out the new gloves. Or more realistically, broke out the bats and baseball gloves in a bigger way. The Bulldogs have bounced off the matt after a sweeping at Arkansas to win three-straight SEC series.

Today Mississippi State (22-12, 8-4) shares SEC overall first place in a four-team logjam. The Bulldogs, Arkansas, and Auburn are deadlocked atop the Western Division; while a Kentucky club that just dropped two at Dudy Noble Field leads the East.

It is a long schedule still ahead which only reaches half-way on Easter Sunday. But considering how they opened SEC season these Bulldogs have clearly answered the bell. “We’re a young team that just fights back,” Mangum said.

The latest battle-back? After an emotional sweep of Ole Miss, there was a semi-inevitable letdown when State split a midweek set with Florida International. If not for a walk-off homer by blazing 1B Brent Rooker the Dogs might have been beat twice.

Then they did let Friday get away with an equally-hot Kentucky club winning 5-2. When the Wildcats jumped to a 3-0 Saturday lead things seemed suddenly shaky. But State got the offense going for a 10-6 win, then rallied back again from 4-1 down to win another 10-6 decision and take the series.

“It’s huge,” 2B Hunter Stovall said. “It puts us tied for first place which is humungous after getting swept the first weekend.”

Cannizaro calls this rise to the top a “total team effort” and few can argue. “We’re playing with a lot of confidence right now one-through-nine. Our bench is playing great. And our bullpen has been sensational the last couple of weeks. It really has been a lot of fun to watch our guys play.”

Call it coincidence; call it a gimmick. Fact remains the fun started upon return from Fayetteville. Cannizaro said the situation was serious with the rotation spun out of control, a battered bullpen, offense going cold, and close losses piling up. And, not a whole lot of obvious answers.

“We’re down pitchers, position players are hurt,” Cannizaro said. “I just told our guys I feel we can play with anybody in the country. But we have to learn how to beat somebody.”

Or, beat-up somebody? Hence his gloves gimmick. “The boxing gloves are just a symbol. I want guys who are going to get in the middle of the ring and fight, throw punches and land punches. It’s really just a symbol.”

Symbolism seems to be successful so far with knockouts of Tennessee and Ole Miss and a Kentucky TKO. These college ballplayers have bought-in

“We’re just going to throw punches. We’re going to get in the ring and fight and not give up. That was Coach’s idea, it’s been going on for about three weeks and it’s crazy how it’s been working.”

Crazy counts. So does hitting and scoring and pitching of course, things State does with confidence. Kentucky brought the SEC’s leading offense to town, and got battered at their own game. The Bulldogs out-hit them .320 to .262, matched the Wildcats in doubles, and crushed the home run derby seven shots to just two.

Rooker, of course, was key. Already the current SEC Player of the Week, the junior had an even better week and became the first repeater since 2008. A record sort of week, with six home runs in five games. Three of the shots came Saturday as Rooker became just the ninth Bulldog to go-yard three times in a game. For the week he was 10-of-16 with 13 RBI. Rooker reached base six other times by walks, some intentional, and plunkings.

Now up to .448 on the season with 18 home runs (most since Connor Powers knocked 19 in 2009) and 56 RBI, Rooker is on a pace to challenge for national player of the year. “I don’t know what’s going on,” Rooker said. “There’s a lot of God happening right now and not a lot of Brent.”

Rooker’s brilliance in the ring, sorry, at the plate has been the offensive constant. Most of the order has been, no pun intended, hit and miss even in the winning streak. That can be a positive since it signals a variety of Dogs have risen to occasions as needed.

Mangum (.374) isn’t exactly struggling, he just isn’t sizzling as two weeks ago. Yet it was his triple-plus-error scoring three runs which blew Sunday open for State. It also sidelined him with a jammed wrist sliding into third before popping up and heading home.

X-rays showed nothing. “I think it’s just a really, really bad jam,” Mangum said.

Having Mangum batting ahead of Rooker is a definite jam for pitchers. SS Ryan Gridley (.348) had four slow games before going .357 over the weekend in the three-spot. Gridley doesn’t get many RBI opportunities with Rooker clearing sacks ahead of him.

But him getting on base has helped set up OF Cody Brown (.327) to get hot himself. So has moving him into ‘cleanup’ as Brown was 6-of-12 against Kentucky with two home runs; one an inside-parker when the leftfielder fell down, the other a no-doubt shot to start Saturday’s decisive six-run inning.

Otherwise the Bulldog batting order is doing what most all do around mid-season. The stars are established and the supporting cast having their unpredictable big- or off-days. What matters is on a big field this bunch slugged Kentucky around as no else up to now.

This was something of a surprise too considering the state of State pitching. Had any known LHP Konnor Pilkington would falter Friday and his team still take the series, that would have sounded crazy. That two position players would start the wins on the mound? Crazier still.

Yet this is the current case. Current as in ‘this past weekend’ because there is no rotation yet and likely won’t be anytime soon. If at all, once past Pilkington (2-3, 3.00, 65 Ks) that TBA guy is booked for the rest of the starts.

Realistically of course Mangum (2-1, 6.46) remains the third guy, though now his wrist makes Sunday a question. “Separating them is hard to do,” he admits to batting every game, playing every day he’s not pitching. Cannizaro doesn’t see any need to separate at all.

“I love putting him on the mound,” said the coach, calling Mangum again the team’s best all-around athlete. “Because he’s going to figure out a way to get people out.”

RHP Peyton Plumlee (4-1, 3.47) got out-of-cycle with a very short stint at Ole Miss; then a longer stretch in Tuesday relief to try to get back in a groove. Throwing two middle-innings Saturday showed the velocity is still fine and maybe the movement is coming back. Regardless, Plumlee has to be a factor again in SEC series calculations.

Other than Rooker though, the story of recent weeks is the rise to success of a maligned relief staff. “Our bullpen has been outstanding,” Mangum said. “We don’t have a deep staff, but the guys we run out there get the job done.”

Not every time, and not many for long stints. Yet here too somebody has managed to rise to opportunity. RHP Trey Jolly (1-1, 6.32) was Sunday’s star with 5-plus innings quieting Kentucky while his offense could get loud. For that matter surprise Saturday starter RHP Cole Gordon (2-0, 4.12) seems to have found life after first base is fun whether opening or relieving.

The goal is always get the game in the late-inning hands of RHP Riley Self (4-0, 2.28) to set up RHP Spencer Price (3-1, 1.77, 10 saves). As Mangum reminded it is a thin roster. Six Dogs who have thrown this season are either now gone, sidelined the rest of the schedule with injury, or currently unavailable. State does hope to get a couple, RHP Graham Ashcraft and RHP Jacob Billingsley, back in action. Everyone can be forgiven for wondering Friday night if a certain former quarterback throwing out the ceremonial pitch could keep the jersey on and do some real pitching later.

Otherwise, those available to throw will throw as Cannizaro and Gary Henderson mix and match and manage.

“No matter how few pitchers we have and who is hurt we’re going to get them in the middle of the ring and fight,” the head coach said. “I can’t begin to tell you how proud I am of our guys right now.”

At least there is no need for more than four starters in any week between today and Hoover. State is hosting Mississippi Valley State on Tuesday, ahead of a weekend at South Carolina. Cannizaro can update injuries and availability before leaving.

Question: do the gloves stay in the locker room or get brought to the equipment bus? Gimmick or great, the Bulldogs get the idea.

“I thought it was pretty neat,” said Jolly. “You might get hit, you might get knocked down, you might lose one. Just bounce back.”

And, hit back harder.

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