Brent Rooker (Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page)

Bulldogs Head to South Carolina with Patched-Together Roster and Rotations

Andy Cannizaro is almost amused. “Teams all over this league have meetings about setting a 27-man travel roster. Where we’re taking right now whoever’s available!”

It isn’t really funny. Not when a Mississippi State squad preparing for the weekend at South Carolina can count on just 23—“Maybe 24!” Cannizaro said—healthy ballhands. But it is a serious story of this Diamond Dog club overcoming increasing obstacles…and winning.

Somehow and some way, they just keep winning.

“I can’t speak highly enough of the effort, fight, and grit the guys in a jersey right now are giving us,” first-year coach Cannizaro said. “They don’t take no for an answer.”

Instead Mississippi State (23-12, 8-4) keeps answering. It also makes them part of the answer to this mid-April question: who is leading the Southeastern Conference going into weekend #5? The Bulldogs share first place in the Western Division with Arkansas and Auburn; and overall with the Kentucky club State just beat.

Sitting this high today after being swept on opening weekend at Arkansas is surprising enough. The Bulldogs didn’t just recover, they rolled through sweeps of Tennessee and Ole Miss before taking two from the Wildcats. Suddenly State is one of the trendy teams among national analysts and rankings, for whatever that is worth in April.

The real surprise and source of most respect is that this roster has been ravaged with injuries yet has managed to improve through the pains. The few can indeed be the proud. How few?

“We’ve got 23 guys in a jersey today,” Cannizaro said. “No matter who shows up our guys don’t want to lose.”

The Bulldogs certainly don’t want to lose their surprising status. Nor does South Carolina (22-11, 7-5) want to lose any more ground to Kentucky on the East side. After starting out 5-1 the Gamecocks have dropped series to Auburn and Vanderbilt, and Tuesday night fell hard to cross-border rival North Carolina by a fluke 20-5 final.

This is not a regular rivalry of late, with just one series in the past four seasons. That was in 2015 and oddly became the only SEC weekend won by those Bulldogs. State has also taken the last couple of SEC Tournament meetings.

Statistically for what it is worth these are miss-matched opponents. The Bulldogs are better batters on the whole with a .299 club average against .276. South Carolina’s pitching staff is markedly better, especially at the top as two Gamecock starters are among the league’s top-ten in ERA. Only Arkansas and State have thrown more strikeouts than South Carolina, though Bulldog pitching is much more prone to issuing walks.

The pitching miss-match goes beyond numbers. While South Carolina has a reliable rotation, Cannizaro again can only count on LHP Konnor Pilkington (2-3, 3.00) to toe Friday’s rubber. No, “We’re not trying to sneak attack anybody!” Cannizaro quips, since the rest of the conference is well-aware what is going on here.”

“We have what, nine pitchers, and two of them are position players?” Cannizaro said. That’s correct as of today, and both of those players have become SEC starters too out of necessity. Though, one is now a question as CF/LHP Jake Mangum jammed his left wrist on a Sunday slide. He sat out Tuesday’s win over Mississippi Valley State wearing a compression-type brace for swelling. Cannizaro said Mangum could have played in a big jam.

“And he’s swearing up-and-down he’s going to play Friday.” Cannizaro won’t absolutely rule-out Mangum pitching at Columbia, though making a fifth SEC start seems very unlikely. Possible, yes, but “For right now it’s more important for him to play centerfield and lead-off five times a game for us.”

So who else is there? RHP Peyton Plumlee (4-1, 3.23) was game-two for three weekends before a short and rough start at Ole Miss. He’s done relief work since including 2.2 Tuesday innings. If Plumlee is to start again it would appear Sunday is the best chance; otherwise he can be used at least twice a weekend in middle-innings.

The eye-openers last weekend were a quality and ultimately winning start for RHP Cole Gordon (2-0, 4.12), a converted first baseman; and the five-plus relief turns Sunday by RHP Trey Jolly (1-1, 6.32). RHP Jacob Barton (2-0, 4.07) should be another starting option if not working relief as usual. Cannizaro even has a little bit of flexibility in the latter aspect now that RHP Jacob Billingsley (1-0, 4.82) is back.

He can’t start this weekend, having opened Tuesday’s win in his first action for a month. Billingsley can come back late-weekend for short stints though, freeing somebody else for an inning or two. Hopefully, that is.

Optimism is much more cautious this weekend about RHP Graham Ashcraft back in regular action as either starter or hard-throwing reliever. “Our trainer is confident there’s a chance he could be back in a really limited role,” Cannizaro said. Ashcraft thus can be more of a factor again in the second-half of SEC season.

For now, Cannizaro and Gary Henderson simply draw from a still-short deck as best they can game by game. Or even inning by inning. “It’s literally see who feels well, who has two or three innings available, who has 10-15 pitches that day.” If nothing else this can keep the opponent guessing all weekend.

There is no unpredictability regarding who South Carolina’s staff fears most. It’s been another week of accolades for 1B Brent Rooker who just became the SEC’s first repeat Player of the Week since 2009. By now the numbers nearly numb as he bids for the conference triple crown with his .450 average, 15 homers, and 56 RBI. He’s also best in doubles, total bases, and steals, a versatility that has pushed Rooker to the forefront of national player of the year conversations. That includes as of Wednesday membership on the mid-season Golden Spikes watch list.

Though his average has dropped 30 points in three weeks Mangum (.374) is still the SEC’s third-leading batter and is tied for first in runs. SS Ryan Gridley (.348) is also a top-15 league batter and rounds out the top-third of State’s order. They have been getting steady support for a couple of weeks by new cleanup Dog LF Cody Brown (.320).

Now the offense ought to get a boost on the other end with the return of 2B Hunter Stovall (.304) from hamstring issues that kept him out of six SEC games. Though, taking a fastball to a hand Sunday had Stovall half-swinging Tuesday. “He will be back at second base this weekend and should get better each day,” Cannizaro said.

Outside the locker room there is a public sense of unreality how this club has climbed to the shared top spot under such circumstances. Inside? The Bulldogs just don’t seem to worry about liabilities or doubts. Or, the surety of baseball that there has to be some sort of slump in store…right? Right?

“I just think it’s a never-say-die attitude. And it really is pride and passion these guys play with,” Cannizaro said. “I think they really embrace the tradition and past of this program.”

Weekend games are 6:00, 3:00, and 3:00 central, with only the Sunday game televised on the SEC Network.

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