Spencer Price (Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page)

Four-Straight Series Wins has State a Game Out of SEC Lead

How to tell a ball team is growing up far faster than expected? Oh, try being just a touch disappointed in not sweeping an opponent. In the Southeastern Conference. On the road.

Andy Cannizaro couldn’t quite hide that tiny touch of Sunday disappointment. But neither did Mississippi State’s skipper miss the larger and brighter picture after taking the series at South Carolina. Yes, he said after game-three got away very late. “We had some opportunities and didn’t get the job done.” At the same time…

“We came here and won a series for the first time in twenty years,” the first-year coach said, clearly well-briefed by media relations. After all, Cannizaro was a Tulane freshman back in 1998 and would never have known this nugget otherwise. This didn’t limit his appreciation success in Columbia at last.

“That’s gigantic. This is Mississippi State, one of the most storied programs in the country. And that’s a special weekend for us.”

It was a special weekend to end a more special first-half of SEC season. The Diamond Dogs have hit mid-way mark 10-5 in league play, winners of four-straight series and tied for second place in both the overall conference standings and the Western Division. Auburn and Kentucky also have ten wins through five weekends, trailing only 11-4 Arkansas.

Mississippi State is also 25-13 and on a mid-season role after starting out just 12-10. In the month since then the Bulldogs have more than muscled their way into the leading pack. They have jumped into all the polls and, more importantly by far, climbed steadily in national RPI standings.

Talk of playing to repeat as SEC Champions and NCAA hosting again is still premature. But it isn’t far-fetched either.

Not the way such speculation would have sounded after State was swept at Arkansas on opening SEC weekend. There is still the whole second-half ahead in league series; and there is still the limited roster of healthy bodies to play it with.

Yet over four weeks Cannizaro’s club has transformed itself into a recognized contender. The Bulldogs have even showed consistency of purpose, not getting caught-up in themselves and taking care of fellow contenders Kentucky and South Carolina. If anything, taking two in Columbia and being tied in middle-eighth inning Sunday was the more impressive, never mind ancient history.

“This was super weekend for us and I’m fired up about the way our guys played,” Cannizaro said on post-game radio.

There’s much about Mississippi State to fire folk up. Mostly, how a team which went oh-for the opening SEC weekend has won 10 of the last dozen contests and played its way back into conference contention. Though now all know that Arkansas itself leads the league largely because they swept these Bulldogs. Or rather, swept the squad which was about to become these Bulldogs.

Four weekends later the image has changed entirely. The mindset? That was always present, per Cannizaro, even when State was struggling just to stay over .500. Nor has it changed with success since.

“We’ve done that all year, we keep fighting and fighting and fighting and find ways to win close games. And that’s part of the maturation process. For the last four weeks we’ve been winning those games.”

South Carolina, itself expected to contend for the SEC East and overall titles and more, made State work for wins. Friday’s 7-4 final was much closer than the score and it took a simple dropped fly ball in the top of the ninth to give the Dogs two runs and the final margin. A day later it was another ninth-inning show as State broke a 2-2 tie with three (earned) runs and withstood a Gamecock rally as well for a 5-4 score.

The magic went the other way Sunday as it was the home team’s turn to do the damage late, scoring five times in their eighth for a 6-1 win. This was why Cannizaro left Columbia what-iffing a bit. “Maybe had we come through earlier the outcome would have been better.”

But, quickly, the coach was seeing the overall outcome. And celebrating it too. “Like I keep saying, a terrific weekend.”

Maybe one terrific twist is Mississippi State winning a weekend when Brent Rooker is merely mortal. Rooker (.432) was just 2-of-10 at Columbia, and while one of those hits was his 16th home run of a spectacular season-so-far this wasn’t what has become expected.

Slump? Only more games will show. More likely opponents increasingly refuse to let the SEC triple crown candidate and national player of the year nominee beat them alone. Even if and when it means putting a league-leader in steals on first base for free.

Carolina could be more careful with Rooker because CF Jake Mangum (.364) was just 3-of-12 himself. Mangum did have good excuse for any slippage as he recovers from a jammed left wrist suffered in the Sunday win over Kentucky. This also kept the lefthanded pitcher from throwing at USC as well.

In fact this was a sputtering offensive series as State batted just .216 and Bulldogs struck out 28 times in 27 innings. Only SS Ryan Gridley (.349) was warmish at the plate, 4-of-11 with three RBI. 2B Hunter Stovall was 3-of-11 with three runs driven in as well at the nine-hole. But there were a lot of one- or even none-hit weekends in the MSU order.

Again, a slump? Or more likely the combination of inevitable cooling-down at mid-season combined with facing one of the SEC’s best pitching staffs on their own diamond? The latter seems more likely. Plus, as the scores show, Bulldog batters manage to get something done at the right times often enough, even if it means just forcing an opposing error.

Besides, the real squad story of the past four weekends has been pitching. Specifically how a short-handed staff keeps scrabbling through innings and games and series and beating the increasing odds.

Lucky timing counts, too. Losing Mangum (2-1, 6.46) on the mound after four SEC Sunday starts would have been crippling not long ago. Just in time, RHP Jacob Billingsley (1-0, 3.80) returns to the active list and gives a strong Sunday showing as starter again. “A gigantic bright spot for us,” Cannizaro said, since Billingsley now combines with Mangum and others to give State some sort of rotation.

Maybe. Hopefully. Certainly if RHP Cole Gordon (2-0, 4.18) keeps getting stronger and going longer as the undisputed surprise starter of SEC season, another great big piece has fallen into place. This leaves RHP Peyton Plumlee (4-1, 3.32) an option to either start game-twos or -threes or continue his recent use as a righthanded middle relief regular.

Make no mistake. All the above is far from ideal. Mississippi State truly must patch together everything about weekend and for that matter midweek pitching. Well, except for these sure things. LHP Konnor Pilkington (3-3, 3.00) remains the ace and was able to get back to winning a Friday at Columbia.

The other is using RHP Riley Self (4-0, 2.73) and RHP Spencer Price (3-1, 2.31, 13 saves) at the back end of, well, any and every game necessary. Including Tuesdays, which Cannizaro would prefer not to do but on a club that needs all non-league wins possible is necessary.

Certainly taking care of this midweek’s matchup at South Alabama (21-15) counts. The Bulldogs have already beaten their old inter-league rival twice this year at Starkville, 2-0 and 8-6 back in early March. The Jaguars are hosting now and itching to knock the SEC guests with a 6:30 start time at Stanky Field.

Selecting a Tuesday starter this week is a little more complicated than usual too, because the second half of SEC season opens Thursday evening. It’s Alabama coming to campus with a 6:00 gametime for the SEC Network.

Cannizaro is almost certain to stick with Pilkington even if it means shortening his rest-week. The soph did get through his six innings last Friday with 90 pitches. Beyond that?

Not even the coach can say how things will play-out. Cannizaro can and does say how his Bulldogs will approach the next challenge.

“It’s talented young players that are going to keep getting better and better every single time they get on the field.”

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