“The next two weeks we’ve got to get after the state of Alabama,” Andy Cannizaro quipped.
Or at least after three programs hailing from the wrong side of the state line. The first is tonight as Mississippi State (25-13) visits South Alabama, with 6:30 game time at Stanky Field. RHP Peyton Plumlee (4-1, 3.32) has drawn the Tuesday start again, while righthander Sean Trimble (1-0, 3.14) goes for the Jaguars. The full MSU Baseball Network has this midweek game.
Mississippi State is responsible for scheduling this one, as part of the deal which brought South Alabama to Starkville back in March as part of a three-team event. It was a good one for the host team, too, as Cannizaro’s club won by 2-0 and 8-6 scores.
Now the Jags (21-15) have their shot on their field. “South Alabama has a lot of history and has won a lot of big games over the years,” Cannizaro said. State hasn’t won in Mobile since 2013.
So, why go back there? Or in a bigger-picture sense why risk mid-season momentum with such a matchup? Because, as even first-year coach Cannizaro knows, this is what Bulldog Baseball does.
It is also what Cannizaro himself intends to keep doing often as practical.
“I love playing these types of teams during SEC play. It just keeps your guys sharp for SEC weekend. You have a better chance to attack that team with your team’s complete focus and not have some type of letdown against a lesser type of opponent.”
Cannizaro would have said this even without last week’s example. The Bulldogs, coming off a gritty SEC series win, went through a lot of midweek motions in beating Mississippi Valley State. Seeing how MSU has never lost to MVSU getting the Dogs up was difficult.
South Alabama is another case entirely. “They’re a real talented club,” Cannizaro said. “They’re playing well in their conference (10-5 Sun Belt). Their centerfield is an all-American type player. It’s going to be a tremendous challenge.”
A challenge Mississippi State obviously handled already, twice. Either contest could have gone the other way though, especially at the time when the Bulldogs were unsure of their own identity.
Cannizaro expects the Jaguars to remember they came close twice on a hostile field. Both coaching staffs certainly remember everything else. That outfielder, Travis Swaggerty, is now hitting .382 and leading his team in runs and extra-base hits, as well as steals. He was 4-for-7 in two looks at State pitching this year, including 5.1 innings by Plumlee in the second game.
So, “We know their hitters are, guys who hurt us earlier in the year,” Cannizaro said. “Just like they’re probably thinking we can’t let Brent Rooker beat us, we’re thinking we can’t let Travis Swaggerty beat us.”
Of course over their weekend in South Carolina, the Bulldogs showed they could win SEC games without big numbers from national player of the year candidate Rooker. Or without many big offensive series from much anyone else. Yes, State likes having a great big bat setting the pace every game and every weekend.
At the same time, “It’s a mark of a good team that guys seem to step up every day,” Cannizaro said.
The Bulldogs have had to step up their midweek game since losing three of the first four Tuesdays. To be sure this is not all that unusual for the entire Southeastern Conference this season or for that matter the last couple of campaigns. It seems to reflect the utter focus SEC squads put on weekend play and weekend pitching in particular.
Those losses have not done much damage to Mississippi State’s rankings or, more important, RPI scores. This is one good reason Cannizaro gives for continuing to schedule quality non-conference opponents in the future…though maybe with a bit more care about how they are spaced around the entire slate.
Playing a South Alabama factors into this Cannizaro thinking. Win or lose, he reminds. First, because “We want to play SEC-caliber teams so we can face quality arms every game,” he said.
And second? “If you beat them it really benefits you. But if you drop a game to somebody in the top 100 it doesn’t hurt you, especially if you play on the road.”
But when the Bulldogs return from Mobile in the wee Wednesday hours, they are home again for SEC play. For the next two weekends that is, and both against teams crossing the state line.
Thursday evening begins the series with Alabama; and next week it is Auburn in the visitors dugout. So, beginning tonight it is up to the Diamond Dogs to uphold the state’s baseball honor as Mississippi (State) battles Alabama ball teams.