Cole Gordon (Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page)

State Starts SEC Second Half Hosting Alabama

Never mind their strong SEC and national standing. These Diamond Dogs aren’t beyond a little attention-getter from their coach. Or even a big attention-getter.

Such as sending three primary pitchers to the plate and conceding the last-chance inning Tuesday. “Honestly, with the way we were playing, last night was a great time to send a message to our team,” Andy Cannizaro said.

Coach and club won’t need wait long to learn if the message was received and applied. Two nights after an ugly loss to a good South Alabama team, Mississippi State (25-14, 10-5) hosts the real Alabama team. The series begins a day early as well as opens the second half of SEC season, with first Thursday pitch at 6:00 for the SEC Network.

Friday is a 6:30 start and Saturday 2:00, though both teams and all fans will be watching weekend weather developments.

Mississippi State certainly had a stormy trip to Mobile. The 5-2 loss did little damage to the record, nor should it impact a RPI now in the ‘teens by some accounts.

How the Bulldogs lost…was another matter. Cannizaro did not see the same ball club which is the first-half surprise of the SEC, going 10-5 and tying for second place overall. More accurately, he did not see the same approach on Tuesday which had won four-straight league series.

“I felt we were there just because the schedule said we had a game,” Cannizaro said.

The Bulldogs have lost four other Tuesday games so defeat wasn’t unusual. But watching the Bulldogs play without “energy, passion, aggression, all the things we’ve been able to do Fridays-Saturdays-Sundays” got to Cannizaro. Bad.

But, the advantage of this week’s early-start series is jumping right back into SEC action where State has been best. Yes, Tuesday was frustrating to Cannizaro.

“I’m equally excited about playing Alabama and want to build on the momentum we’ve played with in SEC play.”

Cannizaro and pitching coach Gary Henderson are maybe most excited that they are announcing a real rotation. Of three starting pitchers. For the first time in SEC season. And with no TBA in sight, something Cannizaro is excited to just joke about now.

“TBA had his opportunity and didn’t make the most of it!” Though as the record shows the variety of guys who did make those starts were able to begin seven wins of eight games-twos and -threes in four weekends.

LHP Konnor Pilkington (3-3, 3.00) has been the constant series-starter. Though, last Friday produced his first SEC victory of the sophomore season, at South Carolina. This was after three no-decisions which went to bullpen Bulldogs. Pilkington is being ‘shorted’ a day to remain #1 but only threw 90 pitches last time out and should be fine on this Thursday.

The most unexpected starter, both for State and the whole SEC, has to be RHP Cole Gordon (2-0, 4.18). Not because the former first baseman can’t pitch, but because he hadn’t for a couple of years. Once activated this season Gordon was supposed to throw just right-relief as needed.

But since getting a midweek start against Florida International, with no decision, Gordon has opened SEC game-twos against Kentucky and South Carolina. He didn’t get a decision in these either but gave State four full innings each time and took some strain off the short-handed bullpen. Friday gives Gordon his best shot at that first SEC decision.

RHP Jacob Billingsley (1-0, 3.80) is another starting-shot in the arm State’s staff has needed. After missing a month for injury he has come back to beat Mississippi Valley State; then give MSU a good no-decision start Sunday at South Carolina.

As Cannizaro noted, “Between them he threw ten shutout innings in a five-day span.” Which, the coach said, was as many scoreless turns as Billingsley had recorded in the previous three combined seasons.

Billingsley’s return couldn’t have been better-timed as CF/LHP Jake Mangum (2-1, 6.46) hasn’t been able to throw since banging his left hand and wrist April 9. For the first time Cannizaro called the injury a “broken hand” where before it had always been a jammed wrist. Either way, Mangum can’t throw and his hitting has been hampered too.

The bullpen is still shy all sorts of February options, and is especially short on lefthanders. RHP Peyton Plumlee (4-1, 3.09) has gone from weekend starter to Tuesday starter and SEC mid-reliever, though having tossed 54 Tuesday pitches only two days after throwing at Columbia probably pushes him to Friday availability at earliest.

Cannizaro is hopeful RHP Graham Ashcraft (2-0, 5.62) can come back after two down-weeks with injury and give a short stint sometime this weekend. The goal is finding as many healthy and rested arms to bridge things from starters to the back-end tandem of RHP Riley Self (4-0, 2.73) and RHP Spencer Price (3-1, 2.31), the league-leader with 13 saves in his 21 appearances.

Of course saves means a lead. Which means scoring, which means hitting, which means…a mid-SEC season concern. Bulldog bats have cooled considerably as spring warms up.

State was able to take two at South Carolina despite hitting just .212 for the series. But a three-hit show at South Alabama, and one of those by a ninth-inning pitcher/swinger, is not a good sign. Nor was scoring both runs on a blown fly ball, not a clean contact.

The fact is, Mississippi State’s offense has been a patchwork all season with the rare exception of, say, sizzling hitting against Tennessee. Things have been led and often just carried by 1B Brent Rooker with a most marvelous two months at the bat. So much so that the junior infielder is on the Golden Spikes watch list and making a run at the first SEC triple crown in three decades.

But even the best go cold and Rooker has gone really cold, 2-of-15 the past four games and with consecutive hitless games for the first time all season. It’s a measure of just how great he has been that Rooker still is far in front of SEC batting at .423, with second place Jonah Todd of Auburn at .385. He is nearly 300 points ahead of the slugging percentage standings, tops in on-base, way in front of RBI as well as the home runs and doubles leader. Rooker was leading in steals; he’s now tied there as State hasn’t been running him or anyone as often lately.

Cannizaro fully expects Rooker will see lots less hittable pitches for the rest of the season. Meaning, lead-Dog Mangum (.357, down from .405 in late March) and SS Ryan Gridley (.346) in the three-hole have to heat back up and protect Rooker. And, pressure pitchers. Getting 2B Hunter Stovall back and back to speed (.300) at the end of the order helps as well.

Though, Cannizaro has to adjust the infield and order for game-three. Gridley must attend a sister’s wedding, having informed the coaches back in December and getting their blessing. Stovall will take shortstop and LF Cody Brown return to second base where he has played often this year.

On paper, where records and stats are kept, this would seem a weekend State can afford some shuffling. Alabama (15-22, 2-13) is last in the league standings at half-way as a new coaching staff begins rebuilding. But Cannizaro would not take anything for granted even if his team was peaking.

Now, the coach is stating the case even more strongly that the Bulldogs are in no position to relax or to assume success.

“I know (Alabama’s) record is not going to jump out at people around the country. But I know they will be ready to play this weekend and we have to play extremely well if we want to win the series. Completely throw records out of the equation.”

Certainly, throw out the attitude that aggravated Cannizaro so Tuesday evening. If his Bulldogs believe energy-passion-aggression can be turned on just for weekends and at will, well…they hopefully know better now, Cannizaro said.

“Make a statement on how good a team we are and what we plan on doing.”

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