Andy Cannizaro (Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page)

Bandaged-Together Bulldogs Leading the SEC Pack

Whatever brands of bolts, bonds, bandages, baling wire and duct tape Andy Cannizaro endorses…buy 'em. In bulk.

Because what Mississippi State’s skipper is doing must be among the greatest patch-and-pray jobs seen in college sports. Cannizaro and staff not only have cobbled-together a competitive club from a limited first-season roster. They have driven this battered Bulldog buggy out in front of the SEC race.

Following a frantic two days at Dudy Noble Field, Mississippi State (28-14, 13-5) has emerged as league leader. OK, it took longer than two days. If not for a controversial ending, one which we all admit wasn’t well-handled by a shaky blue crew, we might still be there now.

But that bedamnedest game-three, how it played-out and how it ended, serves to emphasize the point. These Diamond Dogs aren’t doing much by the book. They aren’t doing anything by anybody’s book. Cannizaro’s club scrapes along lap by lap without touching the brakes.

And…it is working. Somehow. Someway. No pit crew could do a better job gumming this jalopy together and keeping it running, much less out in front. Yet here they are and honestly, can anyone give just a quick explanation how?

Cannizaro can. His comment following the double-header, double wins over Alabama sums it all up.

“What an incredible way to continue to fight and fight and fight. And these victories today symbolize everything our team is about right now.”

Don’t look at me for any argument. If Yer Editer can’t explain it he sure as shifting can enjoy it. I’m confident few of Mississippi State’s, what? now five SEC series victims understand it either.

Oh it was easy for everyone a few weeks ago to credit incredible hitting at the top of the order and a OK-enough starting staff riding the run support. So what’s getting it done now?

Brent Rooker and Jake Mangum have slumped, for differing reasons. In fact the top-four in the MSU regular order of Mangum, Rooker, Ryan Gridley, and Cody Brown have hit a combined .250 the last eight games. And yet the team has won six of those and, more of matter, five of the six SEC games.

Or take the one sure-thing on the starting staff. Konnor Pilkington isn’t exactly carving-up orders of late and the strikeout-to-walk differential is shrinking. But he does enough for long enough to either get the win or, since Arkansas, avoid the loss.

For that matter that late-inning tag team of Riley Self and Spencer Price does not dominate every time. Or most times. They do generally outlast whatever issues and seal deals, and isn’t that what matters anyway?

What I’m getting at here is statistical slackening by the acknowledged stars is, in the same weird way as so much about this ball club, quite encouraging. There are times the Bulldogs win in spite of themselves and not because they are so individually great players. Because, collectively this epitomizes the idea about ‘sum of parts’ and such.

Let us be clear. Cannizaro didn’t just pick up pieces from some baseball salvage yard. There are quality players who belong here, credit the previous staff. We ought also remind how so many prime pitching parts are still in the body shop…which makes one wonder just what Cannizaro could do with an intact team?

Save all that for 2018. For now the ’17 squad is doing things and doing them in ways which someday could be recalled as truly historic. Put another way, there assuredly have been better ball clubs here. There hasn’t been one doing more with what they’ve got than these Dogs.

Hoary baseball wisdom has it that coaches/managers usually do more to lose a game than win them. Here too 2017 State excepts the rule. I commented after the sweep at Ole Miss how it was the rare weekend where every pushed-button got a good result. Suddenly it doesn’t seem so rare.

This isn’t to say Cannizaro’s choices and calls have always worked out. Most notably and to fans annoyingly, some baserunning has just run the Dogs out of innings. But upon longer thought chalk this up to a mindset of staying aggressive in all aspects.

So I’ll give away a runner or two some innings if it increases defensive gaps and produces more hittable pitches the rest of the game. Or watch an unexpected sort of relief arm brought in for a matchup which doesn’t follow tradition. (Not that Cannizaro and Henderson have a lot to choose from, of course.) If the tires are turning in State’s dugout, imagine how it clouds the vision in the other where they try to guess just what will these Dogs do next?

I will draw one, just one example from many this fascinating season. With a sweep at stake Cannizaro and Henderson call on a kid who three (or four? It was already after midnight, right?) nights earlier had thrown his first live pitch since age 17. There were a couple of primary pitchers still available but nope, it’s outfielder Brant Blaylock told to squelch Alabama’s 11th-inning assault.

The 20-year-old kid did, earning a win that no matter whatever else Blaylock does in his baseball career will have to be THE moment of memory. I don’t care if that was the cellar-dweller in the other dugout. It was a SEC batting order and an outfielder shuts them out for two-plus turns. It really happened.

Which is not a bad way to explain all we’ve seen, so far. It really has happened.

So. Can it last? Can the heap hold together a few hundred more hard laps around the league?

Why not?

I mean, like many others—who have the luxury of saying-so in private and not on record—I also keep thinking how and asking how long. Each week, the answer is a little longer. Why, things have gotten to a point where folk are actually upset when things don’t work out for this crew.

They certainly themselves are, which says something for the level of internal expectations Cannizaro encourages. While constantly falling two, three or more runs behind isn’t the best way to win a SEC game, much less a SEC title, these Dogs appear comfortable about it all.

This isn’t to say they ignore the realities. Like, being just one major injury away from disaster, and let’s hope the right ankle for Price is (sorry, couldn’t resist) right soon. It is also telling to see just how hard Cannizaro pushes the pedal the rest of the week. I mean, most skippers would have written-off the South Alabama trip as an off-night and cut slack.

Uh-uh. This coach did the equivalent of yanking a bored driver mid-race and throwing the tire man into the seat. It didn’t win that night but boy did it get team attention.

Oh, and look at our other example from Friday night/Saturday morning. A Dogs benched for one defensive decision became the comeback’s clutch hitter, albeit with two of the most completely unique contacts in program history. I’ll have to ask Luke Alexander if he was happier about the home run, the dropped pop-up to tie, or that ‘base hit’ to win the sweep?

See what we mean by patching a plan together? There is one other twist to this wrench though. Writers like me always refer to ‘big picture’ and generally so do coaches.

Not this one. Not with this team.

Cannizaro explained it really well last week on his call-in show. “Our guys have done a phenomenal job of taking it day by day. We don’t look at the big picture. That’s why we’ve been winning ball games, because we play et hard, don’t give up, never think we’re going to lose.”

If the Bulldogs don’t believe they will lose, why should we? There surely will be setbacks ahead, baseball being baseball. By the way, sweeping Alabama to me takes a ton of pressure off Tuesday’s game with Ole Miss. Don’t read this part, Coach, but I’ll look at that bigger picture and say State can save pitching for Auburn and a direct battle for the SEC lead. The Rebels, by the way, go from Pearl to Arkansas for a Thursday series, so their situation is much more complicated.

OK, Coach, you can rejoin us.

It’s fabulous fun watching a team ignore any deficiencies and play at a league-leading pace. Now here is a thought. Let Rooker heat it up again. Get Mangum’s left hand healthy enough to hit a lot and maybe pitch a little. Keep getting Hunter Stovall up to speed at the back-end of the order. Continue developing young Dustin Skelton mitt to go with the bat. Leave Brown in the lineup somewhere, anywhere.

And just keep building the MSU mentality that here in 2017 statistical consistency means n-o-t-h-i-n-g. Production, even if in just one situation sometime, means everything. Nobody I know says this is the best roster in the SEC.

It is the most entertaining ball club in the conference. With smoking engine, grinding gears, bent bodywork and flapping fenders, here it is rounding the backstretch curve front of the field like a rambling ride of baling wire and duct tape.


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