League’s 2017 Surprise Squads Collide in Series with Major NCAA Stakes

Andy Cannizaro won’t be the least bit bothered by his players greeting his counterpart back to Dudy Noble Field. The head coach will do the same since he’s known Butch Thompson far longer than all the current Bulldogs recruited by the former Mississippi State assistant.

“I’m sure our guys will want to tell him hello at some point during the weekend,” Cannizaro said. “But at the same time we certainly have a task at hand. Our goal is to win the weekend to keep our momentum going.”

Mississippi State (29-14, 13-5 SEC) has that. Cannizaro’s club has won five-straight series, three by sweeps, and stands first in the league list this week. It’s a mighty narrow lead though with three rivals right behind at 12-6…including Auburn (30-13).

In year-two as head Tiger Thompson has rebuilt a busted program into a contender. Cannizaro isn’t at all surprised having met him at age 17 and following Thompson’s career since, including as part of LSU’s staff in 2015-16.

“A salt-of-the-earth kind of guy,” Cannizaro called him. Not to mention an acclaimed pitching coach and recruiter, having as noted brought much of the personnel Cannizaro now coaches to Mississippi State’s campus. He sees the stamp on Auburn.

“They’re having a terrific season, they play really hard and they kind of take on the personality of him.”

Auburn is also led by the one-two pitching punch of Keegan Thompson (5-1, 1.48) and Casey Mize (6-1, 1.23). Or the Tigers are expected to be. Thompson is set to start Friday, but Mize isn’t officially listed. Yet. He has been cleared to return from injury just in time for this series. A third righty, Davis Daniel (3-2, 4.14) is listed for game-two while -three is left open.

The pitchers are backed by a sound defense. Auburn’s offense doesn’t get as much respect but when they swing it well the runs come in bunches. The Tigers just took two from Arkansas, at home, scoring 15 and 11 in the wins.

“So it’s going to be a tremendous challenge,” Cannizaro said.

By same token Mississippi State has answered all SEC challenges since the opening league weekend at Arkansas. The Bulldogs themselves present their own challenges, and immediately at the top of the batting order.

Slump? What slump, 1B Brent Rooker signaled Tuesday evening as he slugged a three-run homer for Mississippi State’s margin of Governor’s Cup victory. Rooker added a single to push his average back up to .403. That’s a fall from the .450 of just three weeks ago, but still leads the SEC. Just as he does with now 17 homers and 61 RBI in a bid for the triple crown.

CF Jake Mangum was also sliding at mid-month with the real issue of a cracked bone in his left pitching and throwing hand. Mangum (.345) too seems to be getting back in a groove at the plate swinging ahead of Rooker. Pitching is another matter for now and even his long-throws from center are an issue.

Simply, Cannizaro said, Mangum is playing with pain. The good news now is that nothing will make the break worse so the sophomore can continue playing as long as he can tolerate the pain. “And he’s a tough guy,” Cannizaro said.

State’s offense still isn’t on the same sizzling pace of late March. In the eight games before Tuesday the top-four in the order, with SS Ryan Gridley (.339) and LF Cody Brown (.315) hit just .250 combined. Yet the squad won six of those games and went 5-of-6 in SEC play. This, without any really huge contributions or hot stretches by the rest of the order, either.

That fact reflects this offense’s nature for now, counting on clutch contacts and manufactured opportunities more than sheer statistics. Oh, and a pitching staff that somehow continues to get enough outs while limiting runs.

For a second weekend now Cannizaro is able to give a real rotation. LHP Konnor Pilkington (4-3, 3.30) will open the series as always, and former first baseman RHP Cole Gordon (2-0, 4.55) has game-two for a fourth-straight series.

RHP Jacob Billingsley (1-0, 4.18) returned to action in time to start game-three against Alabama and will reprise against Auburn. Whether he works Sunday as planned depends on the weather, which has Mississippi State making auxiliary plans to appeal for a Saturday twinbill. An announcement should come no later than mid-day Friday.

Regardless, “All of those guys are feeling really well and are excited to take the baseball this weekend,” Cannizaro said. “I feel like they’re going to pitch extremely well for us.”

At the other end of games RHP Riley Self (4-0, 2.59) and RHP Spencer Price (3-1, 2.10) are pitching better than extremely well. Self may be the best set-up righty in the league and just got his first two saves of the season in the past week.

Price is the best closer in the country, as scored by his 14 saves. He gave State a scare in game-two against Alabama chasing a grounder and rolling his right ankle. Price wears a protective boot around campus but is on-track to toss, Cannizaro said.

“Another day of rest will only do him good. We expect Spencer to be with us this weekend and perform at the level he has all year.”

Not all the news is good on the injury front. RHP Graham Ashcraft has been hobbled by a hip problem off-and-on this season. Cannizaro thought last week Ashcraft might be activated for Alabama, but after a visit with a specialist this week his 2017 is done.

“He will need some form of minor hip surgery, shave down some bone. You’d love to have him on our staff in starting or bullpen role but he’ll be out the rest of the season.”

Another righty, veteran mid-reliever Ryan Rigby, had double-groins surgery in March with hopes of a eight-week recovery. Now it is conceded Rigby won’t return until 2018.

But Mississippi State has been battling a short-stocked pitching staff since fall ball and winter surgeries added to the existing list of 2017 rehabilitations. Somehow the healthy Bulldogs pull enough together often enough to keep winning games, much like the offense in their own opportunistic way. It is tempting to wonder when this patched and plugged approach will break down.

Or, why not accept the team’s own attitude and go along with their league-leading ride? Mississippi State also has played itself into contention for hosting NCAA play another year. That is a long way off with four more SEC weekends and the conference tournament ahead.

Still, “We’re playing really well right now with a lot of confidence,” Cannizaro said. “Our guys are carrying themselves in a great manner.”

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