‘It’ being Mississippi State’s standing atop the Southeastern Conference. Sole, shared, whatever…this remains one of college baseball’s surprise stories from April 2017.
“I mean, no one expected us to do anything,” Gridley reminded. “We were going to be last place in the SEC, to be honest. To be in first place is a privilege and we want to keep it going.”
That privilege is earned of course, and Mississippi State (30-16, 14-7) certainly earned a surprising share of the top spot. Winning five-straight series between the lost weekends at Arkansas and to Auburn still keeps State contending to repeat as SEC Champions as May begins.
Contending, repeat, as with three series left for everyone no less than half of the SEC roster sits at 14 or 13 wins today. A whole lot of shaking-out is ahead before the league tournament, much less the NCAA Tournament selections, seedings, and sitings. Mississippi State has a strong position in all three aspects already.
So after suffering a Saturday double-header sweeping by co-leader Auburn, Coach Andy Cannizaro kept perspective. “It’s one day. It’s just one day,” he said. “And that’s what I told our guys.
“At the end of this day let’s not lose the fact. We’re going to be tied for first place in the SEC and there wasn’t anybody under the sun that thought we were going to be tied for first place after seven weeks in the SEC.”
That said, this new week presents a fresh challenge for the first-time head coach and a ball club which just lost another key part. How does a Dog team which was having so much go right so often cope with the one very bad day when most everything went wrong?
This is where an old Dog who has been part of literally the rock-bottom lows of 2015, then last season’s championship run, steps to the fore. Brent Rooker accepts the responsibility with his fellow veterans “Yeah, it’s kind of introducing young guys to hey, this is what the SEC is,” Rooker said.
“It’s just kind of a learning to try to weather the highs and lows with an even keel mentality. Just keep working and grinding through the whole season. Because it truly is a test of ability and endurance.”
Of focus, too. The Bulldogs will be tested this week with wrapping up spring semester finals ahead of an early departure for Texas A&M and the Thursday-starting series. At least there is no mid-week game to distract attention. Or, to stress a pitching staff further.
Mississippi State did get to celebrate the most recent non-league game. Last week’s Governor’s Cup victory was a valuable boost in both pride and RPI. Combined with the three March wins in Oxford, it also made Cannizaro the first Bulldog coach since 1948 to completely sweep his first season’s meetings with Ole Miss.
For that matter reaching 30 wins in year-one makes Cannizaro unique in MSU history. Only Ron Polk has done it before and that was in his second stint as head coach, not the first.
Of course Cannizaro and club would far rather have at least 31 wins today and an extended won-series streak. For the first time on a SEC weekend in a long time the Bulldogs didn’t play “great team baseball” the coach said. “We’ve been clicking on all cylinders here the last couple of weeks. Swinging it well, pitching it well, playing quality defense. There were glimpses of it but there were also big gaps.
“But, the whole weekend is not lost. We beat their ace on a Friday night in the SEC. We were able to win one game. We need to use today as a learning experience and say when we’re winning these are the things that we’re doing well. When we lose these are the things we don’t do well.”
Mississippi State does have another sort of gap; at second base again. In that Friday win Hunter Stovall took a pitch off the hand that fractured a metacarpal. A Monday report suggests Stovall could be back as soon as the LSU series but that seems soon.
This is the second hand injury and the third setback total for Stovall, so State has played without him a good—or bad—bit already. Previously Cannizaro used Cody Brown at second base, but his value in left field has brought another shuffle. Luke Alexander will take care of second base and Harrison Bragg step in at third base, and go from there.
Bragg does bring a bigger bat, but Stovall’s work in the nine-slot getting on and running bases and just making plays ahead of the order-toppers is still a setback. “We’ll just have to learn again how to win without him,” Cannizaro said.
That short-handed staff didn’t lose anyone new technically last week. It simply had confirmed that RHP Graham Ashcraft is done for the season with a needed hip procedure. Nor does it appear CF Jake Mangum will do much if any more pitching. He will play-out the rest of the sophomore season with a cracked left hand that won’t get worse and doesn’t impact his batting or fielding. Throwing much less pitching is another matter for the southpaw.
Fans also got a scare Saturday when both Brown and starting RHP Cole Gordon came up gimpy at times. Fortunately cramps were the issue, a reminder to all players that despite the wild weather spring is here and hydration/stretching is mandatory.
State would love to stretch the starting pitching too. Ace LHP Konnor Pilkington (5-3, 3.10) took care of this in Friday’s win. The sophomore did toss 122 pitches though and now is shorted a day’s rest ahead of opening against the Aggies. Pilkington has done this before at least and knows the drill.
The concern is how many innings the other starters can give. Not so much pitches as RHP Cole Gordon (2-1) threw 71 in his stint, but that only got 3.0-plus frames as Auburn jumped on his fastballs for five runs. As they also did the stuff thrown by the next two relievers in fact. RHP Jacob Billingsley (1-1) also lasted just 3.0 innings the next game on 46 pitches.
Nor for that matter did the middle-relievers who had done so well in winning series tide innings over to the closing tandem of RHP Riley Self and RHP Spencer Price. Maybe it was a normal case of one off-weekend for a staff. Maybe it was the overdue struggling of a patchwork crew. Regardless, there are no new arms coming on-board and Cannizaro counts on pitchers who have done their jobs before to do them again.
“By no means have we lost any confidence in those guys. They’re going to be right back on the mound.” Though, Cannizaro agreed, “You need to get more than six innings out of your starting pitching.”
Could there be another rotation shuffle in store? Though not dominating, RHP Denver McQuary did go 5.1 innings for his first career win and that against the rival Rebels too. He was also able to give 3.0 middle innings Saturday night with no runs allowed. The empty midweek offers enough rest time that if Coach Gary Henderson would like to try somebody else by this weekend this new option should be available.
Winning isn’t optional of course. The good news from a lost weekend is State only slipped one place in the NCAA’s own published RPI, to #18 going into May. That is still outside the cut-line for one of the priceless #1 seeds which secures hosting a first-round regional. But it’s close enough to contend with, yes, more wins. A lot more wins.
The Bulldogs were given a free Sunday before turning to practices today and Tuesday. They will leave Wednesday for a practice at Blue Bell Park. Oh, and they will still carry a share of the league lead with them.
“And that’s the part that is so cool,” Cannizaro said. “With three weeks left we’re tied for first place in the SEC, which is pretty dang cool for me.”
Updated NCAA.com RPI for SEC Teams:
Mississippi State #18
South Carolina #32
Ole Miss #34
Texas A&M #35