Spencer Price (Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page)

League Lead At Stake in 8th SEC Weekend; Pilkington Will Start, Price Finish, All Else In-Flux on Mound

He’s back. Or, they’re back? It depends on whether that TBA is the same Bulldog pitcher or twins.

Either, “I’m going to announce TBA is back from suspension,” Andy Cannizaro said.

Meaning, Mississippi State is back to the SEC series pitching plan which isn’t so much plan as an approach. When the Bulldog defense takes to the field this evening at Blue Bell Park ace Konnor Pilkington will be on the mound.

Everything afterwards, whether relief roles tonight and starting assignments Friday and Saturday, is up to good old TBA. Or TBAs. “Just kind of see what direction the opening game goes for us in terms of how much Pilkington is able to go, who we’re able to bring out of the bullpen after that,” Cannizaro said.

“Then we’ll be able to announce a starting pitcher earlier in the day, that type of thing. It’s going to be dependent on who gets on the mound Thursday.”

For most any other season or squad such series uncertainty would signal troubles. For the Diamond Dogs? It is 2017 business as usual. And on the whole business has been good.

Good enough for Mississippi State (30-16, 14-7) to take a share of SEC first place into this Texas A&M series. Game times are 6:30 for ESPNU, then 1:00 the next two days for respectively the SEC’s on-line feed and again ESPNU.

Texas A&M (33-13, 13-8) is a single step behind the Bulldogs in this intense race, with seven teams in a one-game pack for the first two spots. These Aggies may be the SEC’s hottest squad, having won 14 of their last 16 games and ten of the last dozen league games. Much like Mississippi State, the Aggies are among the 2017 SEC surprise success stories since both clubs were ravaged by the 2016 draft.

A&M does return more on the mound though. Their right-handed rotation is led by Brigham Hill (6-3, 2.62) tonight while veterans Corbin Martin (5-2, 3.13) and Stephen Kolek (3-2, 3.52) have moved up to starting roles.

Cannizaro watched these and other Aggies throwing last year from LSU’s dugout. “They have outstanding staring pitching, big velocity with power breaking balls,” he said. “So this is a weekend offensively we need to show up ready to hit the fastball, ready to react to the secondary stuff and do our best to put the ball in play and make Texas A&M pick it up.”

Hitting has been Mississippi State’s stronger side of course. Nor is there any TBA in the top-four of this order. CF Jake Mangum (.333), 1B Brent Rooker (.413, 19 HR, 64 RBI), SS Ryan Gridley (.341) and LF/IF Cody Brown (.326) are as potent a quartet as any club in the country can send to the plate.

Rooker is the headliner, bidding for the first SEC triple crown in 33 years. He has a 17-point lead in batting on Auburn’s Jonah Todd; and is ahead of LSU’s Greg Deichmann by 11 RBI and four homers.  Rooker also leads the SEC in six other offensive categories.

However, the batting order again must get by without a true table-setter in the #9 slot. 2B Hunter Stovall’s fractured hand is in a cast for at least a full week and a brace will replace it for the next week or so. Cannizaro hopes to get Stovall (.318) back by the final regular season series and certainly by the SEC Tournament.

Until then State misses a specialist in ‘turning over’ the order for that first-foursome. The defense has to adjust as well. Stovall has missed stretches of games already this season with hamstring and hand injuries so it’s not new. It just isn’t ideal.

“He’s such a spark plug for us,” Cannizaro said. “But we’ve got good players all over the field. We’re just kind of plug-and-play.”

During the previous dozen-game absence Brown moved to second base with a couple of outfielder options in Brant Blaylock, Hunter Vansau, Elijah MacNamee. But when Stovall had to miss last Saturday’s twinbill it was 3B Luke Alexander moving over to second and CIF Harrison Bragg taking third base. Bragg does give another big bat in the middle- or late-order, and his defense is a work in progress.

Cannizaro isn’t locking-in his lineup this weekend. “There’s a couple of different things we could do. And we certainly want to see who A&M is going to throw and who we have. But there’s going to be a combination of Bragg, L.A., and Brown, MacNamee, those guys filling in.”

The larger challenge remains cobbling-together some sort of pitching approach. Though when a league-leading team has five pitching wins by Dogs who either began the season as position players or still make that their main job, it speaks to the degree of difficulty. And, the creativity Cannizaro and Coach Gary Henderson apply weekly.

Pilkington (5-3, 3.10) is the undisputed ace and fourth in SEC strikeouts. After a couple of struggling starts, still wins, he looked like an ace again in beating Auburn. Now he has to bounce-back on short rest in a park not friendly to pitchers.

At least the other sure-things for State are rested and ready. RHP Riley Self (4-0, 2.43, 3 saves) has become more than just the best set-up man in the league but is closing out games himself. Giving the ball to RHP Spencer Price (3-1, 2.03) is the usual goal as he ranks second nationally with 14 saves.

Everything else in-between the series starter and games-finishers? “We have so much on the mound that’s in flux,” Cannizaro said. “It’s day to day for us.

“I wish I could say these are our guys and roll with it. I like the guys that have been going out each weekend, we just want to do everything we can to win as many games as possible.”

Ironically for the past two weekends State was able to announce a rotation. RHP Cole Gordon (2-1, 5.58) and RHP Jacob Billingsley (1-1, 4.65) had been second and third game starters. Now, even with a short week of sorts, Cannizaro and Henderson want to see how far Pilkington can carry the load Thursday and who is needed for relief innings.

It means Gordon, Billingsley, RHP Peyton Plumlee (5-1, 3.66) are all on call for mid-game matchups if necessary. If not, they can stay starters. RHP Denver McQuary (1-1, 3.86) is also in the weekend starting mix now after a winning start last week against Ole Miss in the Governor’s Cup and a quality relief stint against Auburn Saturday.

“He’s certainly in our talks about making a start, potentially as early as this weekend,” Cannizaro said. Unless, of course, McQuary fits the relief-need matchups first. So other than Pilkington and Price every MSU moundsman is on-call at moment’s notice.

“It truly is who is available and throwing well to get the opportunity. And if they throw well they’re going to keep going back out.”

Including that TBA fellow. Or, fellows.

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