The question becomes…what can’t these Diamond Dogs do?
Andy Cannizaro hasn’t addressed this query directly himself. Nor need he. One coach comment seems to say all we need know about this 2017 team.
“We use the phrase ‘will over skill’ so much,” Cannizaro said. “We’re going to keep fighting.”
The Bulldogs keep fighting, keep winning, and for another week keep their place at the top of the Southeastern Conference standings. A shared place of course. Eight weekends of a fabulously frantic season find both Mississippi State and Florida at 16-8 and a game in front of three other contenders.
Yes, it is a shared top spot, same as the last month and more. Yet as leaders shuffle around there has been one constant for three weeks. Others rise and fall while the Bulldogs stay out front.
They also do it despite their own stumbles and setbacks. When Texas A&M, which a week ago was one of that game-back bunch, took the series opener and beat Bulldog ace LHP Konnor Pilkington up, the rest of the league figured surely this was it for State. Especially as for the first time since opening weekend the Dogs were coming off a lost series, to new league-co-leader Auburn.
Two days later, Mississippi State magic had righted things. The Bulldogs scored gritty wins, the rubber-game decided on an Aggie passed ball no less, and were right back in first place. With, it needs noting, help in the form of multiple losses by Auburn and Kentucky and other split series.
But make no mistake. The Bulldogs stand where they do another week on their own efforts. Extra efforts really. “The way our team is, we always battle back,” CF Jake Mangum said.
3B Luke Alexander has a simpler explanation. “We’re just tough guys.”
Tough enough to win with a roster short at least one-third of the planned pitching, down a number of defenders off-and-on-and-off again over the schedule’s course, and forced to shuffle lineups in- and out-field alike. By all rational rights winning say a third of their SEC games would be an achievement.
Instead this team has won six of eight series. They are just one won-weekend behind what the 2016 SEC Championship squad did, in amazing fact. That also already ties the record for SEC series won in consecutive years at 15, matching what the 1983-84 ancestors did though in eight-series seasons back then.
The present point though is after losing the best starting arms and most of the offense from a ’16 title team, here is a scrambling ’17 squad racing for a repeat. Which hasn’t been done in this conference in six years; or at Mississippi State in almost seven decades.
Tough is as clear an explanation as any these May days. Team batting keeps slipping, the staff and starting ERAs keep rising, and the wins keep coming. Cannizaro has a good idea how so.
This is not a mentally, for that matter emotionally fragile ball team.
“We understand we’re not going to win every game we play,” the coach said. “But we just want to make sure we bring our best game to the ball park.” If they don’t play their best one day or weekend, well, the Dogs are adept at moving on to the next.
College Station may have brought out their best in fact. Cannizaro certainly thought so as after falling 9-2 the first night State, with a brand-new weekend starter in RHP Denver McQuary, won 5-1. “It may have been our best win of the year,” Cannizaro said, a most interesting comment since there have been plenty prime victories already.
“I’m proud of how well we competed the final two games,” Cannizaro emphasized. “We didn’t play well Thursday. But we came back and showed a lot of fight, we played very well the final 18 innings in the series. Our guys really rose to the occasion.”
Not the usual guys, either. That top-four in State’s batting order averaged just .152 for the weekend. 1B Brent Rooker was just 3-of-11 with one RBI. Mangum, 2-of-14. SS Ryan Gridley was 0-of-9. Now combine these struggles by the expected producers with 32 strikeouts in 27 innings and just six walks, all in one game too, and the stats say State should have been swept.
Instead, State succeeded. It reinforces Cannizaro’s confidence about rising to occasions. “It’s a mark of a good team that guys seep to step up each day,” he said.
Such as DH/OF Elijah MacNamee going 4-of-13 with two RBI. Or OF Hunter Vansau 4-of-10 and two ribbies as well. Others weren’t weekend-consistent but single-game clutch as ironman C Josh Lovelady was 3-of-4 in game three…and scored that game-winner when an Aggie pitch got away.
Struggling OF Tanner Poole was 2-of-4 in the rubber game. In the swing-game it was Alexander going 3-of-5. This signals that even when top (order and stats) Dogs struggle, opponents still are in danger.
“I’m challenging our hitters daily for someone else to step up and go win the game,” Cannizaro said. “Because teams are not going to let Brent Rooker beat them like in the first half of the year.”
Speaking of Rooker, at .404 he’s lost a lot of margin but still leads the league batting race by 13 points over Auburn’s Jonah Todd. Rooker has larger leads in home runs (19) and RBI (65) as he tries to become the SEC’s first triple-crown batter since Rafael Palmeiro in 1984.
Rooker also added to his doubles total and now has 25, fourth-most in MSU season history and just two behind Pete Young’s 1989 record of 27. He is tied for 8th-most homers in a season already.
Another positive from College Station was lack of injuries. Everybody appears to have returned healthy, making it something of an exceptional weekend. State still will be without regular 2B Hunter Stovall at least one more weekend. Cannizaro hopes the broken hand will heal fast enough for the final SEC series and certainly expects Stovall back by Hoover.
There are two series between State and the SEC Tournament, as well as a repeat championship. Since the Bulldogs and Gators don’t play this season the long list of league tiebreakers will be studied between now and May 20. That’s if State can keep doing what they’re done, however it has been done.
The upcoming series at Georgia presents opportunity to keep on pace…or stumble badly. The other Dogs are 13th in the new SEC standings, desperate to avoid missing Hoover, and dangerous. Very dangerous, as Kentucky found out by losing two of three in Lexington to a Georgia team which isn’t going away.
Nobody claims comfort with any batting slumps down the stretch. Or with Pilkington’s short stint to open a key series. Still there is a confidence throughout the club somebody will pick up slack, fill a void, make a play or something.
“These wins are symbols of what we always talk about,” Cannizaro said. “It’s all hands on deck every day.”
Speaking of symbols, Monday’s release of national polls finds the Bulldogs now #7 by D1Baseball.com; and #6 in Baseball America; with other polls forthcoming.
The NCAA had not updated its official RPI standings as of 11:00am central.