Jake Mangum (Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page)

Bulldogs Begin SEC Stretch Run Playing for a Repeat Championship

The Diamond Dogs aren’t saying any told-you-so’s. They are enjoying how 2017 is playing out contrary to outside expectations. Jake Mangum certainly has noticed.

“The best part about this year is preseason you see no one thought we were going to do anything. And now we’re in a great position to do something really special.”

Really special for sure.

A Mississippi State squad supposed to be rebuilding after 2016’s SEC Championship is making a real run at repeating. With two weekends remaining the Bulldogs (32-16, 16-8) are tied for first.

Make that, still tied for first. This ball club has specialized in dancing with danger from SEC opening day right up to the surprising present. It has become a literal trademark for 2017 as the ‘rally Dogs’ just keep getting it done.

“This year has been really awesome,” centerfielder Mangum said. “We have 21 come-from-behind wins. That’s insane. I don’t know how many we had last year.”

Answer: not as many. The 2016 team didn’t have to rally so often or so dramatically. This ’17 club must and does, and in more than just isolated games.

The weekend past at Texas A&M showed again Mississippi State can come back from a lost game and still take a series. One, Mangum said, might just have been “the biggest in my opinion” of the whole scrambling season so far.

“Week eight, you’re coming down to the end. Everyone is getting a little tired. And losing game-one with (Konnor) Pilkington who has been tremendous for us. Then you come out game two and win, and get the rubber match. And it puts in a great spot to where we need to be for the next two series.”

The first of those opens Friday at Georgia. The Eastern Bulldog bunch may be next-to-last in the league standings. But they just knocked Division leader Kentucky out of the top spot, and have renewed hope for making the SEC Tournament. Mangum was starting in center and leading off for the ’16 squad which took a home series from Georgia.

A year later the scene switches to Athens. Mangum is still in the same position and order slot. But, will the sophomore be swinging from either batting box again? The left hand he cracked a whole month ago has, no pun intended, hurt Mangum’s plate plans.

“It’s difficult. I haven’t hit right-handed in a month,” the switch-swinger said. “And I’ve never hit left-on-left in a game.” Never mind many insist this Dogs should always take the left box regardless of matchup, not least as it gives a head-start on his specialty of contact-and-scoot. For four weeks Mangum has been stuck on the left side.

“That was a big change, seeing a curveball coming at you and away from you. And for a couple of games using one hand. That was difficult.” Not so difficult that this Dog couldn’t adapt.

“Just try to put the ball in play. Put it on the ground and run, really. Using one hand didn’t let me drive the ball at all for a while. So just put the ball in play and put some pressure on the defense and try to get on base somehow.”

That’s been a much greater challenge this soph season than Mangum’s record-setting rookie year. He not only led Mississippi State with a .408 freshman average, he led the entire league. Mangum was off to an even faster start this year, then was still at .411 as late as the Ole Miss series.

Since then it’s been a natural slide due to accumulated scouting by SEC pitching coaches, and not the same support as a year ago. Then came the hand-cracking on April 9. Now Mangum takes a .320 average to Athens.

“But the hand is good to go now and I’ll be ready for this weekend,” he said. Mangum even suggested he might be ready to pitch again by the SEC Tournament, though Coach Andy Cannizaro isn’t as optimistic.

Mangum did enjoy his six stints and 15.1 innings on the MSU mound this season with wins over Pine Bluff and Ole Miss and a save as well. State liked having another lefty to run out there as well, and until hurting the pitching hand Mangum had found his Sunday rotation role with four SEC starts.

“It was a good change, pitching again,” he said. As for playing two positions, “It’s difficult. But we have so many guys that do it. Cole Gordon has done a tremendous job this year. Brant Blaylock is doing it now, too. Our coaches do a great job making sure we’re OK doing it.”

Fielding and hitting remain the priorities. The hand does hurt, no pun again, on the long throws. The glove is as sure as ever. Now, with the post-season looming, Mangum is ready to get the bat back on track.

Yes. Even a league-leading hitter still requires practice. Basic, fundamental practice.

“My big thing is develop your game in the cage, trust your game in the field. When you get in the box you can’t worry about anything. If you worry about where your stance is or where your hands are I think you’re already beat. The only thing you can worry about is where the pitch is going to be.”

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