Brent Rooker (Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page)

League-Leader State Challenges Heating-Up Georgia Squad in SEC Stretch Run

Andy Cannizaro couldn’t resist writing the lead for everyone. “It’s going to be a quote-unquote dogfight this weekend between two Bulldogs!”

Punny or not, Mississippi State’s coach is correct from all angles. His Bulldogs (32-17, 16-8 SEC) take on Georgia (20-29, 7-17), and both packs have much to fight for in Athens.

With two series remaining State is tied for first SEC place overall with Florida. Since the respective Division leaders don’t meet this season all either can do is win one more than the other to take the outright title. If they finished flush, both will be champions as the SEC only breaks ties at the top for conference tournament seedings.

At the other end of the standings is Georgia. The other Bulldogs are 13th this week, and two losses behind Tennessee for the last Hoover berth. Tennessee also has seven wins but thanks to, or because of rainouts has just 15 losses. Standings are set on percentages, not total wins.

Fans will watch these standings shuffle from tonight through Sunday. Cannizaro tells his team to watch the field and nothing else. Least of all the scoreboard.

“We don’t need to count wins and start looking at who is doing what, if this team wins two and this wins one and this team gets swept we’re in this place… We don’t talk about any of that kind of stuff.”

Instead all talk is about a Georgia team intent on playing in Hoover. And, a Bulldog team which has heated-up just in time for a frantic finish. They scored an impressive series success by taking two at #4-ranked Kentucky, and followed up by beating rival Georgia Tech 8-7 in the Atlanta Braves’ new park. It took seven pitchers but the Bulldogs got it done and maintained fresh momentum.

“They’re a talented team playing really well now,” Cannizaro said. “We certainly have our challenge to go there and play well all three ball games and win a series. They have a younger roster that is loaded with good young players.”

In fact State’s coach presents Georgia as an evidence why SEC critics are wrong about a ‘down year’. He is talking as much to his own team on this angle, too, a reminder to take nothing for granted.

Of course his Bulldogs can think back not so long ago to their home series with Alabama. The league’s cellar dwellers battled co-leader State for three one-run finals, the last in 13 absurd innings. Alabama also just did the Dogs a favor with perhaps the biggest upset of all SEC season in sweeping at Auburn.

Cannizaro applies this to his ignore-scores-and-standings orders.

“You can’t ever get ahead of yourself in this league. It’s too competitive.”

Mississippi State and Georgia are also on opposite ends of most SEC statistics. Where the maroon Dogs are third in batting and fourth in fielding, Georgia is 13th and 14th. Now the pitching is just about even since State and UG are 13th and 14th in total ERAs of 4.61 and 5.12. But even in this both clubs are opposites, of sorts.

“They’ve got a lot of velocity on their team, quality starting pitching,” Cannizaro said. By contrast State relies on one ace, LHP Konnor Pilkington (5-4, 3.82) to eat a lot of opening-even innings before patching the rest of the weekend together game by game, inning by inning, even matchup by matchup.

At least this weekend State has set the starters. RHP Denver McQuary (2-1, 3.57) made his first SEC start a winner at Texas A&M and now gets another such game-two shot. RHP Jacob Billingsley (1-1, 4.63) has drawn the game-three duty the past four series and averaged 4.0-plus innings.

“I’m excited guys are kind of establishing themselves in roles and I feel really good about those three guys going out this weekend competing,” Cannizaro said. This leaves former game-two starter RHP Cole Gordon (2-1, 4.93) free now for long relief as needed. Which, it usually is.

The goal is get the game to RHP Riley Self (5-0, 2.21) in the later frames to finish if possible. Or, to hand the ball to RHP Spencer Price (3-1, 2.03, 14 sv) for the final inning. Yet that never was necessary in State’s rally at A&M to take the last two games, and fortunately so as Price gets the right ankle stronger.

“He could have gone out there and gut-through an inning the last couple of weeks,” Cannizaro said. “But we want to have him back to full-strength for the stretch run here.”

Price, the NCAA saves leader, still wears a boot for half-a-game or so, until and if called on to heat-up.  “This is probably going to be the first time in two or three weeks where he’s felt he can be the Spencer Price he’s been,” Cannizaro said.

There is some chance the infield will get back 2B Hunter Stovall (.318) after a five-game absence with a cracked hand. The cast is gone and Stovall is able to wear a glove and play some catch. “He’s already tugging at my sleeve in practice saying Coach, I can play!” Cannizaro said.

Stovall will try to take some real BP cuts at Athens this afternoon along with catch-and-toss, then evaluate Friday morning in case he could be available. Certainly having Stovall back in the field and the ninth batting slot by the LSU series is a goal.

Now there is even hope RHP Ryan Rigby (0-1, 0.00) could return mid-month after March surgery on both groins. Cannizaro clarified that Rigby hasn’t been on the mound yet. “We’re going to have to see a lot of stuff in the bullpen work.”

One other weekend angle is tracking 1B Brent Rooker’s run at the SEC triple crown. Rooker’s batting lead is down to ten points over a new challenger, .404 to Kentucky’s Evan White at .394. In the slugging stats Rooker is keeping a margin over LSU’s Gregg Deichmann. The Bulldogs leads 19 to 16 now in home runs; and 65 to 57 in RBI.

Series start times (central) are 6:00, 3:00, and noon. Only the Saturday game is televised, by the SEC Network.

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