“The good things is we’re right back on the field Tuesday.”
Right back on the home field at that, as Mississippi State concludes the regular schedule with four games in five days on Dudy Noble Field. It does start this evening with Troy coming in for a 6:30 matchup.
For the Diamond Dogs (33-19) the non-conference contest is opportunity. First and foremost to add one more win to the total, of course. Yet they cannot assume anything based both on the season as a whole, and more so on Tuesday nights where State is just 4-5 this season. The entire non-SEC record is 16-9.
Troy (30-21) arrives with some May momentum. The Trojans are coming off a three-game sweep of Louisiana-Monroe and have won five-straight games. They also have a pair of wins over the in-state SEC squads, defeating Alabama 12-11 and Auburn 5-2.
Lefthander Max Newton (2-0, 4.29) has drawn the midweek start, his fourth of the season which has been spent mostly in short relief with just 21.0 total innings worked.
Mississippi State will use a more regular starter. Though, based on his last outing RHP Jacob Billingsley (1-2, 5.09) is apparently out of a rotation role for the coming SEC series. Billingsley made a fourth SEC game-three start at Georgia on Sunday, and faced only four batters. Two of them hit safely, the second for a two-run homer providing all the offense the home team needed. Another walk ended Billingsley’s stint at 0.1 innings.
So Cannizaro and Gary Henderson appear to be using this midweek matchup to get Billingsley back on track. This would also seem a sign that the junior is already being set up for a start at next week’s SEC Tournament; especially so if the Bulldogs fall out of the top-four and have to play in Tuesday’s single elimination round.
Until Sunday, the plan was not only to show up on Hoover’s field on Wednesday as a top-four seed but to go there as repeat SEC Champions. That goal is several degrees harder after dropping the Georgia series. Mississippi State can still defend its 2016 Championship but only by sweeping visiting Louisiana State; and getting exactly the right amount of help from Kentucky in their series at current league leader Florida.
All this ought to play into Cannizaro’s approach to the whole season since day-one. That being, one day and one game at a time. The simple-sounding idea gets lost when teams are coming down to crunch time and counting wins and losses.
Now however, if not for the best reasons, the coach should have a club completely bought into the theme. It applies equally with Troy, too. The Bulldogs have to win this one to avoid further damage to their RPI standing, which fell eight spots—and out of the top-16 range—over the weekend. Playing the Trojans won’t help the RPI much since they are a mid-100s themselves.
Losing to Troy would leave Mississippi State hopes of hosting a NCAA Regional in critical condition, at best. Add this to a mix of motivations which also includes just getting back in a winning habit ahead of the annual rivalry meeting with LSU.
One positive coming out of Athens was the return of 2B Hunter Stovall to action after missing five games with a fractured hand. Stovall was back in the starting lineup and #9 spot in the order all weekend.
Meanwhile RHP Spencer Price awaits his own activation. The SEC’s leader in saves has not pitched since April 29, resting a right ankle rolled in closing out a win over Alabama. Price is cleared to pitch but situations haven’t developed to suit his role. Price’s 14 saves are one strong reason why State is 26-2 when leading after six innings.
On the offensive side, junior 1B Brent Rooker had a big Friday in State’s only win over Georgia; then two days of pitch-arounds and his own forced swings out of Sunday frustration. Still Rooker did get his 20th home run of the season, the most by a Bulldog since Tommy Raffo slugged 22 in 1989.
Raffo also continues to lead in all the ‘triple crown’ categories among SEC hitters. He is averaging an even .400 now, nine points in front of Kentucky’s Evan White. His 20 homers set the pace by four over a pair of league sluggers. At 68 RBI, Rooker is ahead of Texas A&M’s Braden Shewmake at 61.
Tuesday’s game is on the full MSU Radio Network, with video available by the SEC Network-Plus.