Mississippi State (34-19, 17-10) hosts Louisiana State (36-17, 18-9) with the conference championship in play and the league’s West Division top spot at stake. The SEC Office couldn’t have scripted their scheduling better…
…not that any there or elsewhere foresaw this as a matchup for titles. The Tigers were expected to take the West, yes. The Bulldogs? No, not with so much to rebuild after taking the 2016 SEC crown. Yet here they are with first-year coach Cannizaro playing for the prize.
“Our guys have navigated the first 27 games in this league, they have put themselves in a position to face LSU for a chance to win the SEC West,” Cannizaro said. “That’s unbelievable.”
Notice Cannizaro stressed the West. That is within Mississippi State’s control for the most part, as taking the series from current Division leader LSU would leave the Dogs on top by direct tiebreak. The reward would be one of the top-two SEC Tournament seeds next week.
It could even be the very top if overall SEC leader Florida (19-8) drops two to Kentucky (18-9) and all three games are played. State would have to sweep to join those East leaders with 20-10 finishes and three full SEC champions since there is no tie-breaking for the overall title. State would have the edge for that #1 Hoover seeding.
At same time the standings are still so last-week tight the Bulldogs can end up fifth and playing on single-elimination Tuesday. For that matter this LSU-MSU series might not even produce the West winner, since 16-10 Arkansas could sweep at Texas A&M and thanks to an April rainout finish ahead by percentage points. The impact of rain in Starkville, and Saturday shows a strong chance, can muddy the picture more. No SEC games can be held over to Sunday, whatever impact this has on championships and seedings.
So, how does Cannizaro counsel his club to handle all the above? “We talked about knowing this week was going to be here, but not getting outside of what we’ve done all year,” the coach said.
“We don’t look at the whole weekend, we take them day by day. We’ve got the first battle Thursday and we’re going to do everything we possibly can to win the first battle.” This is as sound an approach as possible considering so much else is beyond Bulldog control.
“Week-ten SEC matchup,” said CF Jake Mangum. “It’s exactly what we’re expecting. LSU is a great team, and we think we’re a good team. So we’re just going to fight. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
The Tigers are a contender primarily by their potent pitching. They bring the best one/two combo in the conference and maybe country in righthander Alex Lange (6-5, 2.92) and lefty Jared Poche’ (8-3, 3.16). For that matter few clubs anywhere can come back the third game with a starter of righty Eric Walker’s (6-1, 3.77) stats and status.
“Those guys make you beat them, and that’s a really high compliment,” said Cannizaro of the Lange/Poche’ tandem. Cannizaro is quite familiar with those moundsmen, and most of the LSU roster.
He helped recruit them in his two Baton Rouge assistant seasons. “They’re by far the most talented group of position players we’ve faced all year, top to bottom and even on the bench.” Louisiana native and Tulane alumnus Cannizaro has been busy hearing from well-wishers for days.
“I certainly want the best for those kids. But we’re in a completely different jersey and we want to win. Their train is rolling but at the same time we feel we’re playing really well.”
This is a positive outlook after dropping a crucial series at Georgia which cost State its first-place SEC tie. Behind the two losses though the coach saw enough quality contact and hard-luck hitting not to worry about the offense. The impact was on what had been a taking-shape rotation. Sunday starter RHP Jacob Billingsley has moved back into the relief mix and TBA has returned.
State will match up with all-season series opener LHP Konnor Pilkington (6-4, 3.44), then freshman RHP Denver McQuary (3-3, 3.89). After that, “Saturday will be completely dependent on who has thrown Thursday and Friday, seeing where we are come game time.”
All the primary relievers are available all series thanks to some down-the-roster arms taking care of Tuesday’s comeback win over Troy. Only regular set-up man RHP Riley Self (5-0, 2.29, 5 sv) had to work and for just three quick outs.
Closer RHP Spencer Price (3-1, 2.28, 14 sv) is back too, from his April 29 ankle issue. He did get some rust knocked off Sunday at Georgia the hard way, but the league’s saves leader had a good tune-up bullpen session Tuesday.
“And he’s been begging for the baseball for the last month,” said Cannizaro. “We’ve tried to limit the number of touches for him but he’s feeling as good as he has since he got hurt. He’ll be out on the mound in pressure-filled situations and we look forward to Spencer to doing what he does best.”
Cannizaro said 3B/PH Harrison Bragg, sidelined by illness the last three games, could be available by tonight’s opener.
This weekend continues but doesn’t end 1B Brent Rooker’s run at the SEC batting triple crown. Rooker begins the last league series first in all three categories; .406 average, 20 homers, 71 RBI. He also is tops for now in doubles (26), slugging, on-base average and total bases.
His closest competitor in slugging stats will be in the other dugout too. LSU’s Greg Deichmann knocked his 17th shot out Tuesday and has 60 RBI. All statistical races go through the entire season, NCAA play counting.
Rooker will have a different Dog hitting ahead of him tonight. SS Ryan Gridley (.325) has swapped spots with Mangum (.335), they are now first and third respectively in the order. Cannizaro said he’d thought about this switch while Mangum adapted to the cracked left (throwing) hand he has to play with the rest of the season.
“Gridley has a higher on-base percentage, he’s going to take more pitches through the course of a game. At the same time move Jake behind Rooker because teams are going to walk Rooker, pitch around him.” Meaning they now have to pitch to switch-hitting Mangum with a fast runner already on first base.
If the series itself weren’t meaningful enough for the participants and conference, as well as impact on the NCAA Tournament standings, the home team has to cope with off-field events. Saturday will see the official ‘groundbreaking’ for the new stadium project.
Ground has already been broken months ago of course, with preliminary work on electrical lines to be ready for the heavy demands tearing down the 1987-vintage stadium will require. Still Mississippi State wanted some sort of ceremony for the final scheduled home date. There will also be a school-sanctioned recognition of the famous Left Field Lounge, which will be a necessary casualty for the expansive facility to fit. Longtime Lounge denizens have their own unofficial activities planned of course.
Most coaches would deflect all this so as to prevent distractions. Not Cannizaro.
“It’s going to be a really cool weekend. The weekend of baseball is going to speak for itself. But there’s also a big tribute in terms of the last weekend here in Dudy Noble Field as we know it now.”