Meanwhile, the 2017 season continues. Mississippi State heads to Hoover this afternoon to prepare for opening day at the SEC Tournament. Count Andy Cannizaro excited for what he sees as the next opportunity for his team.
“I’m pretty jacked-up and looking forward to getting over there for the first time as a head coach. Our guys will be ready to play.”
Presumably, ready to play better than the last two regular season weekends showed. The Bulldogs were contending to repeat as SEC Champions and tied for first with a couple of series left. Five losses in six chances cost the title shot, as well as a first-round bye at Hoover.
Instead Mississippi State (34-22, 17-13) is first-team-out and the #5 seed. This makes for a Bulldog-on-Bulldog matchup Tuesday evening as State faces #12 and last-team-in Georgia. Game time is, well, late since the is last of four contests and follows Ole Miss vs. Auburn with their 4:30 start. Georgia is responsible for handing State the first two of those five stretch-run defeats so scouting will be simpler for both squads.
A year ago the 2016 SEC champs showed up in Hoover to collect their trophy, play a few games to tune-up for the NCAAs, and not a lot else. Those Bulldogs were all but assured of a national seeding and hosting Regional rounds.
This is a different case. Not completely different, fortunately. Mississippi State is headed back to the NCAAs as part of the annual SEC contingent appearing in post-season.
But they will be playing away from Dudy Noble Field. The NCAA’s own RPI listing today puts State at #30, which is not exactly a lock but close enough for comfort. Cannizaro isn’t about comfort though. So the first-time coach is stressing success at Hoover this week as crucial for next week and on.
“It’s really important. We want to create some momentum again and build our resume for the NCAA Tournament,” Cannizaro said. “I think 17 wins is tremendous. You finish in fifth place in the SEC, you should definitely be in the NCAA Tournament. But in terms of building our resume we still have work to do.”
History if nothing else should encourage Cannizaro. Only once has a Mississippi State team which won as many as 15 SEC games failed to earn a NCAA bid, and that was a 15-12 1994 team. Still the coach was frustrated about missing the league title shot, and being swept in the final series played in the current stadium.
“Do I wish this weekend would have gone differently and we could have won the SEC West, absolutely.” The former LSU assistant and recruiter coach was able to give the triumphant Tigers their due, and to point to their 2017 championship as example of what his own MSU program is building towards
“But more importantly I want to congratulate our players for the way we finished this year. 17 wins was phenomenal for this group.” This is no critique of the club; it is simple fact that these Bulldogs were not forecast for much any contention in 2017. Just winning enough SEC games to return to Hoover was supposed to be a worthy achievement.
Veterans of the ’16 title team and newcomers thought differently of course. Just as they aren’t conceding anything about the SEC Tournament. The last Bulldog team to win it all at Hoover was in 2012, in the first year of the current 12-team, six-day format too. Those Dogs were #7 seed making the unprecedented championship run, though it left them completely gassed for the next week’s NCAA Regional.
One advantage to a #5 seed is getting first pick of Monday practice times. Cannizaro used it to take the last slot and a 5:40 session on the tournament field. Now, who will be on that mound for first pitch of the last Tuesday game?
The better question is who can’t be called on, Cannizaro said. “We’ll see who feels well. Because I know we’ve got a team full of guys that want the baseball on Tuesday and want to go beat Georgia.” At some point Monday the starter was going to be announced and this story will be amended accordingly.
Cannizaro did say Saturday evening that even ace Konnor Pilkington, who threw 107 pitches last Thursday, is an option. Tuesday is Pilkington’s normal bullpen day after all, so throwing for-real is not as risky as it sounds. Also, that would certainly allow plenty rest-up time for the NCAA Regional schedule.
“He’d be on short rest but maybe he could give us the start where he could go three or four innings,” Cannizaro said. “But it will be all hands on deck because we need to do everything we possibly can to beat Georgia in Hoover, to get into the double-elimination part of that SEC Tournament.”
As this was filed, Cannizaro and 1B Brent Rooker had arrived at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame for the Boo Ferriss Trophy ceremony. Rooker is one of five finalists for the award given the state’s top college ballplayer. He goes to Hoover as the league leader in all the triple crown categories, and poised to be picked SEC Player of the Year. No Bulldog player has won this award since it began in 1993, though in 2003 it was divided into Player and Pitcher of the year awards.
Cannizaro and Rooker return to campus this afternoon to load-up for the team’s trip over to Hoover and their afternoon practice.