Mississippi State’s is giving Cole Gordon the ball when the #2 seed Bulldogs square off with #2 South Alabama in the Hattiesburg Regional. Game time is set for 6:00 and to follow the 1:00 game between #1 seed and host Southern Mississippi and #4 Illinois-Chicago.
Coach Andy Cannizaro had said earlier Wednesday “It’s either going to be Konnor Pilkington or Cole Gordon.” He and pitching coach Gary Henderson wanted to finish the day’s campus bullpen sessions and evaluations, talk it over with the possible pitchers about how their arms felt; then make the choice.
At 5:20 the announcement came. Righthander Gordon (2-2, 4.59) opens the NCAA season for Mississippi State.
Conventional thinking would have given the job to ace Pilkington (7-5, 3.13). The sophomore is the staff ace after all. He’s opened every weekend of the season so far, from the February four-game events to last week’s SEC Tournament and all conference series in-between.
This includes his March 10 start against these same Jaguars. It was on Dudy Noble Field, on a Friday, and a very good day for Pilkington. He went 7.2 scoreless innings in a 2-0 victory, allowing just four hits and two walks while striking out 13.
So obviously Mississippi State would go with its lead Dog and seek the same results in a rematch most of two months later? Well, no.
In fact Cannizaro is handing the ball and the pressure to a pitcher who began this sophomore season as a first baseman. Gordon did get some relief work from the opening weekend on; then was promoted to starter in early April. He has started seven of his last nine games, five of them in the SEC regular season.
What likely clinched this was Gordon’s good work against league champs Florida last Friday in the SEC Tournament. He threw seven scoreless turns against the Gators and was only lifted after a leadoff single in the eighth at 88 pitches.
There is a twist to this selection. While Mississippi State played South Alabama thrice in the regular season, Gordon never threw a pitch. For that matter he didn’t even have an at-bat in those meetings. So the Jaguars don’t have any sort of first-hand scouting on the converted infielder.
The other angle is obviously saving ace Pilkington for the second game. If results match seeds it will be Mississippi State against Southern Mississippi on the second day, the usually-decisive game in routine regionals. It’s a sizable ‘if’ of course. South Alabama beat the Bulldogs in Mobile and only dropped a pair of two-run finals in Starkville.
The Jaguars will also put a left-hand-heavy order together. That too would seem to call for lefty Pilkington, as there are no other viable starting choices and just two available southpaws in the bullpen.
Yet Cannizaro is rolling those regional dice in a big way. In ‘routine’ again worst case Pilkington would be there to keep the team alive on the second day. But should Gordon get it done Friday the Bulldogs are in as good a position as possible.
Ether way, “Obviously we have a ton of confidence in both of those guys and we’re excited to put both on the mound this weekend,” Cannizaro said. Meaning the candidate watching Friday will be on-track for Saturday, to either keep State in the winners bracket or keep the Dogs alive.
Confidence doesn’t mean leaving everything in a starter’s (right) hand. Cannizaro talks of planning on a six-inning stint to begin; coming with mid-game arms such as RHP Peyton Plumlee and RHP Trey Jolly for an inning each; then running RHP Riley Self out to seal the deal.
“In a perfect world this is how we’re going to do it. Each and every game is mapped-out. Does it go accordingly? Never!”
What can be scripted is the starter, and if the score suits the finisher. That falls now to Self (5-1, 3.89). After months as the mid-game or set-up arm, Self is the closing act. He has six saves, all since April 21, and was poised to get another at the SEC Tournament if just a couple of strike calls had gone his way against Florida.
This is a true freshman, too, going into his first NCAA Tournament. Cannizaro calls Self “well advanced” beyond his college years…or year that is. “He is not scared at all. He wants the ball in the biggest moments and when the game is on the line.
“He is a strike-thrower, foremost. He is not scared to get in front of 10,000 and complete and throw it over the plate. He gives us a chance to win every time he’s on the mound.”
About that ‘ever time’ bit though. Contributing to his Friday scuffles at Hoover was throwing on a third-straight day. Never mind Self had tossed just seven and 15 in the previous two saves. The warm-up and game juices take a toll, even on a well-advanced rookie.
This won’t keep State from calling on the kid at crunch time all weekend.
“In a perfect world we would not have to use Riley three days in a row. With any young pitcher their stuff starts to decline pitching back to back to back. But he’s been tremendous role in his role, whether an inning or two or three or four or five. He is a major reason we’re playing this weekend.”
A major reason the Bulldogs spent most of SEC season contending for a title was the righty Self had been setting-up. Now it is questionable how much Mississippi State can ask from RHP Spencer Price (3-1, 2.45).
Price tried to close that Florida game and couldn’t find the strike zone at all in a very short stint. The right ankle sprained on April 20 (leading to Self’s shift) hasn’t healed quickly enough. “Every time he runs to the mound he’s got danged near a cast half-way up his leg,” Cannizaro said. Yes, it is the high ankle sprain so dreaded of football and basketball players.
Pitching and moving should not worsen the sprain now, Cannizaro said. “But in terms of being able to push off the rubber and the mound and field his position, the effectiveness of his fastball and breaking ball early in the year, it hasn’t been there since he’s been hurt.”
So, back to that script and perfect world; the coach said ideally Price won’t be needed to close this Regional.
“But maybe we can find some kind of role to get him out there to get some outs to navigate the weekend.”
State also doesn’t have to perfect any plans past the first two starts for that matter. The season could end Saturday after all. Or the Bulldogs can win on into Sunday for at least one and maybe two more starts. Then there is that weather wild card which all four Regional staffs are keeping an eye on.
What’s new about this, asks Louisiana native Cannizaro? “The weather always dominates this time of year.” He saw it first-hand last year as a LSU assistant when their first-round regional was scrambled by rain. Last week’s SEC Tourney had the Dogs going a day-late too with wet weather.
“So the best thing you can do is prepare your team to play every day and make sure when they say ‘play ball’ your guys are ready to go,” Cannizaro said. “This is where we live in the Deep South, it rains probably every afternoon. You get used to it and roll with the punches.”