Andy Cannizaro (SEC, Wade Event Photography)

Bulldogs Rematch with South Alabama after Top-Seed Eagles Face Illinois-Chicago; Weather a Weekend Worry

This is the weekend college ballplayers spend a year working towards. Now the Diamond Dogs can line it up and play NCAA ball.

Mississippi State meets South Alabama in Friday’s first round of the Hattiesburg Regional. The #2 seed Bulldogs and #3 Jaguars are scheduled for 6:00 on Pete Taylor Park. Their game follows the 1:00 opener with host and top-seed Southern Mississippi facing #4 Illinois-Chicago.

“It makes everything you’ve done the whole year worth it,” Andy Cannizaro said.

Of course the first-year Bulldog coach hasn’t spent a ‘whole year’ with this team yet. He only took over last November, and it’s been a whirlwind half-year for a first-time college head coach. But yes, it has all been worth it both for Cannizaro and a rebuilding ball club that few envisioned would still be playing ball this time of 2017.

None of that unexpected success story will be worth a ball or strike call now. Not when Mississippi State has been assigned to a regional containing a regular-season champion in the host Eagles. Or, a couple of conference tournament winners in the Jaguars and Flames who, no pun intended for the latter, enter NCAA play on a hot streak.

“There’s four outstanding teams here,” Cannizaro said. His Bulldogs bring no title to this tourney, but did spend most of two months contending for a repeat SEC championship at least.

Mississippi State also arrives in Hattiesburg to see a familiar foe. South Alabama came to campus in March as part of a three-team event and took a couple of close losses to MSU. The Jaguars returned some of the favor with a 5-2 April win in Mobile.

Now these long-time inter-conference opponents collide with serious stakes. It is the second time State and USA have played in a regional. The first was back in 2013 when those Dogs were starting a surge to the College World Series. Naturally none of those participants are still around for this fourth ’17 meeting.

“They’re extremely well-coached. They’re playing really well right now,” Cannizaro said. “(Travis) Swaggerty is an all-American type of player, a five-tool guy. He does everything you’re looking for in a centerfielder. He’s kind of the catalyst of their team.”

In three meetings Swaggerty, batting third or fourth in USA’s order, went 5-of-8 with four RBI. Yes, the pitching and defense plans center around containing the Jags’ best bat.

“The biggest thing we need to try to do is our best to keep the guys that hit above him off base,” Cannizaro said. “If we can limit his RBI chances that’s a really big victory for us.” The two, or in April three batters hitting ahead of Swaggerty were a combined 4-of-24, for what that is worth.

South Alabama typically uses an order biased strongly to the left side. Conventional coaching would try a left-hand look on the hill, and by coincidence Mississippi State ace Konnor Pilkington is a southpaw. He also dominated the Jaguars back in March with 13-strikeout and 7.2-inning shutout.

Cannizaro and Gary Henderson are throwing a curve at convention. Or more often a fastball, as that is RHP Cole Gordon’s forte. This is not a complete surprise choice if one follows the other conventional thought, that this game’s winner will face the home team and top seed on Saturday.

At the same time calling on Gordon (2-2, 4.59, 51 strikeouts) isn’t an insult to South Alabama at all. The Jaguars have seen what the converted first baseman did last Friday to SEC champions Florida with seven shutout innings. Cannizaro is counting on the Gordon he saw in other games to show up this Friday.

“Cole has had terrific outings this year, his last four or five have been phenomenal. He’s a strike thrower, throws three pitches for strikes. And he’s probably one of the biggest competitors our team.”

Gordon and all other MSU moundsmen must be competitors able to shrug off blows, too. Pete Taylor Park is not exactly pitcher-friendly. This doesn’t diminish the legitimate power the home team has shown all season.

But compared to say Dudy Noble Field, the margins for location errors and lack of movement are far finer now. At the same time, Cannizaro says, this is something his offense must deal with. As in, don’t get tempted to play home run derby all day and give the Jaguars easy airballs.

“The biggest thing is have a gameplan for each hitter to have success. Do we have guys capable of hitting the ball out the ballpark, absolutely,” Cannizaro said. 1B Brent Rooker certainly is with his SEC-leading 21 home runs. Other Dogs have the pop to reach these walls as well.

This is not the approach. “For the most part we’re a line-drive, gap-to-gap singles type of team. Playing in Pete Taylor Park where the gaps are shortened and the ball really jumps, you just convince your guys put a good swing on a good pitch and try to back-spin the ball into the gaps. Let the playing conditions dictate where the ball is going to go.”

This is Mississippi State’s first appearance at PTP since 2010. Post-season play of course is nothing new for the program. There is however lots of ‘new’ to this regional. None of the pitchers who toed the Dudy Noble Field rubber in the 2016 Starkville regional or super regional for that matter are on the active roster this week.

For that matter only Rooker, CF Jake Mangum, and SS Ryan Gridley started all NCAA games last season; and 2B Hunter Stovall started one, in the super round.

Thus there isn’t much NCAA Tournament experience in the ’17 order or rotation or relief crew. Cannizaro himself is a rookie head coach on the NCAA stage, though he had two years of exposure as a LSU assistant. At least he did learn a little in the ’17 Baton Rouge Regional about adapting to weather; which could come in handy as the forecast is not encouraging for Saturday and Sunday.

Yet this half-year together has produced a new, exciting, and surprisingly successful regime debut already. So whatever happens in Hattiesburg, or not, there is every reason for Bulldog Baseball to think bigger about the whole-year ahead.

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