Here they are indeed. Beginning Saturday evening Mississippi State and Louisiana State will take their turns standing, and punching. One squad will leave Baton Rouge headed to the College World Series.
Just as should be, to the Bulldog coach.
“Why not? If you’ve got to get to Omaha why not try to go through LSU? They’re a program accustomed to going there, so is Mississippi State. Let’s go play, the best team win two and see who’s standing Sunday or Monday.”
The Baton Rouge super regional begins 8:00 Saturday, with the same Sunday time and no schedule set for any if-necessary Monday rematch. Or for weather adjustments, a possibility any post-season and something Mississippi State has gotten very used to. Both their SEC Tournament and Hattiesburg Regional were disrupted a whole day by rain.
Fortunately the Bulldogs have proven proficient mudders and arrive at Alex Box Stadium with one NCAA tourney title to their credit. As for another, well, as Cannizaro said, why not? His squad is confident and not a bit shy of facing the #4 national seed and SEC co-champions on their own (hopefully dry) turf.
“I love where we are as a team in terms of what we’re doing offensively, what we’re doing defensively, and what we’re doing on the mound,” said Cannizaro.
This optimistic attitude doesn’t diminish the obstacles or the opponent. LSU is the #4-seeded squad in this year’s field for very good reason. The Tigers are on a 14-win streak, and the 5-6-7 victories were over Mississippi State on the final weekend of SEC season.
While the visitors celebrated both a sweep and earning their piece of another SEC championship, Cannizaro was racked with mixed emotions. After all, in two years as a LSU assistant he’d helped recruit and train a goodly portion of their roster and lineup. Some of the stars even came over to hug their former coach.
Now here Cannizaro is, returning to Baton Rouge. For that matter to south Louisiana where the Mandeville native grew up and became a Tulane star shortstop. The story-line is irresistible since, after all, last November Cannizaro was still working Tiger practices until suddenly plucked away by John Cohen the same day the Diamond Dog coach was named athletic director.
So yes, “It gets a little awkward, sometimes. Listen, I want the best for those players in the other dugout. They are tremendous kids from tremendous families and I will always be there for those kids,” said Cannizaro.
“But this weekend, for three days it’s Hail State, Maroon and White, and catch up with those guys sometime down the line.”
In another twist, immediately after that May sweep Cannizaro was talking about a possible rematch somewhere down the NCAA line. Here it is. The Tigers expected to be here of course, by virtue of their seeding and hosting. Nothing about the first regional round rattled their cage.
Mississippi State? The only expectations Cannizaro’s first club would play post-season were within their own locker room. And by ‘post-season’ even they likely translated as SEC’s tournament.
Yet after a truly surprising regular season where for six weeks a rebuilt ball team flirted with a repeat SEC championship, here the Bulldogs are as well. They knocked off regional host Southern Mississippi and in true Cannizaro grind-it-out style, and earned this next shot at their rivals.
Yes, Cannizaro said, the Starkville sweep is being recalled. No, he doesn’t want to call it a lesson. But what the Bulldogs learned about both Tigers and themselves should help.
“I think it’s just a confidence thing,” Cannizaro said. “You got in the ring and figured out, those guys are pretty danged good in the other dugout. We played two extremely close games with those guys, but we didn’t play the brand of baseball we needed to to beat one of the best teams in the country.”
Fast-forward to now. “I just think our guys realize if we’re going to beat the team in that dugout to get to Omaha, we have to raise our level of play. We have to be better executing on offense. When we have an opportunity to turn a double-play you have to do that.”
Just as the Bulldogs did at Hattiesburg, in fact. Cannizaro saw his club gain, or maybe in some aspect regain their confidence both as individuals and a ball team. This matters in the ultra-pressures of do-or-done baseball season.
“Our guys are looking forward to the challenge. And excited about how we feel we’re going to play better than we did three weeks ago.”
Bulldog pitchers expect better starts and stints this series. Ace LHP Konnor Pilkington has been announced as lead Dog, though of course Cannizaro and Gary Henderson can change this right up to time for somebody to get loose. LSU is also weighing how to attack State.
Though, with a pair of true aces in Alex Lange and Jared Poche there no wrong choice. For that matter freshman Eric Walker, the next pitching star in Tiger land, has been as hot in tourney time as any older cat.
Regardless, as of now it’s Pilkington for the opener. “From there it will just be a TBA,” said Cannizaro. “Everybody who has followed our team knows who the pool of candidates is. It will either be Denver McQuary, Jacob Billingsley. Cole Gordon is certainly going to get back on the mound this weekend. At some point all of those guys are going to pitch this weekend. I’m in no position right now to say who will start game two. I love our options.”
There is lots to love about the 2017 Bulldogs, whatever happens this weekend. Let others talk about over-achieving, no pressure, playing with house money, nothing to lose, etc. and so on. These players aren’t ready to end the season, in several cases careers, never mind how many odds they’ve beaten to get this far. Nor is their coach.
“I can’t even begin to tell how proud I am of our team. These guys are just fun to be around. They compete. I love where we are as a team right now. Every day at the field is a blast being around these guys.”
And now, they are assured of at least two more days on the field. A hostile field to be sure, but that’s just detail to these Dogs. Fans are fun but they aren’t in the ring. And State does have those boxing gloves, after all…
“We’re excited for the challenge to play an outstanding LSU team with the opportunity to go to the College World Series,” Cannizaro said. “Let’s go play, get it on, and I like our chances.”