Russ McNickle Talks About MSU Pitching

On this year's Mississippi State baseball team, the thing that has been the most surprising has been the pitching. Mississippi State pitching coach Russ McNickle talked about this year's pitching staff.

Pitching has been somewhat of a surprise to me this year. Has it also surprised you?
"I'll be honest with you, I'm very surprised by what we have done from a staff standpoint. They understand their roles, they understand their jobs. So far, they have done a good job of doing what they are supposed to do when they get their opportunity."

Sophomore Jon Crosby and true freshman John Lalor have done well. What did you see from them that caused you to give them the opportunity to start?
"The bottom line for Crosby is that he got an opportunity when (Josh) Johnson wasn't performing as well as I think he is capable of and made the most of it. One of the first things I shared with him when I became pitching coach was that everybody is at square one. Well, pretty much everyone but AJ (Alan Johnson). AJ had earned (his starting role), deserved it and needed to be there. But I told the rest of them that they would be evaluated on their work ethic, their self discipline and their performance.

"With Lalor, he is a guy who has such a projectable body and throws a lot of strikes. My philosophy, as a pitching coach, is I'm not worried about wasting pitches or making guys take a pitch to set up another pitch. I want to pound the strikezone and he can do that. Another thing is he throws a good changeup. And that is something I love (my pitchers) to throw."

Is his changeup the reason he strikes out so many hitters at times?
"He can add and subtract. What I mean by that is he can speed them up or slow them down. But, yes, his changeup is what has made his numbers as good as they are. He made some quality pitches at South Alabama in some big moments in the early innings that helped him get out of some situations."

Mike Valentine is another guy that you have used a lot this year that wasn't really used much in the past.
"Mike has done nothing but have success in intra-squad games and practice settings. He throws a heavy, sinking fastball, but is in the strikezone a bunch. He has worked hard on his off-speed pitches, but he also has a good changeup and can throw it for strikes. He has also done all the things I've asked him to do, he has worked hard and performed. When he got his opportunity, he made the most of it."

Why do you like the changeup so much?
"I just like that pitch, especially if you can throw it for strikes. It comes out of your hand just like a fastball. It helps keep hitters off-balanced and helps set up so many other things. It sets up your breaking ball and your fastball's movement patterns and location."

One of the things I have noticed is you don't have a specific guy that is your closer. You've used several guys in that role. Did you plan that?
"I think if you rely on one guy all the time - kind of like Saunders (Ramsey) last year - sooner or later it's just not going to be there. If you have developed enough guys in the bullpen and a guy doesn't have it in the game, then you have another guy who you can use. Also, an advantage to using a lot of different guys, it keeps them competitive, it keeps them working and it keeps them motivated for the time when they get their opportunity."

Something I've seen this year that I haven't seen much since the Jeff Brantley era is more complete games.
"We've had two and I was trying to get Brooks (Dunn) through one also. But once they reach 100 pitches, I start getting a little nervous from an injury standpoint. A rule of thumb for me is 115 (pitches) is usually the max for me. Crosby actually threw 122, but he started the inning under that. But you aren't going to take that kind of opportunity from a kid. He had pitched a complete game shutout through 8 innings. You want to see if he can finish what he started because that is a special thing. (Todd) Doolittle (who threw the other complete game) actually threw less than 115 at Georgia. His breaking ball was really on and he threw some great fastballs down and away from them. He really located his fastballs well that day.

"(Locating fastballs) is a strength of our staff. One of the things I've done since I've taken over is tell them that we are going to pitch with a fastball. We are going to use three different fastballs, so they had better be able to locate them. In fact, that's the main part of our preseason practice sessions, working on fastball movement and location."

A guy that has really looked good this year is Justin Pigott. He doesn't really throw that hard, but he has been effective.
"He actually throws 85, 86 to 87. He is what you call sneaky fast, because he has such great command of a changeup. He really locates his fastball as good as any lefthanded pitcher that we have. That helps set up his changeup so well. And he has worked so hard on his breaking ball. We changed it from what he had to a sharper, quicker break. And that has really developed into a pretty good pitch for him. When he is on the mound, I know that he is going to give everything that he has. He has a big heart, a big heart."

How is Jesse Carver coming along?
"Jesse is a guy that has impressed the coaching staff with his breaking ball. And his fastball command is getting better. His changeup is also improving. We just wanted to get his feet wet this year, and we have done that. In fact, he has pitched more than I thought he would. And he's on the 25 man (SEC( roster."

We know about the guys who are pitching a lot this year. What about the guys who aren't, guys like Trent Hill and Jamie Gant? What are their roles on the staff?
"It's tough. We've pitched a lot of guys. In Trent's case, I really feel like he has a great arm and should have a good future here. But it's tough to get him some work because, at times, you don't know if he is going to pound the strikezone enough. And we already have some guys who have shown that they can do that. Jamie Gant is another guy that we would like to use. But because of his injury and where he is and the performance of some other guys, it has been tough to get him into certain roles. But before it's all said and done, Jamie Gant will have something to say about this season. He has a fresh arm. He threw a great bullpen (Thursday). "

What will have to happen for you to throw him more?
"It will be one of those situations where he gets an opportunity, during the weekend, to go out and pound the strikezone. He pitched very, very well against Samford and showed glimpses of the old Jamie Gant. I would be very surprised if he doesn't pitch this weekend." (This interview was done the Friday morning of the Kentucky series. Jamie pitched in relief and won the Friday night game.-Gene)

You are redshirting several youngsters. How are they doing? I've heard that Chad Crosswhite has done really well.
"Chad Crosswhite is doing extremely awesome. I am very excited about his future. He has a chance to do both (hit and pitch) here. He can play third and the outfield. I love his mound presence, his urgency to compete everytime he toes the rubber. He has great stuff. He has been pitching in the redshirt practices 88 to 89, topping out at 92. He has learned the art of throwing the ball downhill. He learned early on at Mississippi State that he couldn't pitch up in the strikezone at this level because he got hammered early on. He has a lot of baseball savvy. He picks up things very quickly and can easily make adjustments. He will work his tail off. I would be very surprised if he doesn't pitch a lot next year."

A guy that you were going to redshirt but took him off the redshirt a few days ago, Mitch Moreland, not only hits but pitches. Do you still see him pitching?
"Mitch really wants to pitch. That's why he came to Mississippi State. He made it a point to tell me, since he came off the redshirt, that he doesn't want to lose the pitching part of it. But it'll be tough for him to pitch this year. We didn't bring him off the redshirt to pitch this year. But I think he will pitch here.

"He's almost the opposite of Chad when he are in the bullpen pitching. He doesn't feel certain things when we are trying to make adjustments, pitching-wise, that Chad picks up pretty quick. So, he is going to be a little more of a project. But I'll tell you what he has, he has a heavy fastball and he can throw the ball in the upper 80's. We just have to work on his off-speed stuff. He threw a lot in high school, so, hopefully, not pitching this spring will give his arm a chance to rest."

True freshman Paul Faulkenberry is another pitcher that you are redshirting. How has he done?
"Paul has started to get better each time out. I had never seen him pitch before because he came in here hurt. Probably, the last month is the first time that I have gotten a chance to see him pitch healthy. His velocity is starting to get better. He is throwing 82 to 84. I've seen hit an 86, but that was only one time. His velocity fluctuates. His breaking ball is starting to get better."

Andy Wilson is another pitcher that is being redshirted. Why did you decide to redshirt him this season after pitching him last year?
"Andy made that decision. Coach (Polk) left that up to him. We weren't going to redshirt him. We were going to use him as a lefthander out of the bullpen. But, I guess, after the first weekend, he talked to his parents and decided on his own that he wanted to be redshirted."

In the past, a lot of players have played summer ball. What are your thoughts about your pitchers playing summer ball?
"My rule of thumb is if they pitch less than 40 innings, then they could probably go out in the summertime and still pitch. Guys who don't throw a lot of innings need to go and get their work in. Hopefully, that will add to their development. If guys pitched more than that, then I leave it up to them. However, if they get a lot of innings in, then I'll tell them that they don't need to go play summer ball."

What will the guys do in the summer if they don't play summer ball?
"We will give them a throwing program. (MSU assistant strength) Coach (John) McCallister and I have talked about what they will do, lifting-wise. So, if they don't play summer baseball, they will have a throwing program and a lifting program."

With Lalor being so tall and slim, would it almost be best for him to stay at MSU during the summer and go through a lifting routine instead of playing summer baseball?
"Yes and no. The advantage of going to the Cape (Cod League) for Lalor is not only is he going to get to face some of the better hitters in the country, but he can take the weight program with him and get his work in there."

I know that Lalor is going to the Cape. Where are the other pitchers going this summer?
"Jeremiah Boling is going to the Coastal Plains League. John Crosby is supposed to be going to the Coastal Plains League, but he may pitch himself out of that. Chad Crosswhite is going to Danville of the Central Illinois League. Josh Johnson is going to the Cape. Mitch Moreland is going to the Central Illinois League. Justin Pigott and Andy Wilson are going to the Alaskan League. Mike Valentine is going to the Coastal Plains League. Jesse Carver is going to the Northwoods League."

You mentioned John McCallister. How important has the new strength and conditioning coaches been to your pitchers?
"The thing that has been the most exciting is our kids really respect what Jim Nowell, John McCallister and Chad Rhodes are doing. When you get that respect, your kids are going to give back. Our kids are giving them a ton of effort and really enjoy being over there with them. When you get that kind of relationship going, it makes a big difference. Another thing I see is the kids are seeing results. They see themselves getting stronger, bigger and faster. That motivates them, too.

"The guys have self disciplined themselves on how to prepare from start to start. That's one thing that I don't think we have done in the past. We haven't done a good job of conditioning the body to get it ready to repeat a performance every week. Coach McCallister has done a great job with that. And what we are doing away from the weightroom is also contributing to the stamina they need. I told them at the beginning that if we are fortunate to go play post-season baseball, I want them stronger at the end than at the beginning. The most important games are at the end. And they have bought into that because every kid wants to play for a championship."


Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by emailing swindoll@genespage.com.


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