Russ McNickle Talks MSU Pitching

Mississippi State pitching coach Russ McNickle talks about this year's pitching staff, next year's pitching staff, the excitement he felt about this year's team and the expectations for next year's squad.

Talk about this year's pitching and the challenge it presented you as a pitching coach.
"I'll start the conversation by saying this: I've coached pitching, hitting and a lot of different things, but from my years of being a pitching coach this was my most difficult in terms of putting the right pieces together. We knew we were going to be limited with certain things from a staff standpoint and also competing in the Southeastern Conference. But it was a neat challenge. And I felt like it made me a better coach."

Individually, talk about your pitchers. As a starting point, junior-to-be Chad Crosswhite was your Friday night guy.
"We started the season with a plan. But you are always trying to make it better. After I got thrown out of the Kentucky game I was sitting in the tunnel thinking to myself that we have to make a change. (At the time current Friday night SEC starting pitcher) Aaron (Weatherford) is such a max effort guy and his pitch-count volume gets so high, so quick, you can't have that on a Friday night. And, at that point, Chad just wasn't ready, but I had always thought that he was capable of being a starter. Another thing about Chad is when he's on the mound the team trusts him and knows that he's going to compete. I had a lot of time to think about it in the tunnel. So, I decided that I was going to approach Coach (Polk) about putting Chad in that slot. Then, I would try to do something different with Chad's delivery, so that we could speed up his body to keep it in sync with his arm. Once we did that, we won with him on the mound at Arkansas. That helped add to his confidence and helped him buy into what we were doing with him mechanically. Then, he won again.

"Another thing about Chad is you knew pretty quick if he had the game under control or if he didn't. There was no middle ground with him. We knew pretty quick at the College World Series that his breaking ball wasn't there and his changeup was almost a none factor. That's why we made the switch as quick as we did.

"He's going to Alaska this summer to play ball. I told him when he left that he has three pitches now, but he needs to learn to use them. Hopefully, he will continue to learn how to pitch this summer and be one of those starters who can get you between 15 and 18 outs every time he goes out."

Saturday starter Justin Pigott, a senior-to-be.
"Pigott battled all year, but he just never got comfortable and was never as good as he was the year before. I think part of the problem was he put a lot of pressure on himself to repeat what he did the year before (when he led the SEC in earned run average). But he had some great games for us. I think the game he had at the Tallahassee regional was the game that got us to the College World Series.

"He is the kind of guy who is not a dominant Friday night guy, but he's got good enough stuff that if he's on he can beat anyone. He's a guy who knows how to use his stuff. He's got three pitches and when all three are on - like they were at (the) Florida State (regional) and all year his sophomore season - he can throw them anytime, any count.

"I think he will use this year as a valuable lesson and, hopefully, that will carry over to his senior year. He's definitely going to be a leader on next year's pitching staff."

Sunday starter Josh Johnson, a senior this past year.
"He was a guy who battled through injuries all year, the bicep soreness, the muscle soreness. He never got to the point where we thought he was 100%. He did end up having one stretch where he was pitching very well against certain teams in the Southeastern Conference, but we weren't scoring runs and he was getting a lot of no decisions. I was proud for him at Florida State where he pitched a great game.

"I think Josh will have a good pro career because his fastball should be good against wooden bats. How far he makes it, I'm not really sure. He's a great kid and was a great captain on our team."

Sophomore-to-be Tyler Whitney was one of your midweek starters.
"I was disappointed with him early in the year because I thought he should have dominated some of the midweek teams. But I think he was tentative at times due to being a freshman. I felt his changeup really improved, but he lost his breaking ball at times. Another concern was that his velocity was down at times this year. But I think that was due to being a little tentative on the mound and just growing up. Going from being home schooled to the SEC is a big adjustment. But Tyler did get better and that's the bottom line. The experience he received this year was phenomenal. He got to see what post-season was all about, including pitching very well in Omaha.

"He's got a chance to be a starter here, whether it fits into a weekend or midweek slot. That will be determined by how well he continues to improve.

"He's playing for Danville this summer in the Central Illinois League. The key for him this summer is to continue to learn."

Junior-to-be Jared Koon was normally your Wednesday starter.
"He's got good stuff, but he's got to be able to use it when given the opportunity. He showed signs of it when we used him in relief. But, as a starter, you have to get the game under control. He showed great movement and a great changeup in fall intrasquad games and pre-season intrasquad games, but he's got to get command of his fastball down in the zone. Hopefully, his summer experience in the New England Collegiate League will help him."

Senior-to-be John Lalor was a long reliever for you.
"He works hard and gets the most out of his ability. He throws strike and has command of three pitches. John was a guy who really learned his role and got really good at it, especially toward the end of the season. He pitched great against Austin Peay and against Clemson in the Super Regional. He became that middle relief guy who gave us 3 to 6 to 9 outs. That's where I envision him next year because he bounces back pretty good. He can throw a couple of times a week."

It seemed like 8 of 10 appearances he was great, but the other two he seemed to get hit. Any specific reasons for that?
"Sometimes he would get into a game and get out of his style of pitching. His style is more of movement and down in the zone. Sometimes he would come into the games and try to overthrow. I thought that was evident in Omaha when he came into the game and tried to overthrow his stuff. But if he can stay within himself and use his movement and stay with his location, he can be as dominant as anyone in this league. He showed signs of that."

Isn't that normal for any pitcher even the ones like David Price, the first player selected in the Major League Baseball Draft?
"It is. There are some days when you just don't have it. There are going to be good days and bad days with any pitcher. And in this league if you make mistakes, the good hitters are going to hammer it. You just hope, offensively, you can overcome it. Or, if they are putting the ball in play, you are making the plays."

Sophomore-to-be Ricky Bowen was a very good reliever for you this past season.
"He's got a chance, if his off-speed stuff continues to improve, to be a starter. I know he wants to be a starter. But for him to be a starter he has to get a breaking ball. His changeup is ok, although it's not great.

"In the role he was used this year, the closer/set-up guy, I never envisioned that he would lead the staff in appearances. Reasons he led the staff is because he bounces back well and he throws strikes. And his strikes are usually down in the zone.

"It was great to see his maturation process this year. Early on, when he was out there he was like a kid in a candy store. He was hyper and excited. But to see him want the ball at Florida State and pitch himself out of the bases loaded jam he put himself into was really neat to see. Then, to see him pitch himself out of a 2nd and 3rd, no outs jam and they don't score was really good to see. He's got a chance to be pretty special, although I don't know where he will fit in next year. I know he wants to start, but, like I said, he's got to get better with his off-speed stuff.

"I'm excited about his future. He's definitely one of the main ingredients in next year's staff."

Senior-to-be Jesse Carver is a lefthander that you used a few times this past season.
"He is a guy who has unlimited potential. He's got good stuff. He has an upper-80's fastball with a good breaking ball. He got some opportunities this year. And, at times, he was very good, but, for the most part, he didn't get strike-one enough. And with Jesse to be able to set up his breaking ball and changeup, he has to get strike one.

"He's probably not a starter. He's more of a left-handed guy out of the bullpen who is good with a left-on-left matchup. I think he's a guy who is better when he throws more, but we just didn't get many opportunities to get him out of the bullpen multiple times. Some of that was due to not having the kind of success to give youself another opportunity.

"One of the neat things about Jess is he has received some interest from pro scouts. He's got the arm. And I think someone will give him a shot because he's left-handed and he throws hard."

Sophomore-to-be Greg Houston.
"He got to pitch in a lot of games as a true freshman this year. I'm happy he got that experience. Greg works extremely hard. He is a perfectionist who is one of those 4.0 engineering students who really gets after it. He's got that Bulldog mentality on the mound. He throws strikes and has plus movement on his fastball. He's also got a good feel for a changeup and his breaking ball is going to be a swing and miss pitch. For Greg to be a factor here, he has to learn to use his movement. What he is is a ground-ball, sinker-ball guy, who will continue to get more opportunities as he grows in the program. I think he's a guy who, the more he pitches, the better he is going to be.

"Next year, he will be a right-handed reliever."

Senior-to-be Mitch Moreland.
"I hope he comes back (after being drafted in the 17th round of the MLB Draft). Not only can he swing the bat, but he bring back some leadership to the team. Plus, guys have confidence in him when he's on the mound. They know, for the most part, when he's on the mound the game is usually over. I love it when he's out there because he is going to pound the strike zone and go after them.

"Mitch, who loves to pitch, has really worked extremely hard on his delivery and his command. If he comes back, we will use him just like we did this last year. He and Aaron (Weatherford) will be the closers. That will be a nice one-two punch."

Junior-to-be Aaron Weatherford.
"We had to make a decision at the beginning of the year about Aaron's arm. God blessed him with arm-speed and a power arm. We felt like you need a power arm on Friday night. That's why we used him as our Friday night guy. But the bottom line is Aaron was designed to close games. That's going to be his future in the big leagues and his future here. He knows that. He's going to the Cape Cod League this summer and be used in that role.

"He's a guy with a true power arm. He's also got a slider. And when his split-finger is on, it's unhittable, but when it's not on, it's hittable like it was against Louisville. He struck out a couple of guys with the split, but he also gave up the homer with the split.

"You hope, if Mitch comes back, they will be the two-headed monster. We could use one one day and the other the next day. Or, they could go together. One goes the 8th and one goes the 9th. We just have to be smart how we use Aaron, try to use him two or three times a week.

"He's got a chance to be a high draft pick next year. He did the same thing Edward Easley did; he turned down the pros out of high school. He called them and told them he was coming to school. He called me the day before the draft and told me that he was coming to school. And he made the right choice. And I think it will pay off for him next year."

How is sophomore-to-be Matt Lea doing with his rehab?
"I talked to him last night. He's been throwing off the mound, but he had a little set back, so he hasn't been on the mound in about two weeks. The set back was some soreness. You have to listen to your body. There are some times when you have to back off and times when you have to be more aggressive as you are going through rehab.

"And I told him that he just needed to listen to his body. He's very smart and his dad (former Major Leaguer Charles Lea) has been through this.

"I'm hoping he will be healthy enough to pitch in some intersquad games this fall. There are a lot of expectations from him due to how well he pitched his freshman year. But he has a long way to go when it comes to pitching at this level. His freshman year, he was able to get away with a lot of three-ball counts in midweek games. But, if you are going to pitch him on the weekend, he is going to have to be a little more effective and keep his pitch-count down."

How long does it normally take for his type surgery to heal?
"Normally, it takes 12 to 14 months. He should be ready to pitch in games in the fall, but each guy is different. But, by the springtime, he should really be ready. We aren't going to rush him. We will take our time with him in the fall."

Junior-to-be Jared Wesson had the same type surgery.
"Jared is in the same boat. He's throwing. I've actually seen him throw off the mound here. His delivery looks good, his arm action looks good. And his command has looked outstanding. He's a guy that when we signed him, we felt like he would be a great lefthander out of the bullpen. He has a swing-and-miss slider and his fastball can get as high as the upper-80's. I'm anxious to see how well he progresses."

Senior-to-be Andy Wilson and sophomore-to-be Drew Hollinghead are also back after being injured this past season.
"Andy is at home working out, trying to get ready. And Drew is in the New York Collegiate League playing for an FCA team, the Niagara Power. He's still trying to come through his surgery and trying to get his velocity back."

How much do you think the post-season experience will help all the guys that you have returning?
"In 1994, I went to the College World Series in Montgomery, Alabama with Florida Southern and got beat in the 9th inning in the championship game. Most of the kids came back the next year and we got a legit (pitcher) to help us, too. We went back the next year and didn't get beat. Division-II and Division-I are different, but the kids got a taste of it. The coaches got a taste of it. So, you are excited about what you have coming back.

"And, the bottom line to me, is you can't just go once and then go back another couple of years. You have to get it going a couple of years in a row. Look at Oregon State and North Carolina; they have been out there a couple of years in a row. When LSU was making their run, they went often. For us to win a national championship, we have to continue the step we took this year."

Did you see that hunger to go back when you were with the kids coming back from the College World Series?
"I really did. Some of the younger guys were disappointed that they were 0-2, the first ones in and the first ones out. Especially, when we had the chance to win that first game. I think that burned them all. I think they believed that if we had won that first game, we could have made a run at it. We were one play, one pitch away. But listening to Pigott and some of the other pitchers, they were disappointed that they went 0-2. We got hot and we wanted to keep it rolling.

"It should be exciting next year. And there should also be a lot of competition and a lot of expectations.

"I had this sitting by my desk all year. [Russ has a newspaper by his desk which shows that MSU was projected to be last in the SEC this past season.-Gene] That won't be the case next year because people won't put us last. The expectations will be higher. And that's why these kids came to Mississippi State, a chance to not only compete for an SEC championship, but regional championships and a chance to get to Omaha."

What did this season do for you as a coach?
"It makes you feel like you are doing the right things and that you have the right people in your program. And one thing that energized me so much about this season is there was so much negativity about the pitching staff, but the people didn't know the hearts of these kids, their work ethic. They weren't seeing the things behind the scenes that we were seeing. I just really felt like God was going to honor what they were doing and they got that opportunity.

"This season definitely energized me. This is why I'm in this profession. I want to win championships, I want to compete for championships. That's why I'm here. And that's why I'm honored to be here."

You should have a lot of competition among your pitchers this coming fall.
"We have the Sunday job to be fill. But I think there will be a lot of jobs to be won from a starting standpoint. I think the biggest thing coming out of the College World Series is we have to get better starting the game. I felt we were good in the middle and closing, but we have to get better at getting the game under control.

"You've heard me say this before, but we want to try and get six guys going for five games because somebody might get hurt or somebody might not be pitching that well.

"The competition this fall will be such that you will have to earn a spot by being consistent. That's the bottom line. And, with Coach's system in the intersquad games, they will all get plenty of opportunities to pitch. They just need to be ready and be consistent.

"It is going to be a fun fall."


This is part-one of a two-part interview. Next up is Coach McNickle's assessement of his incoming recruits.


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.


Gene's Page Top Stories