Mississippi State University bought into first-year head coach Andy Cannizaro, and it paid off with a gritty win in the Hattiesburg Regional. After losing to LSU in the Super Regional to end 2017, MSU has one goal in mind heading into 2018: Omaha.
This is true for center fielder Jake Mangum, who decided to return for his junior season after the New York Yankees drafted him in the 30th round of the MLB draft last season.
“(After going) 0-4 in the super regional, no way I’m going leave after that,” Mangum said. “I want to go to Omaha.”
Jake Mangum, a junior from Pearl, is coming off a monster 2017 campaign, where he slashed a line of .324/.380/.385 and drove in 26 RBIs.
At MSU baseball media day last Tuesday, Cannizaro expressed his excitement about baseball season getting into the swing of things.
“It's extremely exciting when you get to this part of the year, it is college baseball season,” Cannizaro said. “We are excited to get everything started next weekend against an outstanding Southern Miss team. We have been busy and hard at work these past few weeks since we’ve been able to get back as a team.”
The Bulldogs have a tall task to fill the void after the departures of Ryan Gridley, Cody Brown and Brent Rooker. Rooker was the second MSU player to win the SEC Triple Crown, joining fellow former Diamond Dawg Rafael Palmeiro who did it back in 1984. Rooker, the Minnesota Twins' first-rounder led the league in batting average (.387), home runs (23) and RBIs (82).
Cannizaro and his coaching staff will look for juniors Jake Mangum, Hunter Stovall, Luke Alexander, Elijah MacNamee and Hunter Vansau to continue to lead the squad from the hitting side.
“Those guys are a core that played each and every day last year, and went through the battles of the SEC to win 40 games and get to a Super Regional,” Cannizaro said. “Having them back have been able to allow us to have some veteran presence and veteran leadership out on the practice field.”
Junior left-hander Konnor Pilkington will start Friday nights, followed by red-shirt sophomore Ethan Small. Cannizaro said there is still competition for the Sunday spot. Red-shirt senior Jacob Billingsley, who had 10 career innings before last season, will compete for the Sunday spot. According to Cannizaro, Billingsley has gained velocity and improved his secondary pitches. Billingsley is in the mix for Sunday's spot, along with transfers JP France from Tulane, and Zach Neff, Austin Peay, and returning junior Cole Gordon.
Closer Spencer Price will miss the 2018 season due to Tommy John surgery, and Riley Self is an option to take over that role. Self said he believes there is no pressure on him or other pitchers because he knows everyone is going to be able to step up and play their game. Keegan James and Blake Smith are back from season-ending injuries.
Cannizaro praised Mangum and Pilkington.
“Jake (Mangum) obviously leads this group for us, he had a terrific fall and is really going after it these past couple weeks," Cannizaro said. "He has done a tremendous job in terms of leading our team so far, and trying to help some of these younger guys ready to play.”
Pilkington, a preseason all-American, posted a 3.08 ERA and an 8-5 record with 111 strikeouts and 47 walks.
“Leaning on Konnor heavily this year like we did a year ago every Friday night," Cannizaro said. “He gets deep into ball games, and gives us a chance to win on Friday nights in the most competitive league in amateur baseball conference in the world.”
In the middle-infield, Hunter Stovall will start as the second baseman and Luke Alexander will start as shortstop for MSU. Alexander will slide over from third and has improved on his range and defending. Marshall Gilbert and Dustin Skelton will compete for the starting catching position, and Cannizaro does not know who will play third.
Several options include freshman Tanner Allen, who has been working exclusively at third base this past month. Freshman Justin Foscue is a strong, physical kid who could get some games at the corner. Freshman Rowdey Jordan will certainly get some innings at third as well but could start the season in left field because of his speed and athleticism, and ability to run balls down in the line/gap.
“I love the fact he can run, take hits away in the outfield and be a switch hitter. He can do some things offensively and create some runs and help us score,” Cannizaro said.
Cannizaro said if MSU was to play today, he would put Allen in that spot and feel comfortable enough about him there, and fell comfortable in the batter’s box to do some damage at the plate.
On the other corner, Elijah MacNamee and freshman Josh Hatcher will be options for first. If Hatcher does start there, MacNamee will move to right field. While this is up for consideration, Cannizaro does know Elijah will hit in the middle of the order.
Mangum said what he likes about Hatcher.
“Mentally, as a freshman, the hardest thing to do is being able to handle failure, and Hatcher has the mindset that I know if he has a bad night on opening night at Southern Miss for example, I know he will come back Saturday and flush it and he will have good at-bats,” Mangum, a junior from Pearl, said.
With a newly renovated Dudy Noble Field set to be unleashed and fully finished next year, fans can expect an exciting brand of baseball in year two under Cannizaro. MSU opens up play against Southern Mississippi at Hattiesburg in a three-game series next weekend. The Bulldogs will play a home game March 6, where they host New Mexico State.