A swing change, a black eye and a position change: Marshall Gilbert's route to playing time as a senior

By Brett Hudson

STARKVILLE — The Gilbert family had been through this before, but this was different. This is Marshall’s senior season — there is no next year to serve as a foundation of hope.

Marshall’s junior season as a Bulldog, his first in from John A. Logan College in Carterville, Illinois, was an up-and-down ride. Six weeks of infrequent playing time at the beginning became consistent as March turned to April, starting 12 of the 16 games that month. That season ended with just one postseason start for Gilbert, four postseason at-bats as fellow catcher Dustin Skelton enjoyed the best month of his baseball life on a run to Omaha.

That trend continued in 2019: Skelton hit safely in nine of his first 10 SEC games while Gilbert had just six starts in the team’s first 31 games. Marshall’s parents, Phil and Denise, went through an all too familiar routine: check the lineup for Marshall’s name and be disappointed to not find it. By then, Marshall had solidified his approach and was teaching it to his parents — the same approach that has him starting every day as Mississippi State enters the SEC Tournament in Hoover this week.

“I’ll be very honest with you regarding the maturity: Marshall has helped us, Phil and I,” Denise Gilbert said. “When you’re back home, you’re watching and hoping and you look at the lineup everyday and he’s not in it, you wonder if he’s ever going to get a shot. He is the one that says, ‘I’m just going to keep balling. I don’t have a choice.’”

“He’s helped us deal with it and I can’t tell you how grateful we are that he found a way to get on the field.”

As Marshall Gilbert put it: “When you don’t play a lot the confidence can kind of go up and down, and I needed to mature in that aspect and realize you can’t ride that rollercoaster, you can’t play that way. You have to stick it out for the long haul.”

Marshall Gilbert

Marshall Gilbert

That long haul has seen him start all of MSU’s last 11 games, raising his batting average from .286 to .330 in that time, and doing it all at a new position. That long haul has been exactly what he wanted out of junior college: come to the school at the top of his list, Mississippi State, for all its history of winning in the nation’s conference, and find a way to contribute to that winning.

“Once I found something, it resonated with me that this is what it takes to do something for the team,” Marshall Gilbert said. “I don’t like disappointing my teammates in any way. I looked at it as, ‘This is what’s going to make my teammates happy with me.’”

What Marshall Gilbert needed to make his teammates happy was a swing change and a black eye.

* * *

Marshall Gilbert has hit well for most of the season, having spent just 11 games with a season batting average below .300, but he still hit a slump: 15 at-bats from March 19 to April 7 with just two hits (.133), two of his three starts in that time being hitless.

Like many recent MSU hitting turnaround stories, this one starts with assistant coach Jake Gautreau.

“Coach Gautreau and I had some miscommunication on talking about some things, then all of a sudden we got on the same page with some stuff and it just started rolling,” Gilbert said.

“I was lifting a lot of balls, honestly. I was getting under a lot of balls and not giving myself the opportunity to drive a baseball. Then I turned into overexaggerating getting on top, letting my legs work and not trying to do too much with my upper half. That’s where Gautreau and I worked on our two-strike approach, which is what we’re most known for, that’s absolutely battling and getting every single pitch. That’s where we built the foundation for my swing and where it is now.”

Gilbert thinks all of that came together around the time MSU hosted Alabama for Super Bulldog Weekend in mid-April — when Gilbert went 3-for-9 on the weekend with two RBI, hitting a home run in both games he played. That’s also when Gilbert officially became a third baseman — and took the lumps that come with learning a new position midseason.

He was taking his first round of in-and-out, the pregame fielding routine, at third base when a grounder got the best of him. It popped up and hit him in the eye.

“I don’t know if something legitimately clicked in my brain, but right around that time is when it started clicking,” Gilbert said. “I wore the black eye for a week and went from there.”

Since that day, Gilbert is 19-for-54 (.352) with a .435 on-base percentage and slugging .630. Four of his five home runs have come since taking that ball to the eye.

Since the adjustment, Gilbert has been consistently hitting the ball hard as much as any Bulldog. The chart below shows Gilbert at the top of the team’s barrel percentage leaderboard, which is the amount of balls a player puts in play with at least an exit velocity of 98 miles per hour between launch angles of 10 and 35 degrees. The idea behind a barrel is a hard-hit ball in a sweet spot to most likely be a hit and have high potential for power, be it a double in the gap or a home run over the wall; Gilbert is doing at a higher percentage than any other Bulldog.

He’s doing it all from a position of need in the field.

* * *

This all started out of boredom.

MSU was in Gainesville for its series at Florida; Gilbert, being a catcher that wasn’t in that day’s lineup, was in the outfield during batting practice, shagging balls, and got the feeling that he wasn’t really doing anything. So he and relief pitcher Riley Self decided to go to shortstop and goof around; Gilbert ended up making a few smooth plays.

Future BP sessions would see him do the same at third base and the coaching staff encouraged him to pick the brain of then-third baseman Justin Foscue about the position. It wasn’t long after that Foscue moved to second base, opening a hole at third.

When the opportunity presented itself, Gilbert was determined to take it. Jake Mangum — Gilbert’s roommate — once heard Marshall tell him he was going to the park early to take grounders at third.

Mangum’s reaction: “Wait, you play third?”

Clearly this was not an anticipated move — by anyone. Official rosters are quite liberal with their positional listings: Rowdey Jordan has never played infield at MSU and Tanner Allen has all of two outfield starts in his Bulldog career, yet both still have the infield/outfield designation. Gilbert is listed as a catcher and catcher only.

Yes, Gilbert got some work at first base in the fall, but catching remains his primary discipline. Both Marshall and Denise admit they can feel and see, respectively, the instinct to get on the ground and block baseballs as opposed to scooping them with a glove.

It’s a different way of life for them all. Denise Gilbert had seen her son catch so much, she was no longer nervous when he was behind the plate. She knew he was in control, she knew he was in his element. Marshall says he’s comfortable at the new position, but that doesn’t mean it’s comfortable for Denise yet.

“Part of it is awesome because it’s challenging him to do something new, it’s out of his comfort zone,” she said. “It’s going to help him in baseball or in life, for sure.”

It’s not the easiest way to go about playing time, but apparently nothing is for Gilberts playing baseball. While Marshall has battled for every start and every at-bat as a Bulldog, his younger brother Garrett is a sophomore catcher at Creighton battling for playing time — against another sophomore catcher.

The Gilbert way is apparently never the easy way, but in Marshall’s case, that’s perfectly OK. There’s an unexpected silver lining in all of this.

“For me to his smile, it’s wonderful as a mother because you don’t see their face when they play catcher,” Denise Gilbert said. “You see their face when they play third base and it’s wonderful. It’s a new perspective and I like it.”

Full Count, Week 14: Three numbers as regular season ends, Two thoughts on the season

Photo by Kelly Donoho courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics

Photo by Kelly Donoho courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics

Three Numbers at Regular Season’s End

Shoot to kill

We’ve discussed Jake Mangum’s incredible ability to string hits together on Dogpile throughout the season, and in case you want to know how it ended, he now has 28 multi-hit games compared to seven hitless games. Another way of putting that: any time you go to a Mississippi State game, you are four times as likely to see Mangum get multiple hits as you are to see him go hitless.

What’s especially wild about it is he is far from alone on this year’s team. Justin Foscue has 26 multi-hit games (46.4 percent of his games); Tanner Allen ended the season with 22, including all of his last three, four of his last five and five of his last eight; Jordan Westburg has 21, and 11 of them came against conference foes; Elijah MacNamee has 17 despite dealing with the foot injury for half of the season, which is impressive when you consider Dustin Skelton raked all season long and he only has 10.

Finally, wrap your head around this: Marshall Gilbert has 10 multi-hit games and just 24 starts.

This is a game that values consistency when consistency is borderline impossible, and for the most part I fall into that camp. But there is something to be said about this ability this lineup seems to have: they generate hits in bunches, and in the end that’s often what you need to score. Having nine hits in a game sounds great, but if you spread them through all nine innings you’re probably not going to have more than two or three runs at the end; pile them up on one another and you can finish with six or seven, and clearly that’s been happening a lot for these Bulldogs.

Team slugging update

You may remember from the Full Count after the Georgia series that this team was poised to do some really impressive things in terms of team slugging, putting itself in the elite class of Mississippi State baseball history. How about we check up on all of those chases now that the regular season is over?

 - Doubles. The record is 157 by the 1989 team, doing so on 2.3 doubles per game. This year’s Bulldogs end the regular season at 141, 2.5 per game. Since they’re guaranteed four more games (two in Hoover, two in regional), their season average suggests they’ll get up to 150-151 just off of that. What I’m trying to say is, if this team hits like itself and even threatens to win either the SEC Tournament or the Starkville Regional, much less both, they’ll break the school record for doubles in a season.

 - Runs/runs per game. The records are 633 in 1997 and 9.5 in 1999; 474 and 8.4, and being about a run per game off the school record is consistent with what they were back in April. 8.4 would tie for fifth in school history with the 1988 and 2000 teams, if it were to stay that way.

(At the time it was a similar chase for RBI and nothing has changed. The Bulldogs have held steady at the 7.6 RBI per game that they were at in April, so if they play the 68 games they played last year, they could be one of just four MSU teams to have more than 500 in a season.)

 - Home runs was a stretch at the time, and it still is. Hitting 1.07 per game, it would have to make a deep Omaha run just to reach 75, which is two short of fifth in school history (77, 1981).

 - Win total: The top class in MSU baseball is 54 (1989), 51 (2013), 50 (1985, 1990), 47 (1997) and 46 (1981). With one win in the SEC Tournament and a clean Starkville Regional win, the 2019 Bulldogs would already have 49, good enough for fourth; a Super Regional win would put it tied for second.

How hot was Tanner Allen?

Y’all know the old-school late night talk show bit where someone like David Letterman says, “Man, it’s really hot today,” and the crowd says, “How hot is it?!?” and it launches him to a few jokes? Let’s do that bit with Tanner Allen’s weekend, shall we?

How hot was he?

 - He was so hot (12-for-15, .800) that if he did it over the course of the 224 at-bats he got this season, he would have 179 hits in 56 games; the NCAA record for hits in a season is 142 set in 85 games.

 - He slugged 1.133 over the weekend. Brent Rooker slugged .810 in his Triple Crown season.

 - He had a .316 batting average in 209 at-bats, yet jumped his average an astounding 32 points in just 15 at-bats.

Two Thoughts on the Entire Season

Pitching showed up

In scrolling through old Full Counts for that note above about team slugging, I got all the way down to the first one, before this enterprise was even called Full Count. It was a quick post about what we know and what we don’t know after two weeks of baseball: one thing we knew was that the bullpen had options, but what we didn’t know was if those options would show up in SEC play.

My basic point was there was only one proven commodity from the previous season in the bullpen, and that was Riley Self. It would be a lot of new guys in the fold, and man, did they deliver.

Jared Liebelt nearly has as many saves (five) as he does walks allowed (seven) in 43.2 innings. Brandon Smith, Jack Eagan and Colby White are all impressive in their own ways: Smith with four walks in 31.2 innings, Eagan with a .159 batting average allowed and White with a WHIP of 0.926.

Previous unknowns are a big part of a bullpen that has what it takes to pitch in Omaha. That’s no small development.

The unsung heroes: the assistants

Chris Lemonis is the one with his name on the title of winningest first-year coach in SEC baseball history and Lemonis is often the one credited with having guys ready to play into the lineup and perform at a moment’s notice — and don’t get me wrong, he deserves credit — but he’s not alone here.

All those first-year pitchers I just mentioned? Think back to all the pitchers that have struggled in their first exposure to the SEC, you’ve probably seen dozens in your time following MSU baseball. Scott Foxhall quickly found a plan for those guys and helped them execute it.

Talk to any hitter about their season, and almost all of them will mention a time when Jake Gautreau helped them make an adjustment that changed their season. Marshall Gilbert and Josh Hatcher are the two most recent examples — you know, the guys hitting like crazy at the bottom of the order right now.

Catcher hasn’t been a two-way position of surplus for MSU in either of the past two seasons, and Kyle Cheesebrough has changed that more or less immediately.

You often see head football coaches be made or broken by their assistant coach hires. Lemonis’ first year at MSU has been made by his assistant coach hires.

Tommy Stevens is coming to town; can he break the trend and be MSU's answer?

If all went according to plan, the graduate transfer quarterback would be pretty good living if one could get it. He swoops into a new place in a time of need, fills that need heroically and rides into the sunset, needing just a few fall months to be remembered in a place forever. Everyone has ups and downs in life, but this quarterback wasn’t around long enough to let his new fans see them; the only thing they saw is success, thus he’ll only be remembered for success.

Turns out that narrative is rare at a Power 5 school.

Tommy Stevens would love nothing more than to fit that storyline at Mississippi State, after the former Penn State quarterback announced on Saturday his decision to play his final season of college football in Starkville. A study of Power 5 graduate transfer quarterbacks shows the track record isn’t great.

Starting with the 2012 season — the NCAA bylaw that gave graduates more freedom to transfer was put in place in 2011 — there have been 25 quarterbacks that fit the mold of Stevens: quarterbacks showing up on a Power 5 campus with one season left to play.

Of that group of 25, 14 of them failed to attempt 200 passes at their final school; six of them didn’t get as many as 50 pass attempts. That list includes swings and misses including Brandon Mitchell losing the starting job to Ryan Finley at N.C. State and three similar cautionary tales within the Southeastern Conference: Keller Chryst to Jarrett Guarantano at Tennessee, Steven Rivers to a committee of Commodores and Malik Zaire to Feleipe Franks at Florida.

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Even in those seasons that saw 200+ attempts, not all of them were a storybook ending. A.J. Bush Jr., admittedly injured at times, still shared the duties a little with freshman M.J. Rivers II. Everett Golson split the duties with Sean Maguire in his lone season as a Seminole.

In fairness, Stevens has a familiarity working for him that many on this list did not, having been a Moorhead quarterback for both of the coach’s years at Penn State. There is even a certain level of correlation between prior familiarity and the top of this list.

  • We’ve all heard the story of Gardner Minshew familiarizing himself with the Air Raid over the summer before heading up to run Mike Leach’s version of it in Pullman.

  • Davis Webb went from one Air Raid offense (Texas Tech under Kliff Kingsbury) to another (Cal under Sonny Dykes) and it went smoothly.

Moorhead has said this offseason if you were to condense the contents of his offense to the 26 letters of the alphabet, MSU got A through M last season; when no longer supported by the best defense in the nation (albeit what should still be a very good one in 2019), the ability to execute N through Z will be crucial. Stevens has more time in the Moorhead offense than anyone on campus, and that familiarity could be a headstart for him to win the job and perform well in it.

None of this is a commentary on Stevens. Frankly, the general public doesn’t have enough of a sample on him to know what he can bring, with just 76 pass attempts in his Nittany Lion career.

What we do know is the last seven seasons of college football suggest the goal he has set for himself isn’t an easy one.

Full Count, Week 13: 3 Numbers from the Sweep, 2 Big-Picture Thoughts from the Sweep

Photo courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics

Photo courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics

3 Under-the-Radar Numbers from the Sweep

2-out hitting

It’s one thing to hang 21 runs in a three-game series on the road at the rival school and leave with a sweep. It’s another to do it all by getting a good bit of that production in the most painful way: 2-out hitting.

Naturally a lot of this is fueled by every bit of the nine-run 4th inning on Sunday coming with two outs, but the entire weekend numbers are still impressive. With two outs, Mississippi State hit 16-for-41 (.390), thus 16 of the 35 hits on the weekend (45.7 percent) coming with two outs.

For most teams you would call that an anomaly and move on, remembering it fondly but certainly never expecting it to happen again. I’m not so sure that’s the case with this group, if nothing else because Chris Lemonis isn’t so sure. He said after the Sunday game this is what this lineup has done: it has so many quality hitters that are able to feed off each other, they have this innate ability to string hits together in bunches like this.

That quality is also evident in hitting .403 with runners on base this weekend (21-for-52) and hitting north of .400 in advancement opportunities in every single game (.417 on Friday, .524 on Saturday and .615 on Sunday).

Another strikeout number

Most of the attention around the Bulldog pitching staff racking up strikeouts is going to Ethan Small and his climb up the individual strikeout rankings — which don’t get me wrong, is impressive. He now has 132 strikeouts this year, good for sixth in school history and not far behind fifth (Jeff Brantley, 136, 1985), fourth (Gary Rath, 141, 1994) or the tie for second (B.J Wallace 1992 and Eric Dubose 1997, 145). He also has 274 career strikeouts, good for fourth in school history and only behind Chris Stratton in third.

But this team as a whole is striking out guys at a clip good enough to be remembered in school history forever and renowned on a national level unlike any other.

First, on the national level: their strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.39 (563 strikeouts, 166 walks) is best in the nation. The 563 strikeouts are best in the nation and the 166 walks are top 50. What’s impressive about that strikeout-to-walk ratio is it’s actually getting better of late, which you wouldn’t expect given the strength of the SEC. But the Texas A&M series (17 strikeouts to three walks, 5.66 ratio) and the Ole Miss series (29 strikeouts to eight walks, 3.62 ratio) raised the season strikeout-to-walk ratio from the 3.33 it was on May 1 to the 3.39 that it is now.

Best ever?

These 42-win Dawgs are on the brink of doing something that is uncommon in the history of this program.

Only four times in program history has a MSU team won 50 or more games, and most of them capped at 50 or 51. (54 in 1989, 51 in 2013, 50 in 1985 and 1990.) If the Bulldogs can put together a perfect week to end the regular season — not out of the picture, considering South Carolina is at the bottom of the SEC at the moment — that would give the Bulldogs 46 wins going to the SEC Tournament. Then if the projected top 8 seed does what that seeding suggests — win three games to win a Regional and win two to win a Super — the team could have 51 wins going to Omaha, and that’s if it doesn’t win a single game in Hoover.

2 Big Picture Thoughts after the Sweep

They locked up a top 8 seed

Over the last three seasons, 22 of the 24 top 8 national seeds have been Power 5 conference teams with at least 40 wins. Mississippi State is now a Power 5 conference team with 42 wins. As I write this on Monday, MSU is 3rd in RPI, moving up two spots after sweeping Ole Miss, with just Vanderbilt and UCLA ahead of it.

MSU is also currently a member of an elite in the 40-win regard. In the ACC, Louisville is there and NC State is borderline guaranteed to get there, but that’s it at the moment; the Big 12 may not get one there and the Big 10 will likely need Michigan to do it to get one there. The SEC and Pac 12 are the class of the sport on the top tier, with UCLA and Stanford joining the SEC’s unquestioned top 4 (State, Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Georgia).

With one week left in the regular season, the top class is thin and Mississippi State is a part of it. I’ll be shocked if the Bulldogs don’t earn the right to play a Super Regional at home.

Pitchers showed resiliency

Not all sweeps look as easy as the final results say they were, and it was definitely not the case for the pitching staff this weekend. But whenever a big moment came up, they responded — a quality that will do them well in June.

Jared Liebelt had one when the delay gave him an unusual, unexpected entry point to a game, and he responded with a 4-inning save. JT Ginn had one, battling through a 31-pitch first inning to get MSU into the fifth before going to the bullpen. Peyton Plumlee had one, responded to a 29-minute break between pitching the 3rd and pitching the 4th to throw his best from the 4th to the 7th.

It’s more evidence that the moment will rarely, if ever, be too big for this staff. They won’t perform every single time, no one does in baseball, but they’re good enough to have a legitimate chance every single time. That’s more than enough.

Full Count, Week 12: 3 Thoughts from the Week, 2 Trends to Follow

Photo by Trevor Birchett, Mississippi State Athletics

Photo by Trevor Birchett, Mississippi State Athletics

Three Thoughts from the Week

Is Vandy out of reach?

Vanderbilt (18-6) is three games ahead of Mississippi State (15-9) and its final six games of SEC play are against teams with a combined league record of 18-29-1 (Missouri 12-11-1 and Kentucky 6-18).

This is something I brought up in a Full Count post a few weeks ago, how Vanderbilt has a favorable closing stretch and the Commodores could be tough to catch at the end, but this is where Vandy deserves some credit: yes, the road home in the SEC East is easier than in the West, but Vanderbilt has taken advantage of every single opportunity. Against teams at .500 or worse in league play, Vanderbilt has swept Florida, took two of three from Tennessee, swept Alabama and swept Auburn. Just because it’s supposed to be easy doesn’t mean it ever is in baseball, and there’s something to be said for having a nearly 100 percent conversion rate in spots like this.

Arkansas, however, is only two games ahead of MSU and finishes its season with series against LSU and at Texas A&M. With MSU hosting a bad South Carolina team at the end of the season and obviously having a very good track record against Ole Miss with Jake Mangum on campus, there is a slight opening for State to make that up in two weekends and threaten for the SEC West crown.

Rain helping relievers

There were a total of 33 bullpen pitches thrown by Bulldogs in College Station and Jared Liebelt took all of them. How many teams are lucky enough to more or less give the entire bullpen a week off as it hits the closing stretch?

This comes at a time when starting pitching has been really strong, so the bullpen wasn’t taxed in the Georgia series, then there was no midweek game and they’re basically given the weekend off after it. I wonder how many of these arms show a new level of life for the next few weeks, maybe through the regional, after getting a good bit of recovery time here. I also wonder how the coaches manage the upcoming midweeks, since they are an opportunity to get some bullpen arms a little work for arm health purposes. Not that midweek starting pitching has been a traditional long start kind of deal for MSU recently, but I wonder if you’ll see even more inning-by-inning stuff from them in these final two midweeks against Memphis (Wednesday) and Louisiana Tech (May 14).

Foscue his due

A quick scroll through this fine website revealed that I have yet to sing Justin Foscue’s praises on an individual basis in Full Count; I had him on the podcast to talk about his improvement and how he got here (here’s the link if you missed it), but I haven’t done it in this form, so it’s time to change that.

Folks, his slash line went from .241/.332/.353 last year to .342/.390/.623 so far this year. You know how good Dustin Skelton has been this year? He’s only hitting .310 (lol ‘only’ hitting .310) and Foscue would have to go hitless in 20 at-bats to get down to .310 — and Foscue hasn’t done that in his entire Bulldog career.

Foscue already has 17 doubles this year; 22 would be good enough for tied for 8th in single-season school history. If Foscue keeps this pace (one double every 2.82 games), Foscue would have 22 at some point during the regional. His current home run pace (13, one per 3.69 games) could have him threatening MSU’s top 5 if he holds it through an Omaha run. His current slugging percentage is .623; the only Bulldog to finish a season slugging more than .600 since the 2013 team was Brent Rooker in his Triple Crown season.

Two Trends to Monitor

Elijah MacNamee Post-Texas A&M

Let’s divide Elijah MacNamee’s 2017 season into 3 parts.

 - Eight games before going to Texas A&M: 4-for-22 (.181).

 - Three games at Texas A&M: 4-for-13 (.307).

 - The rest of the season after Texas A&M: 16-for-61 (.262).

As you can see, MacNamee changed his sophomore season for good with three games in College Station: he got a hit in 10 of the 11 postseason games he played that season.

MacNamee is currently scuffling in a similar way — although we have a far more explainable reason for it this time around, his foot injury. That came to our attention at the Governor’s Cup game, when he was seen in a boot and was given a day off of right field duties to help that foot.

Let’s take the same splits from the 2017 season to this one:

 - The four games from Governor’s Cup to the Texas A&M series: 1-for-16 (.062). If you want to include the Arkansas series before it, working under the likely assumption that the injury was there then, too, it’s 2-for-26 (.077).

 - The Texas A&M series: 2-for-10 (.200).

It’s far from the hot weekend he had in College Station as a sophomore in 2017, but again, foot injury. State is looking for any reason to believe MacNamee is starting to recover from the foot injury, and maybe getting a couple of hits in a weekend series is that sign. Much like his 2017 season, the games from now until the end are what will define it.

Mangum’s getting…..better?

Be it publicly, as Mangum himself did, or privately, there was some hypothesizing that Mangum would be a better hitter after he broke the SEC career hits record: now that he’s not living with the shadow of Eddy Furniss over him, he can tailor his approach to what best suits him, not to breaking a hits record.

It’s a small sample size, yes, but in the four games he’s played since he broke the record, he’s 6-for-13 (.461), and those games coming against two of the better pitching staffs in the SEC, Georgia and Texas A&M. That performance has been enough to raise a season batting average of .395 over 200 at-bats to .399 in just 13 at-bats. That’s impressive.

If a .395 hitter magically gets better as the calendar turns from April to May….man oh man.

Morning game in Atlanta, Ruby Tuesday, Derek Jeter and a midnight hotel: How Mississippi State got Jordan Westburg to Starkville

Photo by Blake Williams courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics

Photo by Blake Williams courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics

By Brett Hudson

Paul Westburg couldn’t help but chuckle at the man in the black polo, effectively chasing his son down the first base line with stopwatch in hand at a summer ball event in Atlanta.

On that June day in 2016, Paul and Christine Westburg were almost 1,000 miles away from their home in New Braunfels, Texas, watching their son Jordan play. Jordan had set goals to play Power 5 conference baseball, and if at all possible in the best conference of them all, the SEC. Most of the interest came from in-state schools, but some others came calling in the later stages: Jordan remembers Kentucky and Duke, Paul remembers West Virginia and Christine remembers Air Force. Yet, if not for the events of this one Atlanta weekend, Jordan Westburg believes he was likely heading to the Texas Longhorns, all of 50 miles northeast of his hometown.

Then came that man in the black polo. It was Will Coggin, then a Mississippi State assistant coach. He was wildly impressed with Jordan Westburg and wanted to take a last-second shot at getting him. Coggin scheduled it out for them: Jordan had a 9 a.m. game one day and a mid-afternoon game the next, so drive over to Starkville after the 9 a.m. game, stay the night somewhere and get back to Atlanta in time for the next game.

“We were just sitting in the car, and Jordan looked over at me and said, ‘Can we drive to Starkville today?’ I said, ‘Absolutely,’” Paul Westburg said. “We went back to the condo, showered and took a road trip from Atlanta to Starkville.”

Little did they know they would be making a much longer drive to Starkville many more times over the coming years. Little did they know Jordan would soon reach banana-based fame and the top tier of 2019 SEC hitters — he’s currently 11th in the league in batting average (.345), slugging (.569) and on-base percentage (.443), tied for fifth in RBI (47) and tied for third in doubles (17).

They would soon find out that Coggin saw it all coming.

* * *

Then-head coach John Cohen could tell his assistant was enamored with what he saw as he got the reports from Coggin. Cohen remembers Coggin telling him Westburg was a sure thing for the left side of the infield, an exceedingly rare prospect in that regard. He also noticed the speed on that stopwatch run — and Westburg didn’t make Coggin wait, hitting a ball hard to left-center on his first at-bat.

The schedule for an impromptu unofficial visit set, the Westburgs made the drive and got the Mississippi State experience. After the tours and meetings and all, as Paul Westburg remembers it, Cohen asked if the family could hang around for an hour as he solidified the scholarship status of another recruit. Cohen knew he wanted Westburg, but he knew others did, too, and his scholarship offer had to be competitive; that being the case, he wanted to ensure other recruits that their scholarships would not be impacted by getting Westburg, if they could seal the deal.

So the Westburgs went to Ruby Tuesday, down Highway 12 from campus. Paul Westburg said the waitress took one look at Jordan and asked him if he were considering MSU, and he said yes.

Her response: “Don’t do it, there’s nothing to do here.” Paul Westburg turned to his son and told him not to listen to her. He clearly didn’t, but he listens to her now: Jordan thinks the same woman is a professor in one of his classes this semester.

They laugh about that moment now, but it was the one that came after dinner that they remember most.

They returned from dinner to Cohen’s office. Paul Westburg said Cohen told them he asked Coggin to compare Jordan to a player. Coggin’s response: Derek Jeter. He’s Christine Westburg’s favorite player; Paul was gobsmacked that a coach would compare Jordan to such a great player.

They listened to Cohen’s offer and went back to the car, Christine searching for hotel rooms between Starkville and Atlanta. They got in the car and looked up at the football stadium, where there was projection playing highlights from what was a SEC regular season championship for the Diamond Dawgs in 2016. The family sat in the car and watched the highlights, Paul immediately impressed with Cohen’s marketing ability. Christine found a hotel room in Birmingham and the Westburgs made it back to Atlanta in time for the next day’s game.

Christine remembers Jordan feeling something for MSU as soon as he set foot on campus. Paul more clearly remembers the bedside conversation a couple of week later.

“Jordan’s always had that belief in himself that he could play at this level, and to be honest with you, I was watching and saying, ‘Wow, that’s amazing baseball,’” Paul Westburg said. “He always had this calm assurance and when it came down to make his decision, we sat on his bed and said, ‘I have great peace about Mississippi State.’”

That feeling was not lost quickly. In the final days before Westburg signed, MSU transitioned from John Cohen to Andy Cannizaro, all while Texas coach David Pierce was calling Westburg daily. Still, Jordan felt a peace about MSU, so he signed in November 9, a date Paul Westburg still remembers with ease. By the end of Jordan’s first season as a Bulldog, he was flashing the potential Coggin saw.

* * *

As people started looking ahead to the 2019 season, Jordan Westburg and his bat were a consistent fixture in the conversation; there was no guarantee that would be the case even entering what could have been the final month of his freshman season.

Westburg steadily battled Justin Foscue for third base playing time before a hamstring injury more or less put an end to that in early May. Westburg was out of the lineup entirely for four games and sat with a .216 batting average on 74 at-bats. Over the next 41 at-bats — a pivotal Florida series to end the regular season, the Tallahassee Regional, the Nashville Super Regional and Omaha — Westburg would raise his average as high as .261, getting 14 hits in those 41 at-bats (.341) before the final two games against Oregon State. Jordan Westburg believes that run laid the foundation for the elite hitter he is now.

“It was always in me. I think it took a little development, whether that’s mentally or being able to relax and let those tools I have come out,” he said.

This weekend, he returns to his home state as the proven commodity on a top 10 team. The Westburgs think as many as 30 or 40 people could make the drive 2 1/2 hours to College Station to see Jordan play against the Aggies this weekend; Jordan’s grandmother, Dot, has already drove from Philadelphia to be there: 1,700 miles from Philly to New Braunfels.

If not for a last-second drive to Starkville, this would be a weekly show in the Lone Star State.

Full Count, Week 11: 3 Interesting Stats and 2 Things to Watch Post-Mangum Record

Photo by Aaron Cornia, Mississippi State Athletics

Photo by Aaron Cornia, Mississippi State Athletics

Three Interesting Stats

Feast or famine Allen

Isn’t it kind of wild that the guy hitting .302 — on a team with guys hitting .394, .345, .340 and .314 — entered the weekend tied for the team lead in 3-hit games, and then had one more this weekend?

That’s been the story of 2019 for Tanner Allen. When he hits, he hits in bunches for 9-inning spurts, but for some reason he hasn’t been stringing hits together game after game after game. His longest hitting streak of the year is seven games; now compare that to the season-long hitting streaks of Jake Mangum (20), Dustin Skelton (13), Elijah MacNamee (12) and Justin Foscue (10).

Those six games with 3+ hits account for 19 of Allen’s 54 hits, thus 35.1 percent of his hits coming in 13.3 percent of his games. Let’s compare that to Westburg, who has a similar profile to Allen — no double-digit game hitting streak and five games of three hits or more — but even he only has 26.6 percent of his hits concentrated in 11.3 percent of his games. The same can be said for Foscue, who similarly to Allen has 34.3 percent of his concentrated in seven 3+ hit games, but he has so many that those hits are spread over 15.5 percent of his games.

Here’s another way to put it: Allen has 16 multi-hit games and 14 hitless games, leaving him with just 15 games with a single hit. Compare that with Skelton (21 one-hit games) and Rowdey Jordan (18 one-hit games) to see that oddity.

I find this fun because this is not who Allen was last season — in late April and early May last year he went on an 11-game hit streak, had a hitless game and then hit in six straight games — but he’s just as productive. Hitting is all about bringing in runs, and Allen’s doing it this way: in 68 games last year he had 45 RBI and scored 42 runs; this year in 45 games, he’s got 44 RBI and scored 42 runs.

Plus, there’s a pretty high correlation between Allen multi-hit games and wins: the Bulldogs are 14-2 when he gets two or more hits. I say let Allen feast and let him famine, knowing the famines are short-lived and the feasts are a spectacle to behold.

Dustin Skelton, Big Game Hunter

Did you know that Dustin Skelton has had a 3 RBI to 1 hit ratio in three games this year? He did it for the third time in the Friday night game against Georgia: one hit for three RBI.

It’s pretty clearly a factor of batting seventh with OBPs of .444, .443, .397, .429, .391 and .372 ahead of him, but he’s been prone to one swing of the bat changing the game this year, and he has a habit of delivering: the man’s hitting .467 with runners in scoring position.

Hello, Luke Hancock

I found myself thinking a few weeks ago that Mississippi State could have the deepest hitting bench in college baseball, when the merry-go-round of Josh Hatcher, Brad Cumbest and Marshall Gilbert was holding it down.

Now it’s added Luke Hancock as a legitimate threat, and friends, I have no idea what to do with this information.

Hancock now has two hits in his last six at-bats and has drawn a walk in all three of his SEC starts. Cumbest and Hatcher remain useful pieces to play in that rotation, and we have yet to mention Landon Jordan and Hayden Jones.

I asked Chris Lemonis about Hancock at one point this weekend and he said Hancock’s been doing well in practice and earned some game ABs, and that can’t be more clear: of his 20 at-bats this year, 10 have come since April 16. Lemonis also said they like to use matchups whenever possible — handedness, approach, strengths and weaknesses of pitcher and hitter among those factors — and frankly it’s hard to imagine a matchup MSU doesn’t have an answer for at this point.

Two Things to Watch Post-Mangum Record Chase

Ethan Small

Konnor Pilkington was Mississippi State’s ace for two seasons, one of them making a Super Regional and another making the College World Series. He used ending his final two seasons with 111 and 107 strikeouts to finish top 10 on the MSU career list in career strikeouts.

Ethan Small bumped his 2018 season total to 114 in his Friday start and win, moving him from 17th on MSU’s single-season list to 10th.

Climbing up the ladder is a given: he’s one behind a tie for ninth (Jeff Brantley 1984 and Dakota Hudson 2016), seven behind eighth (Hank Thomas 1999), eight behind his own 2018 season and 13 behind sixth (Chris Stratton, 2012).

He’s going to be moving up on the MSU career strikeouts list, too. His most recent outing gives him 256; he could be as high as seventh as his next start with Pilkington in 10th (260), Carlton Loewer in ninth (261), Don Robinson in eighth (262) and Mike Proffitt in seventh (265). The top two of Eric DuBose (428) and Jeff Brantley (364) seem out of reach, but Chris Stratton in 3rd (279) is in reach.

Team Slugging

When you look up before May 1 and realize Allen is slugging 40 points better than he did last year, Skelton 220 points better and Westburg nearly 200 points better — all while Mangum is threatening to set a career high in doubles — you probably think this team has a shot at rewriting the team record books. You would be right.

Here’s a list of team records this offense could threaten:

 - Doubles. The record, 157 by the 1989 team, they averaged 2.3 doubles per game; this team is averaging 2.46. The 1989 team did play 68 games, meaning this year’s squad would have to hit like this through a Super Regional, but 142 doubles is good enough to crack the top 5 in school history. Only two teams have hit 150, 1989 and 1999 (156).

 - Runs/runs per game. The records are 633 set by the 1997 team and 9.5 set by the 1999 team; this year, they’re averaging 8.5 per game. If it ended at 8.5 it would be good enough for fifth in school history in runs per game, since only four teams have finished north of 9 (1999, 1997, 1989 and 1983). Holding this 8.5 runs per game pace of the 68 games last year’s team played would ended it at 582, good for fourth in school history. Only two Bulldog teams have cracked 600 runs: 1997 and 1989.

(It’s a somewhat similar chase in team RBI: at 7.6 RBI per game, if done over the 68 games last year’s team played, it would be one of just four Bulldog teams to end a season with more than 500.)

 - Home runs, admittedly, is going to be a stretch. With 50 in 45 games (1.1 per game), it would have to play 68 games at this pace just to get to 75, which is still two short of the fifth-place 1981 team that hit 77.

 - And for those interested in sheer win total, here’s the record book listing for that: 54 (1989), 51 (2013), 50 (1985, 1990), 47 (1997) and 46 (1981). This year’s Bulldogs are 36-9.

Mangum's historic day and the people who most enjoyed it — everyone but him

Photo by Kelly Donoho, Mississippi State Athletics

Photo by Kelly Donoho, Mississippi State Athletics

By Brett Hudson

STARKVILLE — Saturday’s second-inning single was a moment 1,152 days in the making, beginning with Jake Mangum’s first hit as a Bulldog on March 1, 2016. An otherwise meaningless single in a 14-0 Tuesday night win over Alcorn State is now one of 354 hits off Mangum’s bat, more than any player in the history of college baseball’s most powerful conference.

It was the most historic moment of a career that includes a SEC batting title, countless All-SEC and All-American honors, an Omaha appearance and his name all over the Mississippi State record books.

Jake Mangum’s response to the moment: “I’m really glad that’s over.”

In a way, that’s fitting. Mangum did start the season 77 hits behind Eddy Furniss’ former SEC record of 352. Mangum has never finished a MSU season with fewer than 84 hits and finished his junior season with 101. The senior season he chose to play for one last shot at team glory has been defined from the beginning by his chase of one particular individual record among many he can claim.

His 353rd hit ended that chase, freeing him of the daily chatter. He was a good sport in the moment — recognizing the hat tips from the dugout and the 9,572 in attendance, removing his helmet in salute, keeping the ball he hit and the base he rounded — but truth be told, Mangum will enjoy the post-record part of his senior season more than the chase.

Saturday’s history was more for those around Mangum than it was for him.

It was for Luke Alexander, the shortstop-turned-first base coach, the first person to embrace him after he broke the record. Alexander was with Mangum when they were the youngest players on a travel team, batting 8th and 9th together. Alexander was with Mangum when they went to a MSU camp in 8th grade, when both got asked to stay late and Mangum waited outside of John Cohen’s office as Alexander received a scholarship offer.

“Luke’s been joking the past couple of days whenever I get it done he’s going to give me a big hug,” Mangum said. “I’m really happy to be there and do it with him.”

Mangum’s day of history was for Stacy Mangum and the dozens of family members and family friends that surrounded her as Jake broke the record. Jake called his mother, “the most genuine woman I’ve ever met,” and — correctly — said everyone at Dudy Noble Field knows Stacy Mangum. 

Hit No. 353 was for his cousin, Taylor Nowell, who Mangum says is a big reason why he chose MSU out of Jackson Prep. Nowell, who swore up and down through high school he has a cousin who’s really good at baseball, left Dudy Noble Field Saturday with a cup of infield dirt in his hand, his own souvenir of the day.

Jake thought of his father, John, who Jake remembers driving from an Atlanta baseball tournament through a Sunday night while Jake and Stacy slept, to get the family home for Monday morning. One of many sacrifices the family made to get Jake here. (Not that John is sentimental at the moment. There are two people pleased to see the record chase end not for the history made, but for the end of pomp and circumstance: Jake Mangum and John Mangum.)

Jake Mangum’s day for the record books was for all of the people that kept him out of the locker room until 5 p.m. after a game that ended at 3:35. For the youth baseball teams with baseballs to sign, for the outfield loungeholders with banners to behold, for the hangers-on in the Left Field Lofts that included former Diamond Dawg Wes Rea that watched him trot across the outfield for more autographs and more pictures.

Jake made the path to this moment look easy — even in his 101-hit season last year, he didn’t reach the 79 hits he has today until the final weekend of the regular season. It may have looked easy, but he says it was not.

“Hitting with that in the back of your head, it’s really hard,” he said. “No matter how locked in you are on the game, no matter how locked in you are in that moment, it’s hard stepping into the box knowing you’re one hit away, two hits away. It’s tough.”

On April 27, 2019, Jake Mangum gave so many people the moment they’ve been waiting for. Then he emerged from the locker room to a Saturday sunset and the moments he’s been waiting for: the final weeks of his senior season, when the college baseball community will join him in counting wins, not hits.

Full Count, Week 10: 3 Thoughts from the Arkansas series, 2 Hot Relief Pitchers

Photo courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics

Photo courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics

By Brett Hudson

Mississippi State saw the bad end of a sweep for the first time this season, yet still is one of six SEC West teams within two games of each other. The race is on, folks, and here are some thoughts on the team as it takes on the final four weeks of that race.

Three Thoughts from the Series

Aberrations cost State the series

In Friday’s 12-5 loss, a Bulldog pitching staff that was allowing 2.84 walks per game inexplicably issued 16 free passes. Not only was it the first time the staff issued 10 or more walks in a game, it was just the third time this year they allowed more than six.

File that Friday loss under Unlikely To Repeat Itself.

On Saturday, Arkansas starting pitcher Connor Noland — who had never gone more than 5 innings as a Razorback — pitched 7.2 scoreless, allowing four hits and no walks. Maybe avoiding facing Mangum yet another time factored into it, but frankly, Noland could have gone longer (he only threw 89 pitches) had he not collected the win in the midweek game before the series.

File that Saturday loss under Unlikely To Repeat Itself.

For Dogpile listeners out there, you may remember my closing thought being on the lack of proven pitching depth Arkansas has, thus Mississippi State’s primary objective being to take advantage of that. Two aberrations made that objective a moving target this weekend — not quite the beginning of a crisis.

Checking in on DH musical chairs

Designated hitter/pinch hitter has intrigued me this season, and has from the beginning, because there are so many respectable options for so few potential at-bats.

There was a stretch earlier this month where it was almost entirely Brad Cumbest and Josh Hatcher, but the coaching staff seems to be diversifying a little bit. Hayden Jones had five at-bats in the first two weeks of April, but got two in the Arkansas series and got his first hit of the month; also in that series, Landon Jordan got at-bats in consecutive games for the first time since two midweek games over a month ago and Luke Hancock — who got 10 at-bats in the first nine weeks of the season — got four last week.

It’s possible this is just a countermove to the facts that Cumbest is hitless in his last nine at-bats and Hatcher has one hit in his last 11. But if it’s more than that, the intrigue in the DH/PH roles has arguably never been this high.

SEC championship in reach — for now

Another nod to Dogpile listeners here. Those of you that listen will remember the path I set out for MSU starting this second half of the SEC schedule: take one of three in every road series, take two of three in every home series and the team gets to 17-13; steal a game or two here or there and with the right amount of help, it could be enough to win the West or the SEC outright.

Since when is baseball that clean and easy? I figured it would go a little differently than that for MSU, if it were to end this regular season with some sort of championship. Seeing the results of this weekend was a little jarring, but I wanted to see if this is out of the norm. Turns out most SEC champions hit a stretch this like:

 - 2018 Florida, State fans should remember it well: the Bulldogs swept Florida in Starkville to end the regular season. Didn’t stop those Gators from making it to Omaha.

 - 2017 Florida and 2017 LSU. Florida got swept to start the SEC schedule and LSU started 5-5. Both finished 21-9, winners of their respective divisions.

 - 2016 Mississippi State got swept by Texas A&M at home, and 2015 Vanderbilt (20-10) lost consecutive SEC series to Ole Miss and South Carolina.

To go back to the headline above this section, here’s why I stipulate the hopes are alive for now: most of those teams rebounded in impressive fashion. 2015 Vanderbilt came back to sweep a series with a ranked Missouri and the 2016 Bulldogs came back to take two of three in Baton Rouge are two good examples. MSU has that opportunity hosting SEC East leader Georgia this weekend, and history suggests it needs to put up a couple of wins to stay in the hunt.

Two Relief Pitchers On Fire

Colby White

His last six appearances: 6.1 innings, two hits and three walks allowed, no runs, 11 strikeouts. That’s a WHIP of 0.789 and only two of those appearances were against non-conference opponents.

MSU is getting what it wanted out of this Pearl River CC product — one inning of dominance every time he’s called upon.

Jack Eagan

Yes, he was also part of the walk problem in Fayetteville, but check this out: he’s pitched 5 innings against SEC foes, allowing two hits, two earned runs and striking out seven. When he hits the strike zone a little more (six walks in his last three appearances, 6 innings total), he is the oh-so-useful additional left-handed weapon. And what college baseball team couldn’t use another one of those?

Jared Liebelt's baseball revival: Xbox and a summer of nothing has him on top

Photo courtesy of MSU Athletics

Photo courtesy of MSU Athletics

By Brett Hudson

STARKVILLE — The dream season that was for the 2018 Mississippi State baseball team wasn’t much of one for Jared Liebelt. While the Bulldogs were pulling countless episodes of improbable heroics on the way to Omaha, Liebelt was along for the ride as a pitcher who dreaded the act of pitching.

It was more than just the 13.15 ERA the junior righty allowed in his first season out of Waubonsee Community College (Sugar Grove, Illinois). It was the process that got him there: paralysis by analysis, unable to relax mentally and enjoy the act of pitching as he had in years prior.

“I wasn’t having fun at all,” Liebelt told Matt Wyatt Media. “It got to a point where I was dreading pitching, having to go out there, because I had lost all confidence and I didn’t know what to think when I went out there.”

Liebelt had to find a way out of that mental rut. He had a spot with a team in the Minnesota Northwoods League, a collegiate wood-bat league, but instead he went home to more or less drop baseball completely. Time previously spent thinking about baseball and working on baseball was spent playing video games with friends.

After months away from the game, Liebelt came back to Starkville and immediately established himself as one of MSU’s best relief pitchers.

That’s what Liebelt has been through 38 games in 2019: 26.1 innings in 17 appearances with a 2.73 ERA and a WHIP of 0.949. The same man who hit as many batters as he struck out last season (seven) has now logged 15.2 innings against SEC teams with just four earned runs allowed (2.30 ERA).

Liebelt’s secret to baseball success was coming face-to-face with life without baseball.

* * *

It was near the end of last season — when Liebelt’s performance had more or less taken him out of the game, only pitching once after April 18 — that he diagnosed his issue. As his sophomore season at Wausonbee CC continued, MLB Draft attention came his way and scouts followed, he started pressuring himself to an extreme. He wasn’t playing the game to enjoy it; he went through every motion trying to impress someone.

“It led to me putting a lot of pressure on myself, and then coming here where it’s a big environment, big history, huge expectations, in my mind, I put even more pressure on myself,” he said. “It was just a mental thing last year; physically, I don’t think anything changed, I didn’t change my mechanics at all.

“When I got out there, I was in my head with my mechanics. I was thinking about my mechanics while I was out there, and that’s never a good thing. Is my leg lift too high, am I drifting, am I getting to the right position, is my arm dragging behind, and I was doing that every pitch. It was terrible. It wasn’t fun, at all.”

Liebelt had made peace with his results as a new coaching staff was evaluating them. His meeting with new head coach Chris Lemonis came with the news he was expecting — he was no longer on scholarship. Liebelt even told Lemonis he was not surprised.

Liebelt asked Lemonis if he would have a spot to come back and make the team; Lemonis said yes. With that, Liebelt went back home to Aurora, Illinois, where he would rehab a minor knee injury to be 100 percent for the fall. In his first week or two back home, he assured his parents he wanted to return to Mississippi State — “If I’m going to play college baseball, that’s where I want to be at.” — and a call with assistant coach Jake Gautreau set the plan in motion.

Jared Liebelt

Jared Liebelt

Liebelt knew he could call the hitting coach — the one holdover from the previous staff — for a straight answer. Liebelt told Gautreau he would understand if the new coaching staff wanted its hand-picked players in the fold and asked him a simple question: if I perform well in the fall, will I be on the team? Gautreau assured him he would, and assured him of his belief that Liebelt can return to that.

From there, Liebelt went full-speed into the most casual offseason any college athlete has ever had.

“I didn’t think about baseball at all,” Liebelt said. “I wasn’t working out or throwing, thinking about getting ready for whatever, I was just doing it. When the time came to come back to school, I was like, “Alright, I’m ready to go enjoy this. If it goes like last year, I don’t really want to be playing baseball anyway.’

“It was comforting that I had come to terms that if that’s where my skill level is at, it’s not something I’m interested in doing anyway.”

He played Xbox with friends. He would make the two-hour trip to St. Ambrose University in Iowa to see his girlfriend. He travelled to see family in Wisconsin. Occasionally he would play catch or workout with his friend Jake Smith, a pitcher for Madison College rehabbing from Tommy John, but it was for accompaniment with a friend more than the baseball activity.

By resetting his mindset on the sport completely, he freed himself of the pressures of the next level. If the upcoming senior season were the last baseball he would ever play, he was prepared for that.

“I’m just going to try to enjoy it, whether it’s my last year of baseball or not,” Liebelt said. “I think that helped a lot, too, feeling like I was here to enjoy it, I wasn’t here to make it to the next level or impress people. I was just here to have fun, and that kept snowballing in a good way to gaining a lot of confidence and feeling like I can dominant whenever I’m out there.”

When he returned to Starkville, mentally refreshed, he came upon a pitching coach with a perfect plan for him.

* * *

The new pitching coach, Scott Foxhall, saw the numbers. He admits they were, “not pretty”; luckily for Liebelt, they aren’t the only stop Foxhall makes when he takes over a new staff.

Next, he went to Liebelt’s video from the 2018 season, where he saw Liebelt’s arm slot: it’s low, almost low enough to be considered sidearm. Foxhall likes having right-handers with different arm slots, and that was a plus for Liebelt in Foxhall’s mind.

The last step in that information-gathering process also helped.

“I try to get some anecdotes, and (Gautreau) is the one you go to for the anecdotes since he was here,” Foxhall said. “I go to him and his first impression was, I think a (fall) scrimmage game and (Gautreau) said he turned around and said, ‘Who is that guy? I think he’s going to be really good.’ Jake was impressed.”

Liebelt came back to MSU in the fall with a fresh mind and did so to a pitching coach eager to find his potential. Then Liebelt, possibly unwittingly, gave Foxhall the keys to unlocking that potential.

“One of the things with Jared’s personality is he’s very organized in his mind and he’s very routine-oriented, and he was not shy about telling me that,” Foxhall said. “We probably put together the most comprehensive routine for him than I did with anybody else on the staff. He wanted that and he followed it. There were a couple of times where it was raining, I called and he said, ‘I’ll find a way to get it in.’ He programmed himself, this is what I’m going to do every day.

“That’s what Jared is, he’s a perfectionist scientist. He builds his throw up from the first exercises that he does every day. Some of the drills concentrate on lower half, some concentrate on hand break, some concentrate on the finish. It’s probably about five to 10 minutes worth of drill work he does. He throws the plastic balls against the wall and each drill he does serves as a checkpoint for his mechanics. It allows him to be more mindless about his mechanics when he’s throwing on the mound.”

All the pieces came together pretty quickly in the fall. Foxhall started throwing him one inning at a time, testing his theory of Liebelt’s usefulness as a change-of-pace arm slot guy. In his experience, pitchers with lower arm slots recover quicker from outing to outing, so Liebelt pitched more frequently than most. Each one-inning outing built the coaching staff to its conclusion: Liebelt is far more than an odd arm slot guy.

“Over the course of the fall he showed that he wasn’t just a different look guy, that he was a real pitcher,” Foxhall said. “He had real command, he has a real slider and a real changeup, so he has a three-pitch arsenal: by my definition, a pitcher.”

* * *

Of course the Brewers fan in Liebelt goes straight to Josh Hader.

There are other examples of this role, brought to popularity by Andrew Miller in his postseason run with the Cleveland Indians: the role of the reliever used whenever the high-leverage situation presents itself. It bucks the trend of the closer, the best bullpen arm saved for the ninth inning; if a more important situation arises before then, why not go to the best arm?

Liebelt’s usage has shades of that Hader/Miller role, even if it doesn’t have a traditional name.

“I don’t think I really can define the role. I do remember him saying that he liked having defined roles. At the beginning of the year it was more I would be the seventh inning guy, Barlow or Colby (White) gets eight and (Cole Gordon) gets nine, but as the year progressed it’s kind of turned into whenever I’m most needed. It’s been a whole variety of different situations.

“I like feeling like I’m that guy, whenever I’m needed is when I’m going in. Just based off of how they’ve used me — we haven’t really had a conversation about it — but how they’re using me gives me that feeling that they have that trust in me to get it done in big situations.”

One of his more popular roles is immediately following Ethan Small. Foxhall likes the difference in delivery with those two, forcing batters to go from Small’s overhand left-handed delivery to Liebelt’s nearly sidearm right-handed pitches. That one-inning change-of-pace is still used in those cases, but Liebelt has also finished games, gone long or both: he has three saves this year, two against SEC foes, and all of those saves spanned at least 2.2 innings. He closed the final 2.2 innings of the Florida win that clinched series and the final 3 innings of the rubber match at Tennessee.

This is the product of Liebelt loving baseball again. The game consumes his life once more — this time in a good way, like it did when he was bursting onto the scene at Waubonsee, hitting 90 mph for the first time, then hitting 94 for the first time on the way to the JUCO World Series. The summer away from baseball has Liebelt in a good place if baseball ends for him when MSU’s season ends in June, but why would it?

“Obviously I’m not performing like (last year),” Liebelt said, “and I’m enjoying it a lot more.”

Full Count, Week 9: 3 Players Worth Highlighting, 2 Things to Watch in SEC Chase

We’re halfway through the conference schedule and Mississippi State is tied for first. That means this team has something going for it, and we’ll discuss those pieces both here and on Dogpile, your favorite baseball podcast.

3 Players Worth Highlighting

Marshall Gilbert

His last four games, all of them starts: 4-for-10, 3 RBI, 2 homers, 4 walks. This production at the plate comes after only starting five times in the first seven weeks of the season — and still hitting .300 in inconsistent playing time.

Furthermore, Gilbert is looking mighty comfortable at third base for a guy who has spent his MSU career as a catcher, simply keeping loose in the infield on batting practice ground balls.

I did ask Chris Lemonis about Gilbert after the Sunday game and he said Gilbert has what it takes to be an everyday third baseman, yet he still expects some rotation there (Gunner Halter being the other guy) for matchup purposes. But later on, when I asked him about designated hitter and his personnel decisions there, he said he will roll with a hot hand when one presents itself. Gilbert could grow into that at third base given a couple more games.

Elijah MacNamee

Let’s run through what MacNamee has done since March 1, shall we?

 - Rolled up a 12-game hit streak, multiple hits in seven of those games and six of the 20 hits in that streak going for extra bases. He drove in 13 runs in those 12 games.

 - The game in which that hit streak broke? He walked three times. He kept walking (currently leads the team 28 of them in 37 games) and put together another 10-game hitting streak, amassing a 28-game reached base streak.

Photo by Aaron Cornia, Mississippi State Athletics

Photo by Aaron Cornia, Mississippi State Athletics

 - More recently, he had at least one hit and at least RBI in all three games of the Alabama series.

That’s all, just constantly reaching base, constantly hitting and doing so for six weeks. Casual.

Peyton Plumlee

My hope is Plumlee’s days of being the forgotten man are over. His combined line in his last two SEC starts: 10.1 innings, 6 hits and 5 walks allowed, 1 earned run allowed (0.87 ERA), 5 strikeouts. He even covered those 10.1 innings in 142 pitches, so it’s not out of the question that his current effectiveness could go out to 7 innings if his pitch count is allowed to get up to the 90s.

Ethan Small is undeniably awesome (a lot of talk about him on Dogpile, our baseball podcast, be on the lookout for that Monday afternoon) and JT Ginn sliding right back into the fold with ease gives this rotation the same 1-2 from before. But Plumlee being this rock solid as the current third option gives the Bulldogs a luxury that is beyond rare in college baseball.

2 Things to Watch in SEC Chase

(A quick note: these are the series that don’t involve MSU. The Bulldogs clearly have their chance to heavily influence the SEC chase with their next four series: at Arkansas April 18-20, Georgia April 26-28, at Texas A&M May 2-4 and Ole Miss May 10-12. But I figure you’ll be watching those anyway, so here are a couple of things outside of that to be tracking.)

Texas A&M at Ole Miss, April 25-27

Right before both teams host MSU in consecutive weekends, these two play each other. Texas A&M is 9-5-1 with a manageable series at South Carolina before the Ole Miss series; the Rebels are 9-6 with Auburn in between them and hosting Texas A&M.

This is especially true if Texas A&M takes the series with the Rebels, but in any case, this series should make the picture much more clear for MSU in terms of who its top competition in the SEC West will be. And that competition could be on tap for MSU right after this series, if the Aggies win it before hosting the Bulldogs.

Vanderbilt

Given all but one team in the SEC West has a winning record in league play, it’s understandable that so much attention is being paid to the division, but Vanderbilt is far from out of this picture.

Second in the SEC East right now behind Georgia, the Commodores actually have a pretty favorable draw to stack up some wins: at Alabama (4-11), Auburn (8-7), at South Carolina (4-11), Missouri (7-7-1) and at Kentucky (4-11) to finish. With that tame of a schedule and just a one-game deficit to Georgia, I won’t be surprised to see Vandy atop the SEC East and as MSU’s potential competition for the SEC regular season title.

What Matters and What Doesn't from Mississippi State's spring practice

File photo, MSU Athletics

File photo, MSU Athletics

For me, spring football practice is like trying to get back in shape by playing some pickup basketball: it’s always good to do it every few months or so, just to sharpen the skill a little bit, but the real victory is to do it without getting hurt. If you can execute the motions a few times and live to tell the tale, you’ve done good.

That doesn’t make the weeks of spring practice riveting television — for the most part. On occasion there are a couple of things that can happen in spring that might actually prove useful — in a sea of things that are mostly not useful. Let’s separate the two, shall we?

What Matters: Reps for Interior O-Line

Those of you that followed my Film Reviews on Twitter during football season probably saw much more interior offensive line play than you were anticipating, because that group was just so good last year. Losing two pieces from it (center Elgton Jenkins and right guard Deion Calhoun) is no small development, and these 15 practices in the new unit are big.

They’re important for Darryl Williams, who is taking over at center and has a new set of responsibilities. They’re important for Stewart Reese, whose move to right guard is going to come with the expectation of no regression there, fair or not, because he is the veteran moving into that spot. Dareuan Parker also needs the time to playing alongside them — those guys have everything down mentally, and every rep he can get at their side to get up to their speed is a valuable one.

It’s pretty common to see offensive line position battles extend a few weeks into fall camp, which does no favors for chemistry once they set that starting five. Things being as calm as they seem to be on that unit at the moment sure helps — it doesn’t guarantee reaching a ceiling that last year’s unit had, but it at least gives them a better chance than a unit that’s forced to come together in the final week of August.

What Doesn’t Matter: What Quarterbacks Did

There are 110 days in between the Maroon & White Game and August 1, when we can reasonably expect fall camp to truly be up and running. For the most part, football players are on campus for most of those days, doing little more than working out with each other. That’s where you hear the stories of quarterbacks who are true leaders organizing their own 7-on-7 sessions, scheduling times to work with their receivers on routes, maybe see a private quarterback coach to work on their own footwork, etc.

That being the case, spring is used for the development of offensive understanding — especially in MSU’s current situation, being Year Two under Joe Moorhead after Year One showed some offensive holes to address.

Ultimately, these guys are going to be judged on if they can complete passes in September, not March and April. It may not give you much room for hot takes and Twitter nonsense/overreactions, and it’s impossible for us to evaluate now or even accurately project in the future, but it’s the truth. Deal with it as you please.

What Matters: Safety Reps

This is one that makes this list because of how MSU is approaching this.

Given what C.J. Morgan did late last year when thrown into the fire due to injury, it would’ve been easy to pull a plug-and-play here for Mark McLaurin and Johnathan Abram, simply finding an answer for the safety position Morgan isn’t playing and rolling with it.

What MSU is actually doing is whatever it needs to do to get its best five defensive backs on the field. At the two safety positions, that currently means Marcus Murphy and Jaquarius Landrews, both of them having mostly played Nickel last year, at the safety positions. It’s a good move from an athleticism standpoint — and both of those players have the acumen to handle that kind of move well — now they just need as m much experience as they can get back there.

The spring gave them a little, which is useful. In a year with such heavy transition on the interior of the defensive line, being strong up the middle at the second and third levels could be crucial, and seeing now Murphy and Landrews have a head start, if this is the final answer.

Full Count, Week 8: 3 Lineup Spots of Contention, 2 Underappreciated Elements

Super Bulldog Weekend is upon us and Starkville will be flooded with people who are forced to make their trips to Starkville less regular than others. They’re coming to town at a time when the team is clearly good, but also containing a few interesting questions to answer with its recent daily lineup shuffling. Let’s run through those things, shall we?

3 Lineup Spots of Contention and State’s Options

No. 2 and No. 3

Jake Mangum is Mississippi State’s career hits leader and is on pace to become the SEC’s hits leader by the end of the month. He won the batting title as a freshman, had the best season of his career as a junior — and is still on pace to be better this year. The No. 1 spot is fine.

Elijah MacNamee is on a 10-game hit streak and a 28-game reached base streak. He has twice as many multi-hit games (14) as he has hitless games (seven). The cleanup spot is fine.

What happens in between them is where MSU is looking for stability.

It’s probably going to be some combination of Jordan Westburg, Tanner Allen and Rowdey Jordan, but three different combinations were used in the Tennessee series. Up until now it’s been pretty self-explanatory based on which ones were hitting and which ones were not at the given time, but now there’s no telling what to do with Tanner Allen.

Allen’s slump led to his bump down the lineup (which didn’t seem to help matters), but then they move him up in the lineup a day after going 0-for-4 just to see him deliver three hits and a homer. It would have been easy to have some Jordan-Westburg combo in those spots until Allen flashed some life up in the order.

Admittedly, this is kind of a tame “problem,” if you even want to label it as such. It’s possible this is a controlled chaos situation, where the guys move where they belong based on recent production and do so all season, fluctuating back and forth comfortably; maybe the production eventually settles and they can fit one slot for the final six weeks.

Really, it’s more of a convenience thing for the coaching staff. Finding something steady in those spots would surely make the day-to-day a little easier on everyone.

2nd base

There is obvious potential in Gunner Halter’s hit tool, but it’s simply not coming through right now: he’s got one hit in his last 16 at-bats, with seven of those 15 outs coming on strikeouts. This is the same guy that recognized defense as his weakness relative to his bat in the fall; thus, the bat is what has to keep him in the lineup every day.

(I feel it’s important to take a quick moment to point this out: fielding percentage is far from a perfect stat, but it’s as good as we can get in college baseball, and Halter’s [.936] is favorable to Justin Foscue’s [.906] and Jordan Westburg’s [.922]. We’re going to stay transparent here, no exceptions.)

MSU’s options:

 - Halter hits again. That’d be nice, wouldn’t it? This is the most attractive option for several reasons: it makes the bench deeper (it can’t be as deep if Halter is on it because he’s slumping), the double play combo of six weeks stays in tact and Foscue can stay at the position he’s played for his entire State career.

 - Foscue at 2nd and Marshall Gilbert at 3rd. This is nice because it gives a current .300 hitter (Gilbert) more ABs, after just 40 through MSU’s first 33 games. It also lessens the log jam at catcher and maybe you could use Halter as a pinch runner. It’s dependent on both moving parts being competent in their new positions, but it’s realistic, to say the least.

 - Landon Jordan takes over at second base. This one’s pretty clean, too: if he hits and he defends, all’s well that ends well.

 - Finally, let me work through this one. Say Josh Hatcher starts hitting well (at first as a DH), Tanner Allen gets going again and more struggles at second base prompt the switch: Allen from first to second, Hatcher in at first. First of all, how fun would it be to have Hatcher and Cumbest in the same lineup? To be clear, I think this option is unlikely, but it is one, and I think it’s the last realistic one. There may be some other ideas floating around out there in Crazy Fan Twitter, but this is the option that meets the line between unrealistic and possible.

DH

Bulldog designated hitters (and the pinch hitters in their place) went 1-for-10 against Tennessee, and it wasn’t for a lack of trying: those 10 ABs were spread through four guys.

The options are exactly what you think they are: Hatcher, Cumbest, Landon Jordan, Hayden Jones and Gilbert (when he’s not playing third or catching). There’s a button to be pressed here to get this thing clicking, and this coaching staff has shown no hesitation in pressing buttons and changing things.

Two Underappreciated Elements

Friday night fireworks

The four Friday night starters MSU has faced — Florida’s Tommy Mace, Auburn’s Tanner Burns, LSU’s Zack Hess and Tennessee’s Garrett Stallings — have this combined line against the Bulldogs: 23.1 innings, 25 hits, nine walks (1.457 WHIP), 15 earned runs allowed (5.79 ERA).

Keep in mind: even with those performances, two of them (Stallings and Burns) are still top 15 in the SEC in ERA. The Bulldogs are taking awesome pitchers and beating them up.

Trysten Barlow

Folks, this lefty just had his worst outing of the season and he still has the best ERA on the team among pitchers with at least 1 inning pitched.

His ERA jumped by over a run and it’s still under 2.00.

23 strikeouts, 1 walk. If I saw that in a video game I would say it’s not realistic, and Barlow is doing it in the SEC.

His seven appearances against SEC competition: 8.2 innings, seven hits, two earned runs allowed (2.08 ERA), no walks, 11 strikeouts. And with the two rough outings Jack Eagan had before he got back on track against Tennessee, Barlow was effectively the only lefty out of the pen. This guy deserves public acclaim for what he’s doing.

Full Count, Week 7: 2 Reasons for Frustration, 2 Reasons to Calm Down

After a series as disappointing as that one against LSU, there is going to be some groaning surrounding a team that had previously been dominant. That being the case, we’re going to address what is real and what is not, and we’re only doing two of each (as opposed to three of one and two of the other) just to be fair.

Two Places to Be Disappointed

Defense

Seven errors in a weekend just ain’t good. The team was already in the lower half of the SEC in fielding percentage (.970) going into that Saturday game in which it added three more errors; Vanderbilt had 15 errors all season entering Saturday, and MSU almost had half of that in three games.

For a team with aspirations as high as this one’s, the defensive performance we saw this weekend — if sustained for any significant period of time — can prevent them from reaching those goals, and they know that. It’s likely to be a big emphasis for them going forward, but I’m stopping short of a full-on crisis, for reasons we’ll get into later in this post. 

Tanner Allen

That awesome opening weekend was quite the moment, but it’s a distant memory at this point. Since then he’s hit .211 and his doubles per at-bat pace in that span is slightly below what it was for his entire freshman season. It’s not like he’s disappeared entirely — he did have two hits with two RBI in the Southern Miss rubber match, plus 2-for-5 in both of the wins at Florida — but the large sample size is clearly not kind.

Here’s where I use the same refrain from Rowdey Jordan’s slump to start the year. Tanner Allen is not suddenly a bad hitter, he just has something to figure out, and I think he will. (On the optimistic side, it’s worth pointing out his strikeouts are way, way down. He struck out in 22.5 percent of his at-bats last year; this year, that number is 13.6 percent. Contact will eventually lead to hits for Allen.)

Two Places To Relax

Bullpen Performance

One bad weekend does not make a bullpen bad. Yes, the entire pitching staff allowing 13 walks over the weekend and seeing the ERA climb nearly half a run (2.92 to 3.34) is not desirable, but even after that, the top four relievers in innings pitched (Jared Liebelt, Brandon Smith, Cole Gordon and Trysten Barlow, in that order) still have a combined ERA of 3.36 and a WHIP of 1.076. The numbers may not be as dominant as they once were, but they’re not objectively bad, either.

If you take this weekend appearance by appearance, there were actually some good moments for the bullpen. Each of the Thursday relievers got MSU out of jams: Barlow inherited runners on first and second with no outs and retired three straight; Liebelt inherited the bases loaded with one out and ended the inning without allowing a run; Gordon came in after LSU scored three runs and recorded the final out of the inning to stop the bleeding.

All of them were stretched beyond the initial heroics to results not as strong, but that’s kind of a no-win situation for a coach. If you ride the hot hand but they give up hits, you’re criticized for not going to someone new to start a fresh inning; if you give someone else the clean inning and they struggle, you’re criticized for taking a hot hand off the mound. Plus, all three of those guys have shown the ability to go more than three outs strong this season, so I still find the ideology to be strong.

Now, I won’t pump sunshine forever. The next two opponents, Tennessee and Alabama, have team batting averages slightly worse than LSU’s — solely because LSU skyrocketed over the weekend. If runs continue pouring in against those two teams, then I’ll join in on the conversation of a subpar bullpen and what to do about it. But folks, the time for that conversation is not now.

Massive Defensive Overhaul

I’ve seen a lot of fans propose radical defensive shifts, personnel changes and both as ways to fix what the defense was this weekend, and I don’t think it’s quite time for that. Let’s go through some reasons why.

First, this kind of weekend does happen to teams sometimes. Last year’s Bulldogs committed eight errors in being swept by Vanderbilt, committed six in losing the series to Texas A&M and even committed six in the first three games of the Tallahassee Regional — you know, the regional they won on the way to Omaha.

Other teams of similar excellence also had stretches like this. Texas committed four errors in a two-game set with Arkansas, Washington committed eight in a four-game stint with Illinois State and Arkansas committed seven in the three-game Tony Gwynn Classic; all three of those teams made it to Omaha. Most teams have stretches like this, so I think it’s important to make sure this is more than just that bad stretch before they smash the reset button on the entire lineup.

The change I often see from fans on Twitter is getting Jordan Westburg out of shortstop in favor of Gunner Halter. Yeah, Westburg did not have a good weekend defensively, by his own admission, but hold your horses here folks. Halter said in the fall defense was not his strong suit, and frankly his defense at second base has not been as good as Hunter Stovall’s was. Yes, that’s probably an unfair standard to hold someone to, but if you’re going to unseat a shortstop for someone, wouldn’t you want them to exhibit that level of defense at their current position?

Furthermore, not all of this is simply misplaying balls. Two plays stick out in my mind: the two run-ins Rowdey Jordan was involved in, one collision with Jake Mangum and the one where his glove and Westburg’s hit each other, causing the ball to come out. That’s not a skill or misalignment thing, that’s a communication thing, and that’s exactly what Westburg said after the game. That can be fixed without going through all the potential fallout of a reboot.

If this kind of performance continues, then yes, there will be some moves that need to be made. Maybe my take of Tanner Allen providing more defensive value somewhere other than first base can finally be tested, among others. But I don’t think this weekend merits that yet. This needs to become more than a one weekend problem before it’s treated as a more than one weekend problem.

Full Count, Week 6: 3 Guys Taking Intriguing Roles, 2 Numbers to Know

Photo by Trevor Birchett, Mississippi State Athletics

Photo by Trevor Birchett, Mississippi State Athletics

3 Guys Taking Intriguing Roles

Brad Cumbest

It seemed pretty clear that the coaches saw something brewing for this dual-sport freshman, with 12 of his 17 at-bats coming since March 13. They wouldn’t have forced him into so many pinch-hit chances if they hadn’t, much less the Sunday start. But the way he’s produced (four hits against Auburn, two of them doubles) adds yet another interesting layer to what has been yearlong intrigue around the designated hitter role.

Josh Hatcher was smoking people to take a hold of the DH spot, but Auburn is heavy on left-handed pitching and the left-handed Hatcher had the understandable matchup issue. In the Friday game, when Auburn got 7 innings from right-handed pitching, Hatcher got two hits; Saturday, Auburn’s first 4.1 innings came from leftys and Hatcher struck out twice. Sunday, Auburn had 5.1 innings thrown by leftys and the right-handed Cumbest gave them three hits and an RBI for their trouble.

If Cumbest can continue to mash like this, especially against southpaws, then he makes himself a very attractive DH candidate to platoon with Hatcher. This development also makes it a pretty interesting conversation when you include the next guy.

Dustin Skelton

The junior catcher continues to hit, which of course is a good thing: six more hits in the Auburn series pushed his batting average up to .319, and his 17 RBI are already more than the 13 he had last year. But here’s what’s interesting about what Skelton did this weekend: he caught all three games.

Skelton’s bat is too good to take out of the lineup, that much is obvious. It used to be easy to rest his legs by sticking him at DH, allowing Hayden Jones or Marshall Gilbert to take a game and get their respectable bats some ABs in the process. But now, with Hatcher and Cumbest hitting this well and Landon Jordan still on the bench, maybe that DH spot isn’t available.

Is the only way for Skelton to be in the lineup daily to put his legs through the ringer and catch every single game? It may not stay this way for the duration, but I would argue it’s that way right now.

Jared Liebelt

There are countless advantages to having Friday and Saturday starters as good as Ethan Small and JT Ginn, but among them is little need for the bullpen on those days. That need is even smaller when MSU can turn to Jared Liebelt to fit whatever hole is necessary.

In both of MSU’s SEC weekends so far, the Bulldogs have made Liebelt the first man out of the bullpen on Friday and Saturday. Both times, Liebelt went a short stint in the Friday game and took a longer stretch on Saturday, taking 26 and 25 pitches to cover 2.2 and 2 innings and finish wins. There’s a lot of reasons why this role is interesting and effective.

First of all, it helps that Liebelt is getting the job done. The man’s got a 0.921 WHIP, he’s allowed two walks in 15.2 innings (think about that for a second) and his ERA over those two Saturday SEC outings is 1.93.

It also helps that he’s able to take crucial innings in Friday and Saturday games because, let’s not forget, this bullpen is deep. The way Liebelt’s been going right now, guys such as Cole Gordon, Colby White, Brandon Smith and others can keep themselves available for Sunday, when MSU may need strong bullpen arms to win a rubber match. The trickle-down effect of Liebelt taking big chunks of innings on Friday and Saturday is significant, and if this is his role for the season, this bullpen has a chance to be epic if he continues performing like this.

2 Stats You Should Know

Rowdey Jordan murders Auburn

The young man from Auburn has made a habit of killing his hometown school, and reversing his own fortunes as he does it.

Then this year, Rowdey took a .167 batting average into the Auburn weekend and went 6-for-13 (.461).

Rowdey Jordan’s career numbers against Auburn: 9-21 (.428), 8 RBI, four doubles.

Small and Ginn are ridiculous

They have combined to cover 25.1 innings with a 3.20 ERA and they’ve been efficient as they do it: they’ve covered at least 6 innings in each of their outings and neither of them have seen a 100th pitch. Their strikeout-walk ratio against SEC competition is 35-7.

They’re both top 10 in the SEC in batting average allowed (Small 7th, .154; Ginn 9th, .183) and innings pitched (Ginn T-4th, 38.1; Small 9th, 36). Small leads the league in strikeouts (58) and strikeouts looking (17); Ginn leads the league in wins (6).

As if there were any doubt: through two weeks, Mississippi State has the best starting pitching 1-2 in the SE

How Vic Schaefer created a winning culture

Photo by Blake Williams, MSU Athletics

Photo by Blake Williams, MSU Athletics

By Brett Hudson

Vic Schaefer came to Mississippi State with no illusions, no desire to avoid the inevitable.

“We knew what 13-17 was going to look like,” Schaefer said, referencing his first season in Starkville, the 2012-13 season. Schaefer did nothing to dodge that short-term fate.

Instead, he installed a culture. The same culture that took the program from 13 wins to, by the end of Friday night, 13 (and counting) NCAA Tournament games over three seasons; the culture that has survived, if not fortified, as the program rose from inconsistent at best to constant Final Four threat.

It is the Vic Schaefer culture that years ago appealed to players hungry to reverse a program’s fortunes, now appealing to the nation’s most well known talent with more offers than they can handle. It is the culture that has captivated Starkville and a Mississippi State community to thousands of people on a nightly basis, home or away. 

This is the tale of how that culture was built.

“We have a saying: it’s not what we do, it’s how we do it that separates us from the rest of the country,” MSU assistant coach Johnnie Harris told Matt Wyatt Media.

* * *

In the beginning, establishing that culture was far more important than immediate talent. Harris remembers the program starting by trying to find players that could be competitive in the SEC, but it didn’t have to be raw scorers. Some things were non-negotiable.

“When we got here, we were really missing toughness,” Schaefer told Matt Wyatt Media. “Savannah Carter and Dominque Dillingham were two kids that really brought that toughness piece in practice every day: they were tough, physical, aggressive guards that we desperately needed. I recruited both of those kids not just for their skill set, but for their toughness piece and their competitive spirit.”

That first class — Carter, Dillingham, Ketara Chapel, Breanna Richardson and Chinwe Okorie — was crucial in that regard. Schaefer put it simply, “We inherited a bunch of good kids, but the toughness was missing,” and he leaned on that class to install it. Dillingham and Richardson ended up becoming two of just 26 players to score 1,000 career points, but their most valuable work was installing the style and image Schaefer wanted to have.

Yes, that means intense defense for the full 94 feet of the court. It means attention to detail on the offensive end and sacrifice everywhere, be it diving for loose balls or taking charges. But it also means thriving in a work environment that Schaefer realizes can grind down even the strongest of competitors.

“I’m trying to pitch a perfect game, that’s who I am. And that’s not going to happen, by the way,” Schaefer said. “I’m trying to beat somebody something to nothing, that’s who I am. I’m trying to coach the perfect game, the perfect team every day. My staff, they work tirelessly in that same mentality.

“Trying to coach the perfect game, be perfect, you can find yourself being a little bit miserable. It’s a hard way to live, but at the end of the day, it’s who I am and it’s who we are, it’s who we’re trying to be.”

That first class had to learn to live in Schaefer’s world and how to embrace it, but also how to teach it. Therein lies one secret of how this culture has stood the test of time and significant program rise: coaches engrained it in the first class, and players have passed it down to each other ever since.

That’s how Bre’Amber Scott learned it: she simply looked up to the seniors around her, knowing they were an example to follow, but their eyes would also be on her. When the culture is enforced by both coaches and players, it lasts the test of time and growth.

As challenging as the way of life may be for players adopting it, it’s just as hard for coaches to find players who can live it. This is not 2012 Mississippi State anymore: those that become Bulldogs are not signing up to simply thrive in a challenging environment, they have to stand that test and come out of it as the best players in the nation. Recent performance suggests nothing but the nation’s best will satisfy program expectations.

Finding the nation’s best players and those willing to live the Schaefer way is a small cross-section of people, and one that isn’t always easy to obtain.

* * *

Schaefer sees a lot of what he calls the Jack It Judy mentality in his recruiting trips: highly-rated players who know they are primarily evaluated for their ability to jack up shots in bulk and make them, and therein lies their sole motivation. Scoring ability is important, and MSU requires it, but it takes more than that to earn a chance to become a Bulldog.

“We recruit to a fit and the summer time is when you do your homework, when you’re out on the recruiting trail watching kids play and developing your list,” Schaefer said. “Not every kid can play our style, athletically, physically, can play our style of basketball. For us, those are the kinds of student-athletes that we have to go recruit.

“Not everybody wants to be that player that defends and dives for loose balls and is a gym rat.”

Photo by Blake Williams, MSU Athletics

Photo by Blake Williams, MSU Athletics

If this were a Venn diagram, the selection of players that can truly thrive in the Schaefer culture is a small one, but the intersection between that circle and the one for nationally elite players is a small target to hit.

The recruiting records show MSU is hitting that small cross-section.

According to the rankings from girlsbasketballreport.com, MSU’s 2013 and 2014 classes contained just four players ranked among the top 50 at their position and only four among the top 150 nationally regardless of position. Compare that Teaira McCowan and Andra Espinoza-Hunter, both ranked fifth their respective signing class, both top 50 regardless of position, and both living the Schaefer edict well.

If the trend continues, the future could be even brighter: of the three freshmen on the roster (redshirt Myah Taylor, true freshmen Jessika Carter and Xaria Wiggins) and the five signed in the 2019 class, half of them are top 10 at their position and only one is outside of the top 25. All of them are inside the top 150 nationally, all but one inside the top 100.

Schaefer is convinced there are enough of those prospects that, given his staff’s recruiting ability and the program’s prominence, “You don’t have to settle for one over the other,” being elite talent or aptitude for the Schaefer way.

And yet, at MSU, their prospect search has an additional layer to it. From the moment these players set foot on campus, they are community icons.

It’s rare for athletes other than football players to attract followings of that ilk, but MSU women’s basketball is as close it gets in SEC country. The modern-day MSU player has a line of autograph and photo seekers at the end of every game, home and away, who are on the floor before they get back to the locker room. (To make no mention of the other public events, promotions and Schaefer’s affinity for exposing them to the media.)

It’s something Schaefer and staff take seriously, much like the program’s on-court identity. So they leave it to the seniors to handle.

“I think the culture we have created, the things we talk about, the things we show them and the situations we put them in allow them to buy into that mentality,” Harris said. “I don’t know that everybody that you recruit, I don’t know that they will show that or you will be able to see it. Some kids say they have it but maybe not so much. Once they get into it, they see our players doing it and seeing how our fans react, sometimes you can see a Teaira or a Jordan (Danberry), you see those kids on the court with long lines on the court every game, and sometimes it’s the same people wanting the same picture.

“Because we put Teaira in those positions, they come to appreciate our fans. I think it teaches them to be approachable and teaches them to appreciate our fans. That’s something we build once they get here. Some may have it, some may not have it, but it’s not optional. It’s what we do.”

It’s an all-around challenging way to live, but MSU doesn’t hide that from the players it is persuading to sign up.

* * * 

Schaefer is signing basketballs in his office as we talk. This sit-down comes early in the eight-day stretch where his team doesn’t know who its next opponent is, much less the days after that waiting to play them.

I ask him, “Do you have to derecruit?”

The marker in his hand comes to an abrupt stop. A look of confusion takes over his face.

“Do I have to what?”

I then explain to him that derecruiting is a term often used by football coaches, a term they’ve invented to describe the process of bringing their signees down to earth after a recruiting process that put them on a pedestal. These recruits have been told for months by dozens of coaching staffs that they are the best thing they’ve ever seen, then they get to campus and coaches have to convince them of their flaws and get their minds focused on developing them. Thus, derecruiting.

Looking back on it, the fact that I had to define derecruiting for him probably answered my question. But he expanded on it anyway.

“I think kids understand when they sign up for Mississippi State, they know what they’re doing,” Schaefer said. “Certainly freshmen, there’s a learning curve, but the kids that are here show them the ropes, show them what needs to be done, show them how we do things and just let them know this is what we do here and this is why we’re playing for national championships every year.”

As Harris put it: “We let them know how hard it’s going to be, what our kids are going to go through. I think Coach uses the phrase, ‘It will be hard, it will be difficult, but it will be worth it.’ We let them know that in the beginning. We’re not going to put you through anything that you can’t do, that hasn’t been done before.”

Schaefer has alluded to that approach being used against him. After MSU 91-63 win over Tennessee on Feb. 10, he said he has heard of opposing schools using Schaefer’s ideology of high-intensity defense against him; seemingly trying to convince a group of shooters that they would have to learn to play defense for him, but wouldn’t be bogged down as such somewhere else.

Schaefer’s response is simple: “Yeah, you’re going to have to learn to play defense, but you’re going to win, too.”

The message is communicated effectively, according to Bre’Amber Scott: “When you come here, you come here to win. You have to play within our system, that’s how it works.”

It’s done this way because it works. It’s done this way because this is the way that Schaefer used to create a juggernaut.

It is the way Schaefer will use to try to win that last game.

“There’s a difference between a top 10 team and a top 10 program. Teams come and go — especially that 12-25 range, that’s pretty fluid. But the top 10 programs, those teams are there every year,” Schaefer said. “When you get the paper in October and you want to know who’s in the preseason top 25, you’re looking in the top 10 for the same teams. That’s what I promised them that we’d build.”

Twins in coaching do battle in the NCAA Tournament

By Brett Hudson

Butch and Clemmie Pierre got to spend a good bit of time in Nashville in early March. They first made the trip to watch Liberty, where their son Joe Pierre III is the Director of Player Development, beat Lipscomb to win the Atlantic Sun championship and a berth in the NCAA Tournament. A few days later, their other son, Mississippi State’s Video Coordinator Josh Pierre, was there for the Bulldogs’ run in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

At that point, it was evident both of their sons would be working for teams in the NCAA Tournament. These twins have split the family before — Joe graduated from Oklahoma State the same day Josh graduated from Arkansas State — but they couldn’t do this one. They decided to watch the two games at home.

Then mere minutes into the Selection Sunday special, their twin sons were pitted against one another.

“My mom is elated,” Joe Pierre III said. “I haven’t heard her as excited as this since when my dad’s team went to the Final Four in ’06.”

That 2006 Final Four team was LSU, when Butch Pierre was an assistant for John Brady, bringing then teenage twins Joe III and Josh along for the ride. That run was ended in the national semifinals by UCLA, then coached by none other than Josh Pierre’s current boss, Ben Howland. It’s one of many instances of serendipity in the Pierre basketball story.

* * *

Butch Pierre — Joe Pierre II given the nickname Butch by his grandmother — played for MSU from 1981-84 and remains top 10 in school history in career assists. The fact that Josh is about to conclude his first season working for Butch’s alma mater (and the place that began his coaching career) is a thrill for the entire family.

That kind of coincidence has made the roads to Friday’s game both fun and bordering on surreal for the family. But they’ve also been necessary, as both sons have had to fight their way here.

Joe was forced into this line of work early: he tore his ACL, LCL, PCL and meniscus in a freak knee injury, robbing him of his senior season in high school. While Josh played out that senior season, wearing his brother’s No. 11 as tribute, Joe III helped coach the junior varsity team and compiled scouting reports for his brother’s varsity team.

Josh saw the beginnings of a solid coach right then and there.

“There’s a reason why he’s there, there’s a reason why he’s impacted winning every where he goes; he always goes to the Tournament,” Josh told Matt Wyatt Media. “I think he’ll always win.”

From there, Joe III was a student manager at Oklahoma State, where Butch was an assistant coach. Joe III’s path into the profession started at the high school level, where he was a student teacher at the junior high and assisting the Pawnee High School team in Oklahoma — until he was immediately catapulted to the NCAA Tournament.

Joe III landed a graduate assistant job at Middle Tennessee — then coached by Kermit Davis, who shared a locker room with Butch Pierre at MSU and a coaching staff at LSU with him from 1997-2002 — and went to the NCAA Tournament in his first season there, where he was part of 15 MTSU taking down 2 Michigan State.

While Joe III was working his way up at Oklahoma State, Josh was playing at Arkansas State for John Brady — the same head coach Butch worked for on LSU’s Final Four run in 2006. As a senior, Josh led the nation in walk-on minutes played per game all while establishing his own base in the family industry, taking all opportunities provided to sit in on coach film sessions, scouting report breakdowns and even timeout discussions.

That Arkansas State experience proved to be the one he would follow for years, starting as a graduate assistant before moving up to director of operations. Like freshmen forwards Reggie Perry and Robert Woodard, Josh Pierre felt the call to return to the place that was home for his father.

Somehow, all of those roads meet in San Jose for the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

* * *

“Out of the 14 times I’ve been to the NCAA Tournament,” Butch Pierre said, “it’s the most shocking thing I’ve ever seen.”

Joe III’s reaction to the news certainly suggests he thought the same thing.

Find the young man on the third row, near the right aisle. He’s the one who remains seated, hands on his head clearly in shock as every player, coach, fan and support staffer around him stands and meets Liberty’s bid in the NCAA Tournament with unchecked enthusiasm.

That man is Joe Pierre III, realizing he and his brother would realize a dream in the making for their entire lives.

“We were excited, one, just to see each other. In this world of college basketball, we rarely get to see each other. I’m excited to see more than to play him,” Joe Pierre III said. “It’s one of those moments you dream of as a young coach’s kid. It’s something I think only God can orchestrate. There’s really no explanation for me.

“We talked shortly thereafter. There were not a lot of words to be said.”

This is more than a dream for Josh, making his first appearance in the NCAA Tournament as something more than the assistant coach’s kid. This grants them the opportunity to do something greater.

“Something my brother and I talked about since we were in high school, if we ever got to this platform we would talk about what matters to us, which is not basketball, winning or losing games,” Josh Pierre said. “We’d have a platform to talk about Jesus and how faith guides our lives. That’s what we want our story to be about. That’s who we are, that’s how our family is and we want to glorify Jesus.”

Joe III went out of his way to say the same. In all that this weekend will mean for the family, the platform for their faith is among their favorite aspects.

Butch Pierre also appreciates the guarantee of it all.

“For the first time, I’m winning either way it goes,” he joked.

He said he and his wife will bring both Mississippi State and Liberty shirts, with him wearing one school while she wears the other and switching at halftime. Friday, the day of the game, is also Butch’s daughter/Joe III and Josh’s sister Langley’s birthday, so she’ll be in San Jose with the family.

If Liberty is to advance, they could play for a spot in the Sweet 16 against Saint Louis and coach Travis Ford — the same man who coached Oklahoma State when Butch was an assistant there and Joe III was a student manager. It could also be Josh’s shot at the Sweet 16 in his first time in the tournament.

Both brothers are open to the idea of sticking around San Jose to see their brother’s team in the second round — but even more open to being in that second round themselves.

“If that’s what God has in the plan, for them to win, then I’ll support them in the next game, and I’m sure he will, too,” Josh said.

Joe Pierre III put it this way: “I’d love to. Obviously focus right now is really wanting to win the game, but I’d love to see my brother do that.”

Full Count, Week 5: 3 slugging numbers, 2 pitching thoughts

Photo by Blake Williams, Mississippi State Athletics

Photo by Blake Williams, Mississippi State Athletics

By Brett Hudson

As you can imagine, with an 18-2, 2-1 team coming home after taking a road series with a top 10 team, there’s going to be a lot of positivity in here.

3 Incredible Slugging Numbers

It’s been a while….

…since Mississippi State has seen power hitting like this to start a season.

In these first 20 games, MSU has 54 doubles, 3 triples and 21 home runs, the best slugging start since at least 2007. (MSU has game-by-game stat reports going back to 2007 — that’s another way of saying there is an easy way for me to see what MSU has done through 20 games going back to 2007, but beyond that I would have to go box score by box score and ain’t nobody got time for that. Still, that’s a sample size of 13 seasons — plenty to prove MSU’s slugging start is far beyond what it usually does.)

Of the 12 previous teams in this sample, none came within six doubles of the 54 by this year’s team through 20 games; 10 of them fell short of 40. The 21 home runs is also best since at least 2007, with five of the teams since 2007 producing fewer than 10 home runs by the 20-game mark.

Slugging better than all of those teams is impressive when you consider the 2016 team ended opening weekend with 21 doubles and the 2013 team had a wild streak of a triple in six straight games. And remember those 21 home runs this year’s team has hit? That’s how many the 2012 team hit in the entire season; the 2014 team hit 16 all season.

Extra Base Hits Through 20 games, last 13 seasons

Here’s another way to look at it: let’s pretend Extra Bases are a statistic, in which a double gives you one extra base, a triple gives you two and a home run gives you three. This team through 20 games has produced 123 Extra Bases: only four of the teams since 2007 produced more than 100 in their first 20 games, but none of them can match this year’s 123. The average Extra Bases produced of the 2007-2018 teams is 81.3.

However you look at it, this team has started with more power than any Bulldog team in over a decade.

Jake Mangum is part of the power surge

I wrote last year about how Mangum attributed a more narrow stance and being more patient to delivering more extra-base hits, and he’s keeping that going from his junior to senior season.

One example: Mangum produced 16 extra-base hits as a freshman, the year he won the SEC batting title. Last year he had 22 doubles alone and is on pace for something like 27 this year, assuming MSU plays at least a dozen postseason games.

Another way of looking at this is isolated power. It’s one of the more simple Sabermetric statistics: it’s slugging minus batting average. You can see what it’s trying to accomplish, it more or less boils down to the number of extra bases produced per at-bat.

Jake Mangum’s isolated power from freshman year to the first 20 games of his senior year: .102, .061, .128, .141.

It all comes without two key pieces

It bears noting that all of this power is coming without much from Rowdey Jordan — last year’s leader in slugging percentage — or the second base position.

I noted in last week’s Full Count that I still believe Jordan can be a productive hitter, so this isn’t waving the white flag on being this good without his usual form, but it is wild to think that he could find himself soon and this lineup could have even more pop.

And on the second base thing: yes, that’s not normally a position for power hitting, but MSU has been spoiled by getting some of that from Hunter Stovall last year and would have gotten it the year before if not for his injuries.

2 Pitching Thoughts

Pounding the strike zone….

Chris Lemonis is clearly a seasoned vet when it comes to media as a head coach, and I learned that through something he said about the pitching staff.

This may not have been his exact word combination, but it’s pretty close: “If we pound the zone, we’re going to be OK.” The unfiltered version of that is, “My pitchers are better than almost any lineup we can see, so as long as they don’t beat themselves, we’re gonna win.”

This staff has been living up to that simple formula.

This staff has walked a total of 48 batters in 20 games — and 10 of those walks belong to Keegan James, who the fan base is currently putting on the hot seat in his No. 3 starter role. (I’m going to stay out of that debate for now; I want to see a little more before I make my call.)

….it doesn’t matter who

Think about this for a minute: the bullpen just covered 10 innings with a 0.800 WHIP — on the road against a top 10 team — and did it without Peyton Plumlee, the guy often mentioned in the aforementioned No. 3 starter debate.

They can turn to Cole Gordon and Jared Liebelt for saves — and really can turn to Liebelt for anything.

But they’re not limited to those options. They also had Spencer Price pitch the final inning of the third game in Gainesville, plus Riley Self got a late-game inning and Brandon Smith was thrown into a crucial situation earlier in that game.

Chris Lemonis said he is a guy who likes to have bullpen pitchers placed into well-defined roles, but the way that group is going right now, he can probably pull names out of a hat and get the job done.

Full Count, Week 4: 3 impressive individual stats, 2 thoughts on SEC schedule

Photo courtesy of Blake Williams, Mississippi State Athletics

Photo courtesy of Blake Williams, Mississippi State Athletics

By Brett Hudson

There are a few good benchmarks throughout the season that give us good reason to take a look at the stats and draw some conclusions, and conference play starting this weekend is a good one. Here we go.

Three Most Impressive Individual Stats

Justin Foscue slugging .656

Not only is the sophomore third baseman hitting the crap out of the baseball, but he’s also doing it with discipline: seven walks compared to six strikeouts.

With four doubles and five home runs on 23 hits, 39.13 percent of his hits are going for extra bags. (For context, when Rowdey Jordan led last year’s team in slugging [.518], 37.1 percent of his hits went for extra bases.) When you factor in that he leads all Bulldogs with more than 50 at-bats in batting average (.359), he’s undeniably MSU’s most valuable hitter and its most consistent: he has yet to go more than back-to-back games without a RBI.

Ethan Small is putting up 15 strikeouts per 9 innings

Friends, that’s 40 strikeouts in 24 innings pitched. Fourteen hits and two walks allowed for a batting average allowed of .169 and a WHIP of 0.667.

When you really focus in on his pitching, it’s easy to see how he’s striking people out. He’s locating his fastball and his breaking pitches are sharp, but the changeup is where he really kills people. It is the change of pace that a changeup is supposed to be but it also moves so much that broadcast folk can confuse it with a breaking ball, which JT Ginn loves. (I also made the same mistake, and Ethan was nice enough to enlighten me on how disgusting his changeup is.)

Colby White has struck out 52.17 percent of the batters he’s faced

Best I can tell, the newcomer flamethrower has faced 24 batters: two of them got hits, one of them got hit by a pitch, none of them walked. Eight were retired in the field and 12 were struck out. That’s insane.

There are a lot of really impressive numbers from freshman relievers, all of them earning those guys significant bullpen roles, but striking out guys at this rate is putting him in a serious conversation about the highest leverage roles in SEC weekends.

Honorable mentions: Jordan Westburg has been hit with 5 pitches in 15 games after being hit by 4 pitches in 42 games last year….Three catchers have gotten at least 20 at-bats: Marshall Gilbert, Dustin Skelton and Hayden Jones. All of them are slugging over .500….Elijah MacNamee has already walked 11 times this year after walking 13 times last year.

Two Things To Know About the SEC Schedule

We’ll know everything in 3 weeks

Florida’s starting rotation racks up strikeouts, its bullpen just went 10.1 weekend innings without allowing an earned run and is supported by a lineup that’s left the yard 19 times already, all while drawing nearly 5 walks per game.

Auburn has taken weekend series with mid-major powers Georgia Southern and UCF, swept Cincinnati and UTSA all while compiling a team ERA of 2.15. 

LSU has Antoine Duplantis’ incredible slashline of .356/.409/.593, complete with 24 RBI, yet he only leads the team in one of the three slashline stats.

Those are the three teams MSU starts the conference schedule with.

MSU’s first three SEC opponents are ranked 5/18/13 by D1Baseball and 4/17/11 by Baseball America. All the things we think we know about this team but want to see tested over a stint of awesome competition? The first three weeks of SEC play will do exactly that.

Stack wins in April

MSU’s most likely road to a top of the SEC finish puts a lot of pressure on April, because therein lies a rare opportunity to stack wins against SEC opponents.

Of the four SEC teams D1Baseball and Baseball America both projected to miss regionals, MSU gets two of them in April: Alabama and Tennessee. Then there is a series against an admittedly strong Georgia team, but it comes at home. The series at Arkansas also that month will be tough, but I still believe MSU needs to stack up as many as 9 wins in April to give itself wiggle room in terms of finishing atop the SEC. That would mean more or less splitting the months of March and May would give MSU 18 SEC wins; that isn’t always enough to win a division but isolate one weekend in those two months, make it a very good one and maybe it is enough.

Unusual defensive plan sends Bulldogs to SEC Tournament title game

By Brett Hudson

GREENVILLE, South Carolina — Mississippi State’s No. 1 plan was thrown into doubt six minutes into the game, and the backup plan met the same fate eight minutes later.

This was not the time to go to Plan C. This was the semifinals of the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament and the subject of these plans was Missouri’s Sophie Cunningham, having earlier in the game set the new school record for career scoring and already scored 42 points in her first two games of the tournament.

Plan C was ultimately the winning option.

By all traditional measures, Cunningham was the only thing keeping the upset-minded Tigers in contention with Mississippi State: 33 points on 11-for-16 shooting, 5-for-9 from 3-point range, would be considered Herculean in most contexts. But in this one, MSU making Cunningham’s road to that production as difficult as it was, is what sent the Bulldogs to a fourth straight SEC Tournament championship game appearance with a 71-56 win.

MSU’s Plan A for Cunningham was Jordan Danberry. She is quick enough to make Cunningham’s dribble-drive game almost impossible and she showed admirable fight in the post, battling to seal Cunningham over the top and deny entry passes. That plan looked like a good one — until Danberry picked up two fouls in six minutes, forever altering her usage. (She ended the game with 25 minutes; she’s played more than that in all but four games against conference foes this season.)

Plan B was Bre’Amber Scott, the more imposing and defensively adept of MSU’s two wing threats. She also picked up two fouls, hers coming before the midway point of the second quarter.

Plan C was Anriel Howard. She did not relent her usual heavy workload offensively — 19 points and 10 rebounds, 50 percent from the field and 60 percent from 3-point range — and added the challenge of handling one of the conference’s most prolific scorers.

She did it to rave reviews.

“It’s really hard to because Sophie is a great player,” Scott told Matt Wyatt Media. “We try to limit her touches as much as we could, keep her from shooting as much as we could. She’s a great player, she’s going to hit the shots she gets.”

Limiting shots is yet another Cunningham statistic that requires context. Yes, she attempted 16 shots, something she’s only done three times this year — one of them in the regular season meeting between the two, which Missouri won. But with Cunningham shooting 68.75 from the field and every other Tiger combining to shoot 33.3 percent (8-24), Missouri surely would have preferred Cunningham get more than 16 shots.

But MSU prevented it the only way they knew how.

“You have to make her uncomfortable, you have to make her work,” Howard said. “I’m a bigger person, so I think that bothered her a little bit. She still ended up with a lot of points, but I think it made her uncomfortable.”

Scott added, “You have to be physical with her, you have to let her know that you’re there. If it takes getting a foul, that’s what it takes, but you have to let her know you’re here and she’s not going to be the bully.”

Vic Schaefer thinks it’s possible the foul situation ended up being a good thing for MSU. Not only did it force Howard onto Cunningham and reveal her to be up to the challenge, but it also forced Cunningham to deal with three different body types and defending styles.

Schaefer also believes the secret is the lack of production from every other player. No Tiger scored more than six points; no other Tiger starter scored more than three. Cunningham was responsible for 11 of Missouri’s 19 made shots, five of its nine made 3-pointers and six of its nine made free throws.

They recognize Cunningham is the player who, as coaches say, is going to get theirs. The job is to make sure the supporting cast doesn’t beat you — and make life as hard as possible on that marquee scorer.

MSU did both, and now it has a shot at the SEC Tournament championship that has eluded this program for four decades.