4 thoughts after one week of preseason practice

Cameron Dantzler taking on a drill in the first practice of camp. Photo by Aaron Cornia, courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics.

Cameron Dantzler taking on a drill in the first practice of camp. Photo by Aaron Cornia, courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics.

By Brett Hudson

 — Defensive line rotation remains very much to be determined. I’ve tried my best to get a handle of what the early depth chart looks like, but the portion of practice we see doesn’t lend itself to such since they never run four-man drills and they don’t cleanly divide the reps by string/position.

I can make some educated guesses, but they’ll be pretty broad. I’d make it a first tier of defensive ends at Chauncey Rivers, Marquiss Spencer, Fletcher Adams, Kobe Jones and Aaron Odom, and naturally there’s a lot of incentive to be in the top 4 since we’re talking pairings here. Defensive tackle is even harder to nail down with Kendell Jones still working his way back. It’s safe to say Lee Autry will have a prominent role, and I think Fabien Lovett has put himself above the other underclassmen, so it’s up to the rest of that crew (Nathan Pickering, Devon Robinson, Jaden Crumedy, Cameron Young and James Jackson) to make the case for themselves before Jones returns.

 — I’ve really enjoyed watching the JUCO wide receiver JaVonta Payton run through drills. He’s such a smooth athlete, he executes technically difficult footwork and looks really smooth doing it. Now, if you’ll allow me a moment to hypothesize and think out loud, I have a thought on him.

I asked Joe Moorhead where he thought Payton would end up positionally; he said Payton’s currently practicing at Z, which is an outside receiver position. I found that interesting because he was previously poised to be a slot guy. This could be crosstraining and nothing more. It’s pretty common most places, and Moorhead’s Mississippi State is no different, to train receivers to play other/all positions in their offense. It’s a nice tool to have for matchup/depth purposes.

Yet, it’s no secret MSU needs help on the outside. There’s enough talent in the slot (Deddrick Thomas and Austin Williams), and maybe Payton has been moved out there as a potential answer? We’re posting this the day before the first scrimmage of the preseason, and those will ultimately decide the pecking order in that group, so we’ve got a few weeks to go. It’s just something I thought about while watching Payton. Time will tell.

 — Alright, let’s get to the quarterbacks. I’m just not going to be the guy who dives into the minutia of every individual period throw we see, telling you which throws hit perfectly between the numbers as opposed to those at the facemask, etc. I’m not going to waste your time with it because it’s not important relative to what will decide the battle.

MSU’s starting quarterback is going to be whoever best threatens defenses downfield and whoever demonstrates the greatest command of the entire passing scheme. When media is allowed to watch practice, it’s mostly passes with no defense in predetermined route combinations. I can tell you the ball looks good coming out of Tommy Stevens’ hand, but I can also say the same for the other quarterbacks on the roster. They’re FBS quarterbacks, they know how to spin a football.

I hate to break it to you, but we (we as in the public) are not going to see anything that will decide the quarterback battle.

 — Those of you that read the preseason camp position breakdown remember I was intrigued by who would end up as the No. 3 running back behind Kylin Hill and Nick Gibson — not necessarily for 2019 purposes, but for the future since this is Gibson’s senior year, and it’s not out of the question that Hill has a huge year and goes pro.

Well, it hasn’t been much of a race yet. Kareem Walker is apparently experiencing a hiccup in his enrollment process (Moorhead said they’re waiting to clear a couple of final hurdles); meanwhile, the promising freshman prospect Lee Witherspoon has been getting a lot of reps, especially while Alec Murphy has worked his way from not practicing to practicing with limited contact.

It’s not over for Kareem Walker in 2019, by any stretch: he is a junior college guy, thus he should be more advanced than Witherspoon, but for these guys, reps are currency, and Witherspoon’s account is getting deposits while Walker’s isn’t. There could be a breaking point of what Walker can recover.

Going position-by-position as Mississippi State starts practice today

Twenty-nine days of practice are all that separate Mississippi State from the field of Mercedes-Benz Superdome and a date with Louisiana-Lafayette to start the season.

With preseason camp stating today, let’s go position-by-position to preview what to watch for.

Quarterback

What can be said that hasn’t been said already? Tommy Stevens versus Keytaon Thompson, may the best man win. Be it on Matt’s radio show or elsewhere, I think I’ve made my thoughts clear, but in case I haven’t: I think Stevens will win the battle, but I remain more optimistic on Thompson than most, to the point that A) I think this battle will be really close, and B) if he is the QB in 2020, I think he’ll perform well.

I also won’t be surprised to see the loser of this battle on the field somewhat regularly. Moorhead had a lot of fun with using Stevens in gadget packages, to the point that he created a position for him on the depth chart (Lion) that allowed him to be all over the field in those packages. Thompson did some of that in the Outback Bowl, and if either party is willing, I won’t be surprised to see Moorhead use that in 2019.

Running back

Aeris Williams is no longer around to deserve a certain number of snaps. This should be the Kylin Hill show in the run game, and his numbers could be big considering he won’t be overworked.

He should have a respectable enough threat to spell him, most likely the senior Nick Gibson who I think has potential that is finally going to get the time of day. However, Gibson need not mess around, because junior college addition Kareem Walker can threaten that spot (if he ever gets to campus).

I’m expecting a four-game redshirt season from freshman Lee Witherspoon, the Alabama product who made waves by setting state records in his lone season at the position in high school.

Wide receiver

I can make a strong case for this to be the most interesting position battle on the team. The inside receiver positions should have enough potential with Deddrick Thomas, Austin Williams and the junior college addition JaVonta Payton. I won’t be surprised to see that much talent in the slot get used early and often, but there has to be an outside threat to keep the balance.

That’s where Stephen Guidry and Osirus Mitchell have to show the development that’s expected of them. If not, well, MSU acquired Kansas State transfer Isaiah Zuber for this exact reason, to make no mention of Devonta “Whop” Jason, Cameron Gardner or Malik Dear. MSU is determined to truly challenge teams downfield this year, as it was unable to last year, and whoever proves they can do it has an undeniable advantage.

Tight end

I expect a bit of a changing of the guard here — next year.

Farrod Green and Dontea Jones should have this position under control for the most part, but if MSU starts rotating a third tight end at times, pay close attention to who that is.

The next wave is coming up soon and there are multiple candidates: sophomore Powers Warren and freshmen Geor’quarius Spivey and Brad Cumbest. The leg up there is the most intriguing thing to watch here.

Offensive line

Let’s break this down by confidence level.

  • I’m supremely confident Darryl Williams will start at center.

  • I’m confident the tackle spots will be manned by some blend of Greg Eiland, Tyre Phillips and Tommy Champion, that exact blend likely to be determined by the weeks of preseason practice to come.

  • I’m pretty sure Stewart Reese is going to start at right guard. Maybe the EMCC transfer La’Quinston Sharp is immediately awesome and changes that.

  • I think Dareuan Parker is going to start at left guard. Michael Story has enough experience that it’s feasible for him to take that spot, in addition to some position shuffling putting another player there, but I still think Parker and Story are the best bets, in that order.

Defensive line

The ends should be pretty clear-cut, with a top five (not necessarily in this order, but this order wouldn’t surprise me) of Chauncey Rivers, Kobe Jones, Marquiss Spencer, Aaron Odom and Fletcher Adams. Naturally being in the top four is far more advantageous than being No. 5, so the rep counter there will be notable. While I don’t have much expectations for the freshmen (Ani Izuchukwu, De’Monte Russell and Jack Harris) for 2019, two seniors in this position group means their time is coming quick.

Defensive tackle is the biggest battle on the defensive side of the ball. Kendell Jones missing as much of the spring as he did (injury) left an abundance of development reps for Fabien Lovett, Lee Autry, Devon Robinson, Jaden Crumedy and Cameron Young. Is the highly touted freshman Nathan Pickering good enough to force a spot in that rotation anyway? I can’t wait to find out the answer to that question.

Jones is still no guarantee to be available for the first game of the season, so you’re almost certain to see Lovett is a noticeable role, but the spots immediately behind him and Autry fascinate me.

As you can see, the list of options at defensive tackle is long, but the experience and proven production from all of them is borderline nonexistent. The question from this group isn’t necessarily who gets the snaps, but what they do in those snaps.

Linebacker

Much like tight end, we have a good idea of what we’re getting from this group in 2019 — excellence, thanks to Erroll Thompson, Willie Gay Jr. and Leo Lewis.

The new coaching staff went hard on boosting its numbers at this position, meaning there’s a lot of youth (Nathaniel Watson, Aaron Brule and Jett Johnson, for instance) that has to separate itself from one another. I wonder if we’ll get our answer sometime in preseason or during the regular season.

Cornerback

Cameron Dantzler and Maurice Smitherman are proven commodities by this point, and you know what you’re getting is good. Maybe this is the year Tyler Williams’ potential finally shows through, and Korey Charles will have an opportunity as well.

If either of the latter two falter (or get injured), there is no shortage of freshmen waiting for an opportunity, namely Jarrian Jones. There’s also two redshirts from last season, Jaylon Reed and Esaias Furdge.

Long story short: depth should not be an issue, the position just needs a solid fourth and fifth option to actually materialize.

Safety

This is a low-key interesting position to monitor. In the classic interest of getting the best players on the field however possible, MSU is planning on moving Marcus Murphy and Jaquarius Landrews to its deep safety positions after playing Star last season. Their film to this point shows they’re physically talented enough to do it, now they have to prove they can adapt their talents to the demands of that specific position.

MSU should not have that position-specific fear on the second string, with C.J. Morgan, London Craft and Landon Guidry waiting for their names to be called. None of them have produced (excluding a little from Morgan at the end of 2018), but their collective time is now.

Star should be a really exciting position for MSU this season, with Brian Cole returning and junior college addition Fred Peters sliding in as well. 

Specialists

#JaceChristmannForHeisman. Moving on.

The kick return game really took a hit when Brian Cole got injured last season, so my best guess is he’ll be given the first reps there, but this is where the Kansas State transfer Isaiah Zuber can really make an impact. He was big in this department at Kansas State.

The punting game has to be better, there’s just no way around it. Tucker Day and Kody Schexnayder return, but MSU added a South Alabama grad transfer (Corliss Waitman) and a Texas Tech transfer (Reed Bowman). Punter battles under MSU special teams coordinator Joey Jones are simple: you punt the best in practice, you get to punt in the game. Every punt is charted and the aggregate results determine the winner, plain and simple.

Scott Goodman will handle kickoffs again, and there’s yet another long snapper battle that should be pretty hotly contested.

Moorhead's off-field proof of concept may have already come, with results coming soon

Team captain Darryl Williams speaks at SEC Media Days. Photo by Aaron Cornia courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics.

Team captain Darryl Williams speaks at SEC Media Days. Photo by Aaron Cornia courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics.

By Brett Hudson

STARKVILLE — In all the years Joe Moorhead spent refining his offense and using it to climb the coaching ladder, he found a different secret to success.

It came to him from Jeff Janssen, head of the Jeff Janssen Leadership Center, whom Moorhead hosted as a guest speaker for one of his Fordham teams. Janssen had what he calls a Commitment Continuum, measuring members of an organization based on their level of loyalty by labelling them, from worst to best: resistant, reluctant, existent, compliant, committed and compelled.

Thinking back on his career, while in Hoover for SEC Media Days last month, Moorhead realized his successful teams are the ones that had more players in those final three stages. To put it simply, Moorhead called it, “receptiveness to leadership.”

There’s a case to be made that it can make or break his second season in Starkville.

Mississippi State starts preseason practice Friday, beginning with it a new era of locker-room leadership. Last year’s team had the benefit of being loaded with veteran leadership at most positions; but, as proven veterans do, many of them are now in the NFL.

As preseason practice beings, MSU’s list of tried-and-true leaders likely begins and ends with its list of SEC Media Days representatives: linebacker Erroll Thompson, center Darryl Williams and tight end Farrod Green. That being the case, a team of players loyally following the provided example is far more valuable than a team of players attempting to lead themselves.

“We have newer guys who are going to play bigger roles on the team, as opposed to last year where we had a senior-heavy defense and offense,” Thompson said. “A lot of times, some freshmen want to come in and do their own thing, but they have to learn how the program goes. They have to follow the leaders.

“Leadership is not just a solo or individual thing, you need everyone. Once the younger guys get it, it’s contagious.”

The search for receptiveness to leadership is two-fold. Looking around the projected depth chart, there are players including safety Marcus Murphy and wide receivers Stephen Guidry, Devonta “Whop” Jason, Cameron Gardner and JaVonta Payton, all of whom ultimately agreed to play for MSU in Moorhead’s vision, even if doing so at the end.

Impactful performances from them would suggest progress in Moorhead’s culture.

“I think the leadership, the accountability and most important, the chemistry are headed the right direction in year two,” Moorhead said. “I think it’s not as much about the leadership aspect of it as the receptiveness to leadership, where is a guy is getting on someone for not touching a line or being on time or effort, it’s not, ‘Worry about you, I got this.’ It’s guys understanding this, and accepting the leadership is as important as ability to lead.”

Yet, Moorhead also knows there’s little he can do to impact it. He and his staff set the culture, but he knows receptiveness to leadership is established by players above all.

“Part of the challenge of taking over a program that achieved a certain level of success, there are guys who had been engrained in a certain style of uniformity or what was expected. It’s not that the way you’re doing it is better, it’s just different,” Moorhead said. “Year two, year three and year four, it becomes less about what the coaches say and how they want it done, what their expectation level is, and it’s more about (players) knowing this is what we do in the program and policing it themselves.”

When Moorhead would get reports from his captains through summer workouts, he was encouraged with what he heard. It is no accident that, when asked what qualifies as receptiveness to leadership, those leaders identified characteristics they’ve already seen.

“They show you in the classroom, they show you how the work in the offseason,” Thompson said.

Williams added, “Paying attention to the small details. The little things matter in this league. We have to make sure we do the little things right and the bigger things will come, and the bigger things will get us over the hump to beat the teams we need to beat to get us to the SEC Championship.”

The weeks to come will put the spotlight on on-field activities: progress from wide receivers, the fate of the passing game as a whole, finding answers at safety and on the defensive line. Their impact on the 2019 win total is obvious, but Moorhead and co. hope another crucial element has already been established.

“As a team,” Green said, “I think this is the closest in my five years that a team has been. I’m loving it.”

Linebacker-led defense will be different, but not necessarily worse

Erroll Thompson fielding questions at SEC Media Days. Photo by Aaron Cornia courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics.

Erroll Thompson fielding questions at SEC Media Days. Photo by Aaron Cornia courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics.

By Brett Hudson

HOOVER, Ala. — Chad Morris, Jeremy Pruitt and Ed Orgeron have all turned to the cliché: the Southeastern Conference is a line-of-scrimmage league.

That fact benefitted Mississippi State’s elite 2018 defense, with two first-round draft picks, two more pros on the starting group and impressive depth. Since that unit made its claim for being the nation’s best, it has lost 71 percent of its defensive line tackles, 72.5 percent of its defensive line tackles for a loss and 84.5 percent of its defensive line sacks.

The strength of the defense now shifts to the linebacker corps, where the strength is arguably just as potent but the matchup is different. Erroll Thompson is already recognized as one of the conference’s best, Willie Gay Jr. may not be far behind him, Leo Lewis enters his senior season and the program signed four to the position in its 2018 class. The case can be made that MSU claims the conference’s best linebacking corps; what’s left to be seen is if a linebacking corps this good can do to SEC offenses what an excellent defensive line did to them last year.

In some ways, there is an advantage to having the strength on the second level.

“You’ve seen an evolution in defensive football that very rarely you see two-tight end football teams that force inside linebackers to play tackle-to-tackle,” MSU coach Joe Moorhead said. “It’s as spread out, it’s wide; guys need to play the run like a ‘backer and play the pass like a defensive back. With the athleticism of Erroll and Willie and those guys, it helps combat the things people are doing to put the second level in conflict.”

Thompson and Gay roaming the second level may dissuade opponents from certain types of screens or make the short, middle-of-the-field passing game nonexistent. But it’s also clear that group leaned on the line play in front of them — something they’ll freely admit. They also know as new faces find their way on that defensive line, they will have to go above and beyond.

“They’re first round guys, you miss those guys,” Thompson said. “It’s probably going to be a little more strain on us, but we’re ready for the task.”

That strain is most likely to come in stopping the run.

With a front four as loaded as the one last year, it was easier for MSU to turn to single-gap schemes: linemen line up in a gap and are responsible for that gap. There wasn’t much need for movement or schematic shifts, other than variety for variety’s sake.

Having the strength at linebacker opens MSU and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop to another potential staple.

“This may be a year where we pressure more or use more movement to bounce things to the outside,” Moorhead said. “If you’re not able to one-gap with your front four and let the linebackers run, there’s some things you can do and change the X’s and O’s to fit the personnel rather than the other way around.”

Not many defenses could lose three players to the first round of the NFL Draft and expect to remain among the nation’s best. Thompson does, and if MSU lives up to it, he and the linebackers around him will likely be what makes his happen.

“Last year we were great,” Thompson said, “but I feel like we have a chance to be the same thing we were last year.”

The 2019 Diamond Dawgs were good to watch, but better to know

By Brett Hudson

OMAHA, Neb. — It was shockingly easy for Cole Gordon to find appreciation in the lowest moment of his baseball life.

He just spent dozens of minutes in the outfield, receiving consolation words and hugs from every teammate, coach and staffer in a 50-foot radius — and judging by the red patches under his eyes, he needed every second of it. He was surrounded by heartbreak and was arguably feeling it more than any other, Gordon found positive in the painful ending to a trip he didn’t have to take.

“Looking back on it, there was nothing I could see myself doing but what we did this year,” he said. “Getting one more chance to go side-by-side for a whole year with these guys, these are things I’ll never forget and things that will never leave.”

Gordon was able to find that perspective because he was a part of the group that, yes, was one of the best teams in Mississippi State history.

The record books will remember the 2019 bunch fondly, but the throngs of people that followed it will remember it even better. It will be remembered as a group of Diamond Dawgs that was easy to love.

None embody that better than Jake Mangum, the four-year fixture that gave this year’s team and the program moments it will remember forever. The plays that lead his Mississippi State highlight reel will be ones with effort and passion at the forefront — conveniently, the two things he wants to be remembered for.

In Mangum, this group of Bulldogs had its marquee figure, its flashy attraction. Mangum drew thousands to the team as they hoped to witness history, to witness the given day’s record-book climbing. In doing so, he brought those thousands to a journey as enticing as the entire university has seen in decades.

They saw Ethan Small do his own damage to the record book and JT Ginn poise himself to do the same in years to come. They saw Justin Foscue become a slugging monster, the complete reinvention of Dustin Skelton and the realization of Jordan Westburg’s God-given tools.

They saw those feats of athleticism combine, creating a team baffling consistent in a game that known for everything but. In 65 games, these Bulldogs had all of four losing streaks, and only one of them lasted longer than two games; the other one lasted three games. They saw a team rack up double-digit hits in 42 of its 67 games (62.6 percent) and strikeout over three batters for every one it walked.

They saw compelling baseball. They saw more compelling people.

Elijah MacNamee took physical and emotional duress — broken foot from a base path run and broken heart from no MLB Draft selection — just to conclude his senior season as the beloved Big Hit Mac all the same. Peyton Plumlee rose from the rock bottom of his life and the top of college baseball, the ball in his hand for most of the game that sent these Bulldogs to Omaha.

Jared Liebelt changed his outlook on baseball and learned to love it again — as he was dominating it. Marshall Gilbert changed positions for his storybook ending, Brad Cumbest changed sports daily in March and Luke Alexander changed from player to coach, just to find himself on the biggest stage once again.

In the final days, this team had no choice but to be in elite company. It is one of just 11 in its school’s history to get to Omaha and one of just nine to win a game here. It was never shy of its goals higher than what it ultimately accomplished.

It will also be hard to forget.

The 2020 Bulldogs, the 2021 team after them and beyond have an unenviable task on their hands. Yes, they have to attempt to win the national championship the group this good could not, but all told, that’s reasonable. Championship-caliber talent is in no short supply in Starkville and will not be any time in the near future.

The teams to come have to replace a crop of compelling, lovable legends. No amount of talent possible can guarantee that success.

"Just let it rip." Marshall Gilbert did, and he won a game in Omaha

Photo by Kelly Donoho, Mississippi State Athletics

Photo by Kelly Donoho, Mississippi State Athletics

By Brett Hudson

OMAHA, Neb. — Josh Hatcher and Marshall Gilbert were running the scenarios through their heads. They got back into the dugout with 4-1 deficit entering the bottom of the ninth and wondered aloud how Mississippi State could win this game, even placing their predictions on how it would.

Shortly thereafter, Hatcher made it possible for Gilbert to play the hero. But Gilbert wasn’t eagerly watching, silently begging for a chance to have that at-bat. He, “just waited for the sound of the bat,” not even bothering to take practice swings.

As he stepped into the box, his approach was solidified: “Alright, whatever, just let it rip and see what happens.”

Gilbert did let it rip. He connected with the first pitch and watched it bounce off pitcher Tanner Burns’ glove, high into the air, high enough that the ensuing bounce was too tough for second baseman Ryan Bliss to corral. Then he watched the mob of Bulldogs running to bring him down.

The man at the center of Sunday’s huddled mass is the same one who had to reinvent himself midseason. Gilbert has grown from risky option to everyday starter in a matter of weeks, just to add another surreal moment to what feels like a run to be remembered with his Sunday night walkoff single, beating Auburn 5-4 in the crucial game one of the College World Series.

“We’re all sprinting on the field to tackle Marshall and it’s like, ‘Dude, this isn’t real,’” Jake Mangum said. “How many times have we had these moments. So many, ‘Is this real?’ moments.”

The most recent, “Is this real?,” moment is, in fact, real — because Gilbert made it so.

* * *

If not for his propensity to work, Gilbert would have been watching someone else in that crucial spot.

Gilbert had to grind his way into that spot in the lineup by taking on a new position. Gilbert is a catcher by trade that had to learn third base to get in the lineup. He had to work hard and work extra at it, even when Mangum — his roommate — wondered to himself if that experiment would work.

All of that work ensured him an opportunity, no guarantees attached. Gilbert did not need the guarantee: he needed the opportunity to come within this team.

He needed the opportunity within this group of players, one that enjoys his disposition that Mangum describes as, “happy-going,” while respecting the work he puts in. He needed the opportunity playing for this coaching staff, which assistant coach Jake Gautreau told Matt Wyatt Media is, “not real big on getting mad at guys for making mistakes, nobody’s trying to make mistakes.”

He would need that disposition Sunday, when he was part of the parade of Bulldogs that fell silent with runners in scoring position: his grounder coming with runners on second and third in the second inning. Gilbert was also a part of Auburn’s first two runs, unable to make a difficult play before the two-run home run that followed.

Their faith in Gilbert never wavered, and why would it? He’s been in worse positions before, having lost catcher playing time both at the end of 2019 and the middle of 2019. They’ve seen how he reacts.

“The thing I can give him the most credit on is the fact that, if he’s not playing great, he stays focused and lives at-bat by at-bat by at-bat,” assistant coach Jake Gautreau told Matt Wyatt Media. “Maybe a play on defense doesn’t go well, but he’ll flush it, come up and give you a good at-bat.”

Mangum has seen the other side of it: “Dude has worked his tail off, man.”

As Gilbert put it, “Going back, I would say that I didn’t exactly earn the opportunities that I wanted. It fuels me knowing this is what I did last year, it’s not good enough and I have to do more, do better this year.”

With one swing, the final swing on Sunday, Gilbert has already done more than he did last year. Of course Gilbert is thrilled to do it, having sought Mississippi State out of junior college in hopes of adding to its winning legacy, but those around him might be more excited to see him do it.

To Mangum, Gilbert embodies three things: “Selflessness. Humble. Team-first guy.”

In another way of putting it: Gilbert is the type of teammate players love to celebrate, and Sunday was the perfect occasion.

The making of Chris Lemonis, a winner molded by a small group of winners

Photo courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics

Photo courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics

By Brett Hudson

STARKVILLE — Chris Lemonis lucked into playing for a college baseball legend. He took the only college baseball offer he had, from The Citadel, and played for a man who is responsible for the program’s only College World Series appearance and five of its 13 NCAA Tournament appearances.

The first words of out Chris Lemonis’ mouth when he relived playing for Chal Port: “Chal, he was mean, I’m not mean.”

The next: “Chal retired (before) my junior year and we were crushed.”

Playing for Chal Port was the beginning of the making of Chris Lemonis. His 24-year coaching education is a concise one: he learned from a legend (Port), coached under a man who also learned from Port (Fred Jordan) then worked for a man who shares some of those qualities (Dan McDonnell). From there, Lemonis spent four years at Indiana priming himself for a year one Omaha run at Mississippi State — and done so in the mold of the men that taught him.

“The thing that makes him special is the quality of person he is,” said Tony Skole, who played with Lemonis at The Citadel and now coaches their shared alma mater. “I think anybody that played with him, played for him or coached with him would say the same thing.”

* * *

Chal Port’s players already had a tough existence: The Citadel’s full name is The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina. The daily rigors of a cadet are brutal, and those that doubled as members of Port’s baseball team were given no reprieve when it came time to practice or play.

In Lemonis’ case, that meant Port pushing him from bullpen catcher to three-year starter. It also meant Lemonis respecting the man that relentlessly challenged him. Lemonis recognizes things were different back then — there was more leash for coaches to be tougher — but the end result is one he still finds desirable and one he often achieves.

Cole Sturgeon is a great example.

Sturgeon arrived at Louisville as a two-time all-state player and a participant in the 2009 World Wood Bat Association 17U National Championship. He was so good that Louisville wanted him to both pitch and hit, which he did for all four years as a Cardinal.

Lemonis wasn’t one to babysit a two-way player through the difficulties of that task; if anything, he took the opposite approach.

“As a young kid, you see it as, ‘This guy is riding me all the time, he loves to get on me when I mess up.’ As a young player, it’s kind of a culture shock, but it helps you when you get older,” Sturgeon told Matt Wyatt Media. “He’s going to talk smack, he’s going to let you know if you mess up but he’s going to let you know if you’re on the right side of it, too.”

That was early in Lemonis’ tenure as an assistant at Louisville, and nearly a decade later he remains unchanged. That showed itself in the May 22 SEC Tournament game against LSU, the 17-inning marathon. Gunner Halter missed a crucial sacrifice bunt opportunity in the 16th inning and got an earful from Lemonis. He later circled back and told Halter to keep his head up; Halter walked the game off with a single in the 17th.

Yet, Lemonis only got two years of the Chal Port experience. Port coached the 1990 team to the College World Series, took the 1991 team to another Southern Conference title and handed the program over to Fred Jordan — who played for Port from 1976-1979. Richard Wieters, a former The Citadel player and father of St. Louis Cardinals catcher Matt Wieters, told The Post and Courier in 2012, “A Citadel player from back then is like one from now. They’ve all been taught the same way, the same things right from Coach Port to Fred.”

So after being directly taught by Port, Lemonis was then coached by and coached under Jordan, also heavily influenced by Port. Lemonis played for Jordan in 1992 and 1993 before coaching for him from 1995 to 2006.

“Both of those are cut from the same cloth: master motivators, very organized, great fundamental teachers of the game and they held their players accountable,” Skole said of Port and Jordan. “It was a simple recipe, but it works. I think that’s why. It’s not magic dust, it’s about rolling up your sleeves and getting to work.”

Lemonis tested the waters outside of Charleston, South Carolina, for the first time in 2007, when he joined McDonnell at Louisville. His players quickly found him to be what he was at The Citadel: reliant on hard work, but able to find joy in the grind.

Sturgeon described Lemonis as, “in your face, loud, energetic. He’s definitely the guy that’s going to try to pick things up if things are a little quiet or dead.”

By the end of it, Lemonis’ players generally appreciate the guy that relentlessly pushed them to make them better, and it’s no accident. Lemonis does not have the luxury of keeping up with his college coach — Port died in 2011 — but Sturgeon, who has since moved up to Triple-A in the Red Sox organization, is one of many former Lemonis players that still receives occasional text messages from his former coach, checking in and congratulating their progress.

“Obviously he’s busy and we’re all busy, but it’s always nice to hear from him. I just know that’s the type of person he is,” Lemonis said. “It was awesome to play for him and he definitely rubbed off on all of his, for sure.”

* * *

Another quality of those that have been around Lemonis in his baseball education: they won.

The four Citadel teams Lemonis played on went a combined 147-78, won the SoCon regular season twice and the SoCon Tournament once. He went to the NCAA Tournament five more times an assistant coach at his alma mater, made three Omaha trips at Louisville and is responsible for three of Indiana’s eight NCAA Tournament appearances in just four seasons there.

As a player, Lemonis won with, “electric hands,” according to Skole.

“He had lightning in his hands, some of the quickest hands I’ve ever seen,” Skole said. “He could drive runs in, that’s the one thing Lemo could do as a player: he’s the guy you wanted up with runners in scoring position. Clutch player, great teammate, very selfless, very concerned with making the people around him better.

“I didn’t always hit in the middle of the lineup; Lemo always hit in the middle of the lineup. I know one thing, Lemo drove me in an awful lot.”

Lemonis was molded by winners and he continues to be a winner. When Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen talked to Lemonis’ former players in the hiring process, they were all blunt: he’s going to be a Southeastern Conference head coach one day, whether you hire him or not. He has always won and he is winning now — not that anyone that saw him on his way up the ladder is surprised.

Yes, Lemonis is winning at a different level now than he ever has previously. His three trips to Omaha as a Louisville assistant produced one combined win, and these Bulldogs have their sights set on far more than that. But Lemonis was molded to rise to this moment, and those that saw him then expect him to do it now.

“When you’re taking over a program that’s at the pinnacle, it’s not easy,” Skole said, “but he welcomes that challenge. He welcomes that pinnacle.”

Sweet sendoff: Plumlee, MacNamee, Mangum and others get their moment on the way back to Omaha

Photo by Aaron Cornia, Mississippi State Athletics

Photo by Aaron Cornia, Mississippi State Athletics

By Brett Hudson

STARKVILLE — Peyton Plumlee spent a second looking down the filled sections of grandstands, first to his left and then his right, after he finished his 6.2 innings of 2-hit, 1-run pitching. His hat partially covered his face, an effort to keep himself from crying, as a giddy JT Ginn met him with an emphatic embrace.

Before this triumphant stroll, Plumlee got a word of advice from coach Chris Lemonis: “Take it slow.”

This was his Dudy Noble Field sendoff, and one Lemonis wanted Plumlee to enjoy.

The 2.1 innings of baseball to follow was much more of the same. Yes, Sunday’s night’s 8-1 win over Stanford was one that won the Starkville Super Regional, one that sent Mississippi State to Omaha for the 11th time in program history and to the program’s first back-to-back Omaha trips in 21 years. But it was also the heroic exit the soon-to-depart crop of players deserved, one immediately after the other with 11,597 people applauding every step of the victory lap.

Few fit that description — and bolster it with raw emotion — better than Plumlee. Plumlee took the advice to soak it in; his parents did the same.

“I said, ‘Y’all film, I’m watching,’” Mia Plumlee said.

She said she could see the emotion on her son’s face, but, “It was hard to see through mine.”

Mia Plumlee would be thrust back into that emotion later, recounting an added layer to the meaning of the night.

“Omaha’s been talked about in our family since he was a little kid. My dad, we grew up South Carolina fans because we lived there, but all my dad wanted to see was Peyton to get to Omaha one day,” she said, choking back tears. “He’s watching from above, and he did it.

“Peyton did it. For this town, for this school, he did it.”

Peyton’s father Michael also had to choke back tears as he watched Peyton exit the game from left field. His mind went back to 2010, when Peyton was 13 and they went to the College World Series as fans for its final season at Rosenblatt Stadium. For Peyton to play such a big part in sending the team there is still surreal to him, but by now it shouldn’t be a surprise.

“He’s not afraid,” Mia said, and Peyton’s performance in the big moments proves it.

Plumlee got the start in the Governor’s Cup game against Ole Miss and responded with 4 innings of 3-hit, 1-run ball; he started five days later for a chance to sweep top-5 Georgia and threw 6.1 innings with one hit and no runs allowed. He got a rubber match start against Texas A&M and delivered 6 strong innings and a win.

Plumlee’s gotten wins in both of his NCAA Tournament starts, one to send the Bulldogs to a Super Regional and another to send them to Omaha.

In tow on that route to Omaha: Elijah MacNamee’s redemption story.

* * *

The usually eloquent MacNamee didn’t have many words roughly 36 hours after not hearing his name called in the MLB Draft. He was short and to the point: he’ll put his trust in God’s hands and trust all will work out as it’s supposed to.

It did nothing to stop everyone around him from voicing their frustrations.

“There’s 1,200 picks in the draft and he doesn’t get drafted. It’s a joke,” Jake Mangum said. “All week he said God’s got him, he’s going to stay with God and good things happened.”

Chris Lemonis added, “Elijah’s week’s been really hard. He’s such an awesome kid, he’s a great player but an even better person. It was really hard, but the day after he’s working hard and pumping everyone up, and the game rewards that.”

MacNamee had faith in that basic principle, but at least he gets to have the bat in his hand and control the situation in some way. His mother, Jen Horton, is not as lucky. She had moments of being bitter, contemplating how Elijah’s chase of the national championship he so covets could be influenced by such an important outside event right in the middle of it.

“He’s my hero, and I’m going to cry saying that,” Horton said. “It hurt me down to the core as a mom. You want to hear the name called.”

If MacNamee allowed his frustration to show to anyone, it was Horton. She felt the urge to send him a long text message before Sunday night’s game, reiterating her pride in him, how his performance as a Bulldog is far beyond anything they could have imagined. Part of his response: “You’re my best friend. Let’s finish this.”

MacNamee finished it with a behemoth of a home run that twisted the cap off his emotional bottle. He admired his work and flashily flipped the bat back to the dugout as he yelled, screamed and repeatedly pumped his fist, the gyrations of his body not all that different from the “trot” around the bases in Tallahassee for which he will be remembered forever.

In the stands, Horton did the same thing she did when MacNamee’s home run walked off game one of last year’s Nashville Super Regional: she collapsed and cried. She wanted to surround herself with other mothers — Mia Plumlee, Stacy Mangum and Jennifer Self, to name a few — as their boys went through their final motions in this stadium (Riley Self excluded). As MacNamee’s ball left the yard, Horton was surrounded by hugs and brought into them.

Stacy Mangum had her own moment just three at-bats earlier, when her son Jake Mangum couldn’t help but notice his first and last Dudy Noble Field hits resembled each other: through the left side of the infield.

“And of course it’s on the first pitch,” Jake Mangum said.

Mangum stood on first base and blew a kiss to the throngs of fans, Stacy Mangum among them, almost certainly shedding tears. She’s still coming to terms with these four years ending — and frankly would take another one in a heartbeat if the NCAA would let her — but Jake’s sendoff had her smiling ear to ear in the wee hours of Monday morning.

Third baseman Marshall Gilbert got to have two hits in his final day at Dudy Noble. Jared Liebelt recorded four outs between the starter and the finisher in his last time on that mound. He returned to Mississippi State to stare long odds in the face in hopes of proving he belongs and proving he can help a championship team, and he did both in his heroic goodbye.

Cole Gordon’s sendoff moment was muzzled and came with a different view: his came from the bottom of a dogpile. Eleven months prior, Gordon was weighing life after baseball, even as far as having one foot into that life. Instead, he and his fellow seniors have reached the pinnacle of their sport and done it with the storybook moment to share forever.

“If you think I can put that into words,” Jake Mangum said, “you’re crazy.”

Rowdey Jordan's Days of Thunder come in June, when his team needs him most

Photo by Kelly Donoho, Mississippi State Athletics

Photo by Kelly Donoho, Mississippi State Athletics

By Brett Hudson

STARKVILLE — Rowdey Jordan has a calm presence about him. He exudes quiet confidence through a generally chill vibe, one that doesn’t change much whether he’s standing on first base after a single or getting roasted by teammates at batting practice.

His father, Kevin, wasn’t blessed with that quality when it comes to Rowdey’s performance. When the cruel nature of baseball strikes Rowdey, the player keeps his cool, identifies minor corrections to be made and goes about them; the father grows concerned for future playing time, eagerly awaiting the luck to reverse so Rowdey’s lineup spot is assured.

Every year to date, Rowdey has been right. He’s always been swinging a hot bat as the postseason comes, and in his first two years at Mississippi State it’s to the tune of a .400 career batting average in the NCAA Tournament (26-for-65) and MVP honors of last week’s Starkville Regional. It’s also come with the adoration of the MSU fan base that has Kevin Jordan, “ in awe,” never more than when a Rowdey chant takes over Dudy Noble Field.

The name that Rowdey admits probably contributes to his popularity is the only one he’s ever known — and one that’s not on his birth certificate.

* * *

Kevin and Angel Jordan had a deal: he would name the boys, she would name the girls. They ultimately had three girls and a boy, but Rowdey came first.

Kevin was still searching for ideas when he watched Days of Thunder, the 1990 Tom Cruise film on life in NASCAR and the rivalry between his Cole Trickle character and Rowdy Burns, played by Michael Rooker. Kevin was drawn to the rivalry, to the character and to the name, so his mind was made up. Angel — then a school teacher, since retired — refused to have her colleagues see her son’s name on the role call sheet as Rowdey Jordan, so Rowdey’s birth certificate (and roll call) name is William Kevin Jordan Jr., “which I was very much opposed to,” Kevin Jordan says.

(So much for that naming agreement.)

Kevin would ultimately get his way: Rowdey Jordan can’t remember a day when he didn’t go by Rowdey, and Kevin Jordan confirms he’s been called Rowdey his entire life.

At mention of the movie, Rowdey asks, “Is that a NASCAR movie?” Clearly he’s never seen the movie that produced his name, but Rowdey Jordan also says he doesn’t watch a ton of movies. He’s open to coming across it one day and watching it, but apparently that day isn’t now.

In an ironic twist, Rowdey Jordan wasn’t all that rowdy as a child. Kevin Jordan said he has a subdued nature like his mother — “Unlike his daddy, with my mouth.” — which has served him well as his baseball seasons tend to follow a bumpy arc.

* * *

As recently as two months ago, Rowdey Jordan’s 2019 was defined by a slump: the slump that had a .321 hitter from a year ago hitting .245 through 30 games, the slump that saw him miss a start (the final game of the series at Florida) for the first time in 53 games dating back to last season. Kevin Jordan

It helps that Rowdey has been here before. Kevin Jordan estimates Rowdey went through a 2-for-20 slump to start his junior season of high school and wasn’t lights out to start his senior season — far from his season-long hot streak as a sophomore that saw the Auburn native lead the state in hitting — but in all instances, Rowdey Jordan had it going when the games mattered most.

At Mississippi State, that trend has continued: Rowdey Jordan has hit .223 in March in his MSU career, and that number is boosted by his uncanny ability to punish his hometown Auburn Tigers coming in March of this season; if not for this year’s Auburn series, Rowdey Jordan’s March batting average would go down to .198.

But as a Bulldog, June has belonged to Rowdey. His .400 NCAA Tournament batting average and .646 NCAA Tournament slugging have made him a postseason hero — for reasons he can’t explain.

“I don’t know what it is the last two years where it wasn’t there at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year it is,” Rowdey Jordan said. “Getting some at-bats under you — I got 200 under me now — so I don’t know, just seeing the ball well and putting good swings on it.”

Kevin Jordan recognizes fortune’s role in all this: fortunate that Rowdey did so well last year that a coaching staff might be willing to let him find it through struggles, and fortunate that a new coaching staff was willing to do it on word of mouth alone.

Chris Lemonis is able to explain it easily: Rowdey Jordan’s postseason form is a result of Rowdey’s truest self shining through undeterred.

“He’s not thinking about it. He’s not a great thinker, just point him to the plate and let him play,” Lemonis said. “Early in the year he got caught up in trying to think about it and do too much; now that he’s relaxed and just playing, he’s one of our more enjoyable kids to coach. He’s always in a great mood when he runs out there.

“If he just relaxes and lets the game come to him he’s really good, and you’re seeing that right now.”

Full Count, Starkville Regional: Three Thoughts from the Weekend, Two from Palo Alto

Photo by Aaron Cornia, courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics

Photo by Aaron Cornia, courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics

By Brett Hudson

The field of 64 is nearly down to 16, and for the fourth year in a row Mississippi State has a spot in that elite class. We went daily with Dogpile, our MSU baseball podcast, through the regional and that includes the final day, so there’s some extra coverage to be had there, but here are some thoughts on top of it.

Three Thoughts from the Weekend in Starkville

Weekend of revivals

As if this lineup needed more weapons, it had three more wake themselves up with impeccable timing.

  • Jake Mangum, back. Thanks to a four-game skid that spanned 18 at-bats, Mangum has as many hits in six 2019 postseason games (five) as he had in single games against Little Rock and ULM. But three of those five hits came in the final game of the Starkville Regional and made him one of just five people in the history of Division I baseball to amass 375 career hits. He even drove a blast of a double into the gap, and that’s the real test of him being back for me: with his foot speed, he’s got a shot at legging one out like he did for that first hit any night. Sending one into the gap with gusto for a double, his 22nd of the year, tells me all is right in the Mangum world.

  • Jordan Westburg, back. It’s like you could see the pretend monkey leaving his back after the double in the Miami game, the way he celebrated it. Four hits, four RBI over the weekend: he had two hits over seven games from May 3 to May 12, and now he’s got four in a weekend. In it all he even walked twice and only struck out once.

All of this comes as the 3-hole hitter, Tanner Allen, just so happens to have raised his season average from .316 to .350 in a matter of three weeks. As it exits the Starkville Regional, this lineup is terrifying.

Hello, Hatcher

Can you believe we live in a world in which Brad Cumbest, Gunner Halter and Luke Hancock did not get a single at-bat in a weekend, much less a postseason weekend?

Josh Hatcher was the man this weekend, as he was apparently the only option from a bench that is usually really crowded and he rewarded that call with a 5-for-12 (.416) weekend, with two doubles (.583 slugging) and four RBI.

This is wild because there are so many ways to utilize those bench bats, and MSU has proven that over more or less the entire season. They are so good at scouting individual opposing pitchers and crafting bad matchups for them that they’ll pinch hit the same position in the lineup two times in a game if need be to have the right guy in the box at a given time, but they did none of it in the first three games of the NCAA Tournament. They let it ride with Hatcher and he delivered; you can’t help but wonder what, if anything, that means for the Starkville Super Regional and beyond.

Total package

Mississippi State enters Super Regional weekend fifth in the nation in batting average (.317) and fourth in the nation in strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.12), something that has not been done for an entire season since at least 2011. This team is already on the precipice of doing something rare in school history — the fifth 50-win team in school history with one more win, on the edge of back-to-back Omaha trips for the first time in 20 years — but those two numbers show a level of in-season national dominance that college baseball hasn’t seen in a decade or more.

Two Things to Know from Palo Alto

If you want to see a team punch its ticket to the Starkville Super Regional to face Mississippi State, you’ll have to stay up late: Fresno State and Stanford play each other at 9 p.m. Central on ESPNU, winner advances and loser is done.

#KyleStowersLeadoffSingles

Stanford’s leadoff man, left fielder Kyle Stowers, has been red hot in the Palo Alto Regional: 7-for-19 (.368), 5 RBI, two doubles, a home run and a stolen base. Much like Mississippi State, the Cardinal have some power bats behind him in the order — 3-hole hitter Brandon Wulff is slugging .597 thanks to 19 home runs and designated hitter Will Matthiessen has 12 doubles and 12 homers — so Stowers hitting well is dangerous. Keep an eye on his at-bats to see what could threaten the Bulldogs if it’s Stanford in Palo Alto.

Can Fresno State start?

I was reading some work from Robert Kuwada of The Fresno Bee, who is covering Fresno State in the Palo Alto Regional, and he had a couple of lines about this being a “dreaded” extra game for Fresno State. When I look at it, I think it’s because there’s no real solid plan in terms of who can start this game.

The Bulldogs are lucky to have gotten good stuffs from the guys they’ve started so far — 7.2 from Ryan Jensen on Friday, 6.2 from Davis Moore on Saturday and their usual Sunday combo of Nikoh Mitchell and Jamison Hill combining for 5 on Sunday — so the bullpen is relatively in tact. Fresno State has yet to turn to its best reliever, Jaime Arias and his 2.74 ERA over 27 appearances, tied for the team-high. It’s getting to that bullpen that will intrigue me.

Jake Mangum, Leadoff Hitter: The full statistics on Mississippi State's 4-year table setter

File photo courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics

File photo courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics

By Brett Hudson

STARKVILLE — John Cohen had seen all he needed to see by April of Jake Mangum’s freshman season. His freshman phenom carried a .396 batting average out of the third SEC weekend of the season, and starting that week, Cohen put Mangum in the leadoff spot.

Mangum promptly gave Cohen a leadoff walk in a midweek game and consecutive leadoff singles in a weekend series at Florida. Those three days launched what has since become the best leadoff hitting career in Mississippi State baseball history.

Mangum has anywhere between two and eight games at Dudy Noble Field remaining, depending on how the Starkville Regional and potential Starkville Super Regional go, capping an era of leadoff hitting unlikely to be paralleled in the future.

Mangum enters this weekend 67-for-196 (.341) when leading off a game with nine doubles, two triples and three home runs for a slugging of .454. Some notes on his career as a leadoff hitter:

  • Of his 67 leadoff hits, 21 of them (31.3 percent) have come on the first pitch. He has also led off three games with bunt singles.

  • His leadoff production has been consistent throughout his career. He had 22 leadoff hits as a junior and has 19 as a senior, so those numbers will likely be somewhat equal by the end of his season. He had 13 in both of his freshman and sophomore seasons, both of those totals limited by not hitting leadoff for the first six weeks as a freshman or the final four weeks as a sophomore.

  • He’s been particularly lethal at home: 39-for-97 (.402), including both leadoff triples coming at Dudy Noble Field.

  • Mangum has three leadoff home runs; two of them came against Florida.

  • One would think Mangum would brutalize Ole Miss in this category as he has in every other, but he has actually struggled in leadoff at-bats against Ole Miss, going 2-for-13 (.153). Here are Mangum’s numbers in leadoff games against every SEC team, with postseason games included.

Screen Shot 2019-05-29 at 11.46.34 AM.png
  •  Mangum’s record as a leadoff hitter on the biggest stages: SEC Tournament (4-7, .571), Regionals (3-7, .428, one home run), Super Regionals (1-5, .200) and Omaha (1-3, .333), for a .409 total batting average in MSU’s first at-bat of postseason games.

But here’s the thing about Jake Mangum, Leadoff Hitter: he is the truest table setter. He doesn’t just produce at a high rate when you allow him to leadoff a game; he does it when he leads off any inning.

We mentioned above that he has 196 at-bats in game leadoff role. He has also has 137 at-bats leading off innings that were not the first inning, thus a grand total of 333 times he has taken the first at-bat in an inning. In those 333 at-bats, Mangum has 119 hits for a .357 batting average and 23 doubles, three triples and three home runs for a slugging of .471.

Some other notes from those 333 at-bats:

  • He’s awesome both at home and on the road: at home, 61-for-158, .386 and a slugging of .500; on the road, 41-for-120, .341 and a slugging of .483.

  • Of his 23 doubles in all leadoff situations, 13 of them have come against SEC teams, two each against Alabama, LSU and Florida.

  • Mangum is a preposterous 8-for-16 in all leadoff situations in regionals.

  • He has been hit by pitch 12 times to start an inning.

For his career, Mangum is hitting .409 when leading off postseason games and .400 when leading off any inning of a postseason game. With his final Bulldog postseason beginning this weekend, #JakeMangumLeadoffSingles are getting their victory lap.

Starkville Regional preview: Who's coming to Starkville?

Miami

The Hurricanes are a classic 2 seed — they’ve done some good things for their resume, but they haven’t been quite up to the standard when going up against top competition to secure that top 16 status. There is a series win over Georgia Tech on the resume, but the Hurricanes lost series with North Carolina and Louisville, plus a sweep at the hands of N.C. State. Going on a run at the end of the season against the bottom half of the ACC — sweep Virginia Tech, series wins over Wake Forest and Duke — stacked the win total to 39-18, 18-12 ACC.

Hitting

The Hurricanes have two well-rounded bats, one mostly power bat and one mostly contact bat. It makes for a strong heart of the order, but really what happens around them isn’t all that shabby, either.

The two best bats are right fielder Adrien Del Castillo and third baseman Raymond Gil. Both are hitting over .310 and both are slugging over .540; Del Castillo has done it mostly with doubles, 20 compared to nine home runs, but Gil has shown more top-end power, with 11 home runs to 14 doubles.

The power-or-nothing bat is first baseman Alex Toral, this dude has 22 long balls this year. Eleven of them did come in non-conference play, but that’s still a dinger per weekend in the ACC. Designated hitter JP Gates has been hitting for average, coming to Starkville with a .346. His numbers are smaller sample, having just 34 starts, but 21 of those starts came on ACC play and he hit .320, so it’s a legit hit tool.

Much like Mississippi State, Miami has the bats around its stars to pile runs up against a pitching staff. Shortstop Freddy Zamora is hitting .302 and has 45 RBI; Jordan Lala and Anthony Vilar have played every day and bring .284 and .282 batting averages to center field and second base, respectively, and Lala is fourth in the ACC with 58 walks.

All told this is a Hurricanes lineup that leads the ACC in slugging and has done a good bit of running, too, with 75 stolen bases. It’s had to be that good with its pitching staff.

Pitching

The Hurricanes have four main starters — Brian Van Belle, Slade Cecconi, Evan McKendry and Chris McMahon — and none of them have ERAs better than 3.25. The best of them by ERA — Van Belle — has a WHIP of 1.213. The bullpen has its clear go-to guys but none of them have a batting average allowed under .200.

Miami ended the season 13th in the ACC in ERA and ninth in batting average allowed.

Central Michigan

The Chippewas dominated the MAC this year, winning the tournament after going 22-5 in the regular season. They ended the season on an 18-game winning streak that included a midweek game over Michigan State.

Hitting

Much like Miami, hitting is what has CMU in the tournament. CMU scored 10.6 runs per game in its MAC Tournament run and hit double-digit runs in three of its final six MAC games, plus that midweek game against Michigan State.

The Chippewas have three batters bringing an OPS of better than 1.000 to Starkville: Zavier Warren (.356 average with 22 doubles, two triples and eight home runs), Griffin Lockwood-Powell (.353 with a MAC-best 11 home runs, 17 doubles as well) and Jacob Crum (.332 with eight triples, how about that?)

Pitching

Pat Leatherman and Cameron Brown are the two best starters, both of them having taken 15 starts and managed to get through it with a 2.56 and 2.72 ERA, respectively.

But the real calling card is the bullpen, and I’m not sure I’ve seen a college bullpen constructed like this one.

Most of the time you see a college bullpen find its four to six primary guys, the ones that go at last once a weekend and at times take two, depending on the midweek game needs or a special situation in a weekend series. Those guys tend to see their appearances number creep into the 20s and there’s a divide between them and that second class, which can see appearances around a dozen at the end of the regular season.

This team has one guy at 25 appearances and eight more between 17 and 14, with just three below that.

Most teams have certain patterns they follow that can give hitters a little head-start on the adjustments they’ll have to make, for example Jared Liebelt almost always relieving Ethan Small. CMU’s opponents don’t seem to have that luxury, and it could be useful for them — four of those relievers have sub-3.00 ERAs.

Southern

The Jaguars had to be pretty pleased with how the SWAC Tournament broke down for them: a matchup with a poor Arkansas-Pine Bluff team before three games against Texas Southern, a team Southern beat in both regular-season series and did it again in the SWAC Tournament. A 15-0 win over Alabama State sent the SWAC’s best lineup to the NCAA Tournament.

Hitting

Southern leads the SWAC in batting average, doubles, triples, slugging and on-base percentage. A good bit of it is on the back of Tyler LaPorte (.389 batting average) and Javeyan Williams (.388), and they do the team in favor in bringing themselves in after all that hitting: LaPorte has 21 stolen bases and Williams has been successful in all 26 stolen base attempts. It’s not a heavy power lineup, with just one player at 10 home runs (Coby Taylor), but the SWAC isn’t a big home run league, either: only six players have double-digit bombs.

Pitching

Let me put it this way, folks: In SWAC games, the Jaguars had a 6.53 ERA, a .297 batting average allowed and allowed 5.39 walks per game.

If Southern does what most teams in this situation do — play two games and get out — it’ll be because they lose their games 13-2.

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.