When tasked with the job of interviewing important subjects and turning their answers into meaningful and explanatory stories, it’s often frustrating when those subjects respond to questions with cliché-riddled answers that offer a high word count but provide very little actual information. In sports, we often call it Coach Speak – saying a great deal while saying almost nothing at all.
In the case of Mississippi State’s baseball team, however, the clichés actually are the real answer lately. There’s more to it, of course, but at this point, head coach Andy Cannizaro is at a bit of a loss to find a better way to explain the surprise run his team has been on in the SEC. Now ranked in the Top 10 in at least one major poll, the Bulldogs have won 15 of their last 18 conference games and are off to their best start in SEC play since 1989, well before any member of this team was even born.
“I keep saying, ‘It is what it is,’ and that’s the best thing I can say about it,” Cannizaro told reporters last week.
The answer came in response to a question wondering if the team ever starts to worry about when this run will come to an end. I mean, look at the circumstances. MSU is without double-digit pitchers, has suffered injuries throughout the lineup, and is playing with that decimated roster just one season removed from losing a dozen players to the MLB Draft.
Most teams in the SEC worry about having to decide how to trim their travel roster down to 27 when the time comes. Cannizaro would be absolutely thrilled if he could get his travel roster up to 27. For any given weekend, he’s lucky to have 23, perhaps 24 available bodies, pitchers and positional players combined.
And yet, the Bulldogs are in position not only to make the NCAA Tournament, not only to potentially host an NCAA Regional, but to possibly repeat as SEC Champions. How can one make sense of that?
“Our guys have done a phenomenal job of taking it day-by-day,” Cannizaro answered by way of explanation, clichéd or not. “We don’t look at the big picture. It’s all hands on deck every single day. We play really hard. We get after teams. Our guys love to compete. We love to play. And that’s why we’ve been winning ball games, because I really feel like we play extremely hard. We don’t give up. We never think we’re going to lose. We play a complete nine innings of baseball.”
So yeah, pretty much all Coach Speak. But it’s accurate Coach Speak, which is why you can’t blame him. Break down each part of his response, and it depicts what’s happening with his MSU team.
“We don’t look at the big picture.”
At some point after MSU got swept in its first SEC series against Arkansas and before MSU swept Tennessee the next weekend in its second SEC series, the players on State’s team had a change in mindset. Up to that point, they had been seeing the injuries and losses pile up and, like many on the outside, were expecting things to fall apart. It was just too much.
But in that week between the two series, something clicked and they all finally realized or admitted that no one was coming to help. If they were going to do this thing, they were going to have to do this thing. As it’s been described to this reporter, they collectively said, forget it, we’re the only ones here, let’s do it.
At that point, they stopped worrying about the big picture, stopped worrying about everything going on and just went into every game with the plan to win, no matter what did or didn’t happen in the days or weeks before. They became a perfect example of, “We all we got, we all we need.” They decided they didn’t need anything more.
“It’s all hands on deck every single day.”
Zero exaggeration here. MSU has pulled in three positional players and stuck them on the mound – and it’s worked. Jake Mangum, the SEC Freshman of the Year last year for his hitting and fielding, has been a regular Sunday starter, and it’s by more parts will than ability. Even getting consecutive pitches to come out of the same slot is sometimes a rarity, yet he’s made it work, and as Cannizaro has shared, Mangum is having a blast doing it. He’s competitive, and this is just another way to compete.
And that’s without discussing first baseman Cole Gordon (2-0 as a starter on the mound) or Brant Blaylock, who is pitching for the first time since he was a junior in high school, yet has a 2.45 ERA and is 1-0 on the mound.
Make sense? Not really. Working? Absolutely.
“We play really hard. We get after teams. Our guys love to compete. We love to play.”
Working with what they have, MSU has taken the SEC by storm. At the plate, junior Brent Rooker gets the headlines, and deservedly so as he leads the SEC in nine offensive categories, but top-to-bottom the lineup is improving every week. In front of and behind Rooker in the lineup, Mangum (59) and junior Ryan Gridley (57) help Rooker make up three of the top six in the SEC in hits.
Meanwhile, Hunter Stovall has returned and is perhaps the best nine-hole hitter in the league, helping to turn the lineup over with steady production while guys like Cody Brown, Josh Lovelady and Tanner Poole, among others, continue to hit in either a consistent or timely manner.
All that while sophomore Konnor Pilkington just plows along as one of the best Friday night pitchers in the league and bullpen stud Spencer Price leads the entire country with 16 saves.
That’s getting after it.
“We don’t give up. We never think we’re going to lose. We play a complete nine innings of baseball.”
Well, last Friday they actually went 13, and that was in the second game of that night’s doubleheader. But the point remains valid. Crazy stat: 20 of MSU’s 28 wins have been comebacks, 11 of those in State’s 13 SEC wins. That is, perhaps, the most unbelievable part of what MSU is doing, at least once one gets past the all the injuries and personnel losses over the last 10 months.
Just as this team doesn’t seem to care if people don’t think they should win before the game starts, they apparently do not care at all if they find themselves as similar underdogs during the game. As they do every day, they’ll just find a way. They’ll MacGyver it and not just hope for the best, but expect the best.
This isn’t a cliché that came out of Cannizaro’s mouth, but it’s one that still applies: MSU doesn’t give up, no matter the circumstances.
“And that’s why we’ve been winning ball games.”