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Mississippi State Baseball Weekend Preview: South Alabama and Columbia

The Bulldogs baseball team hopes to do better than the football team against South Alabama, and they hope to get healthy at the plate against Columbia.

Kelly Price: @HailStatePics

Game Times and Broadcast Info

Game 1

  • First Pitch: Friday, 6:30 p.m.
  • Radio: MSU Radio Network
  • Television: SEC Network+

Game 2

  • First Pitch: Saturday, 1:00 p.m.
  • Radio: MSU Radio Network
  • Television: SEC Network+

Game 3

  • First Pitch: Saturday, 40 minutes after Game 1
  • Radio: MSU Radio Network
  • Television: SEC Network+

Game 4

  • First Pitch: Sunday, 2:00 p.m.
  • Radio: MSU Radio Network
  • Television: SEC Network+

The Mississippi State Bulldogs are limping into their series with South Alabama and Columbia. The offense has been great at times and anemic at others, and the bullpen has struggled to close out games. There are a host of problems that have led the Andy Cannizaro era to get off to a 7-6 start to the season.

Columbia shouldn’t be much of a challenge, but with the performance of the team so far, you can never assume a victory at any point. South Alabama advanced to a regional final a season ago, and they won’t be a pushover to say the least.

2017 Columbia Offensive Profile

  • Team Batting Average: .232 compared to Mississippi State’s .292
  • Extra Base Hits: 6 compared to Mississippi State’s 42
  • Home Runs: 1 compared to Mississippi State’s 13
  • Runs Scored: 6 (2 per game) compared to Mississippi State’s 88 (6.8 per game)
  • Slugging Percentage: .316 to Mississippi State’s .445
  • On Base Percentage: .291 to Mississippi State’s .373
  • Strike Outs: 26 (8.7 per game) to Mississippi State’s 117 (9 per game)
  • Stolen Bases: 0 on 2 attempts compared to Mississippi State’s 23 on 28 attempts

I’m not going to spend a lot of time breaking down Columbia or how Mississippi State needs to approach the Ivy League team. It’s not a sign of disrespect, it’s a sign of the fact that Columbia has only played three games and those three games were against Florida, one of the best teams in the country. They were severely out matched in those games, and you can’t really get a feel for how good or bad this team is. So I’ll move on to South Alabama.

2017 South Alabama Offensive Profile

  • Team Batting Average: .326 compared to Mississippi State’s .292
  • Extra Base Hits: 35 compared to Mississippi State’s 42
  • Home Runs: 11 compared to Mississippi State’s 13
  • Runs Scored: 112 (9.3 per game) compared to Mississippi State’s 88 (6.8 per game)
  • Slugging Percentage: .479 to Mississippi State’s .445
  • On Base Percentage: .444 to Mississippi State’s .373
  • Strike Outs: 86 (7.2 per game) to Mississippi State’s 117 (9 per game)
  • Stolen Bases: 18 on 20 attempts compared to Mississippi State’s 23 on 28 attempts

South Alabama can hit the ball, and they will come to Dudy Noble Field as confident as ever. On Tuesday, they hammered Auburn 14-3 at Auburn. They hit the ball well, find ways to get on base, and are active on the base paths once they get there.

Most of the South Alabama lineup is off to a great start in the first fifth of the schedule. Very few of their regular starters are hitting below .280, but if you want someone to really focus on, focus on Travis Swaggerty. The Jaguar Center Fielder is currently hitting .500 with an OBP of .625 and a slugging percentage of .767 from the three hole in the lineup. And once he gets on base, he causes problems. He’s stolen 5 bases on 5 attempts.

The Bulldogs will need to make sure they can match South Alabama’s offense. While the lineup has appeared potent at times, it has also struggled to even get a run on the board. A big part of that is the huge discrepancy between the 1-4 hitters and 9 hole, and the rest of the lineup.

Jake Mangum, Luke Alexander, Ryan Gridley, Brent Rooker, and Hunter Stovall are all hitting .333 or higher. The only other player to receive significant playing time hitting above .200 is Elijah MacNamee. For now, he might be the best bet to start in Left Field, but there could still be a revolving door there if no one starts to do better.

Cody Brown and Cole Gordon are both hitting atrociously this season. Harrison Bragg was given a start at first, and he might be given more time there if Brown and Gordon continue to struggle.

Catcher might be the biggest mess in the lineup. Josh Lovelady is hitting just .174 but Dustin Skelton is barely above .100 at .103. Skelton has the better mechanics behind the plate, so he might get the job going forward for his defensive prowess. On the other hand, his throwing error in the top of the 9th against Louisiana Tech allowed the go ahead run to score.

If the rest of the lineup can ever get close to what the top 5 players are doing, this lineup will be lethal. If they don’t, the Bulldogs are basically giving the opposition four outs every time through the lineup.

2017 Columbia Pitching Profile

  • Team ERA: 8.25 compared to Mississippi State’s 4.53
  • Batting Average Against: .290 compared to Mississippi State’s .248
  • Extra Base Hits Allowed: 10 compared to Mississippi State’s 19
  • Home Runs Allowed: 1 compared to Mississippi State’s 3
  • Strike Outs: 16 (5.3 per game) compared to Mississippi State’s 124 (9.5 per game)
  • Walks Allowed: 26 (8.7 per game) compared to Mississippi State’s 63 (4.8 per game)

I’m approaching the Columbia pitching staff the same way I’m approaching their hitting. There isn’t much of a sample size, so it is difficult to draw any real conclusions. The only thing I consider significant is the walks. Columbia pitchers averaged almost 9 walks a game in their first three. The Bulldogs might get a lot of free passes this week.

2017 South Alabama Pitching Profile

  • Team ERA: 4.06 compared to Mississippi State’s 4.53
  • Batting Average Against: .249 compared to Mississippi State’s .248
  • Extra Base Hits Allowed: 27 compared to Mississippi State’s 19
  • Home Runs Allowed: 2 compared to Mississippi State’s 3
  • Strike Outs: 105 (8.8 per game) compared to Mississippi State’s 124 (9.5 per game)
  • Walks Allowed: 37 (3.1 per game) compared to Mississippi State’s 63 (4.8 per game)

South Alabama isn’t a bad pitching team, but they aren’t a great one either. The one thing they make teams do though, is put the ball in play. The staff only gives up 3 walks per game, so Mississippi State’s bats will have to be on track to beat South Alabama twice.

Randy Bell is the only starter I am convinced will pitch this weekend. He has a 3.93 ERA with 22 strikeouts in 18.1 innings. Teams are able to get hits off of him though, as the opposition is hitting .301. He is able to limit damage due to the fact he rarely walks people as he has allowed only 2 free passes this season.

The other likely pitcher to start is Zach Melton. He has a similar ERA to Bell at 3.97, but has gone about it in a completely different manner. Opposing batters are hitting just .139 against him, but he has given up 8 walks in 11.1 innings. He finds himself pitching in high pressure situations much of the time.

Konnor Pilkington will get the start on Friday and he suffered some really tough luck in his last outing by losing in a 1-0 game despite only giving up a solo home run in 7 innings. He is 1-2 on the season, but don’t let that fool you. He’s done everything the coaches have asked. His ERA is 2.45 and has struck out 20 hitters in 18.1 innings. The opposing team is hitting just .200 against him. If there is one area he needs to improve on, it’s extra base hits. When he does get hit, he gets hit hard.

Peyton Plumlee had a slight bump in the road against Oregon, but he didn’t do anything against them to make me think the coaching staff will remove him out of his number 2 starting position. He still has a 2-0 record with a 1.93 ERA. Plumlee has struck out 13 in 18.2 innings and walked just four batters. The biggest question about Plumlee is if the coaching staff will pitch him second this weekend or hold him for the second game on Saturday against South Alabama.

How the coaching staff handles the last two starters is the most interesting part of the weekend. No one has established themselves as a great option to be the Bulldogs third weekend starter.

Graham Ashcraft has shown at times why he was drafted out of high school, but he has also shown why it was probably a good idea to come to State. He struggles with consistency, and we don’t know if he would be better out of the bullpen or as a starter. He threw three pitches on Tuesday, so if the coaches plan to start him this weekend, he easily could.

Ryan Cyr got shelled in his first two outings which is responsible for the majority of his 7.30 ERA. But Cyr got the call out of the bullpen when Ashcraft was pulled this past weekend and gave up just 1 earned run in 5.2 innings. He could be given one more chance to nail down the starting role.

Someone else to keep an eye on is Jacob Billingsley. He has served as a midweek starter and done well, so if the pitchers who have been given opportunities still struggle, Billingsley could get an opportunity. If Ashcraft and Cyr don’t pitch well, I wouldn’t be surprised if Billingsley only pitches an inning against UAPB during the midweek to start the following Sunday.

My biggest concern isn’t the starters though. It’s not even the bullpen in general. It’s trying to close out games. It doesn’t seem to matter who Cannizaro and Henderson put out there in the 8th and 9th innings. Whoever they go to seems to fall apart. Riley Self, who had been as good as any pitcher on the staff, couldn’t do much in the later stages. Spencer Price has two saves, but he hasn’t made it look easy. Mississippi State needs someone to be a reliable closer and set up guy if they want to have any chance at a successful season.

Weekend Prediction

The baseball team has struggled, which most of us expected, but the struggles have exceeded what most people thought was going to happen. At 7-6, the Bulldogs really can’t afford even one loss this weekend.

I think the team will be fine against Columbia. It’s the games against South Alabama that are worrisome. When I first saw the schedule, I thought State would probably lose one, but I wasn’t concerned because I thought it might have been their third or fourth loss at worst. If they lose this weekend, they are likely heading into conference play 11-7.

And I think that’s what happens. Mississippi State could win all four games this weekend, but there isn’t enough confidence for anyone to expect that. If the Bulldogs do go 3-1 like I am predicting, they should be able to win against UAPB before heading to Arkansas with an 11-7 record. If that is the case, how many series do you think the Bulldogs can win? They might could win series against Ole Miss, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and Auburn. But I am not confident at all they do. I could also easily see them getting swept by LSU, South Carolina, and Texas A&M. Getting to a regional is looking more and more like a long shot.

If the Bulldogs do pull out all four games, it could be the shot in the arm the team needs. They haven’t had a perfect weekend yet, and if they can pull one off this weekend, the surge in momentum might be enough to propel them to a decent SEC record.