In 2017 the Mississippi State baseball team was very successful in doing more with less. Finishing the season ranked 14th in the nation was not a surprise with the talent that was on the team. But, for many Bulldog fans it was a great accomplishment knowing the challenges they faced throughout the season, with a depleted pitching staff and a batting order that showed periods of inconsistence throughout the season.
In 2018 the Bulldogs are going to have to maximize their potential, both on the mound and at the plate, in order to make it to a Super Regional. This year Mississippi State will have a complete bullpen to work with, unlike last year’s team that struggled down the stretch due to several injuries to starting pitchers leaving few options on the mound. Pitching injuries left the Bulldogs in a situation that did not match-up with tournament play and it showed in both the Hattiesburg and Super regionals. At one point in the SEC tournament, the Bulldogs had a little fun with their situation and let the nation’s best hitter, Brent Rooker, close out the final inning of that series on the mound. But, I wouldn’t get my hopes up to see him on the mound anytime soon in the majors.
This year the Bulldogs have a solid pitching staff led by Konnor Pilkington, who will most likely be the Friday starter this season. Pilkington started 17 games last season and finished the year with a 8 and 5 record and an overall 3.08 Earned Run Average (ERA). He is a solid starter that tends to get into the later innings. Another pitcher that picked up steam towards the end of the 2017 season was Jacob Billingsley, who finished out the season with several strong starts and a complete game against Southern Miss in the Hattiesburg Regional. Word has it he has been very impressive so far this pre-season and should pick up where he left off last year. On a sad note, Spencer Price will not be in the closer rotation this season due to injury, yet closer Riley Self is back and should be a key leader in that role for the Bulldogs. This leaves the Bulldogs in a good position on the mound and could very well be their strong point this season depending on how the batting order performs at the plate
Yes, it is true Mississippi State lost nearly 50 percent of its run production in the losses of Brent Rooker, Ryan Gridley, and Cody Brown. It will be nearly impossible for another group of three to match those stats this season. But, it is possible for the team to make up that margin across the batting order as a whole. It all starts with Jake Mangum, who will most likely be the leadoff hitter for the Bulldogs this season. Mangum was the only other hitter on the roster to hit for over 300 and I believe he will do much better this season. In 2017 it just seemed that the batting order never seemed to maximize the potential of the hitters, For instance Brent Rooker was a tremendous hitter for both power and average, but was slotted in the second position of the line up behind Mangum. This was done to increase the opportunity of having runners on base when he came to bat and to get more at bats, which is understandable. Yet this strategy also put the best two hitters on the team together in the line-up, allowing pitchers to throw around them. This is where the development of the lineup is so important in order to protect your best hitters so they can be most effective. I think for the Bulldogs to push for any type of championship this season they will have to be more consistent and hit for average across the board. This team does not have the long ball power to reach 59 home runs like they did in 2017. The Bulldogs will have to generate runs by putting together hits and smart base running to fill that void this season. If this can be done then hitters like Mangum will have the protection needed for an all American year at the plate.
As for the long ball there are always those that seem to find the center of the bat more than others on every team and the Bulldogs will be no different. Look for increased power production for Elijah MacNamee, Hunter Vansau, and Freshman Josh Hatcher. I would not be surprised to see the trio to break the 20 home run mark this season with a few more from the remaining line up. Just to remind everyone, Brent Rooker hit 23 last year and lead the SEC in home runs, which earned him the SEC player of the year and the Triple Crown which was only the second in SEC history behind Mississippi State’s own Rafael Palmeiro in 1984.
The most important key to a championship this season is staying healthy. Baseball is becoming one of the most injury stricken sports and the Bulldogs have had their fair share. If Mississippi State can keep their players healthy and maintain a solid bullpen then there is no reason they don’t reach a super-regional this year, and possibly a College World Series appearance. All the tools needed to win a championship are there, so let’s get ready for some baseball and GO DAWGS!!!!!!