As most of you bulldog fans know, the #1 Florida Gators are the Diamond Dogs’ final opponent of the season tonight-Saturday. Mississippi State and Florida have had some really competitive baseball series in the past with a lot of tension rising between the two teams, especially under Cohen and O’Sullivan. Perhaps one of my favorite moments in Mississippi State baseball history was the Nick Vickerson walk-off home-run against the Gators in Game 2 of the 2011 Super Regional at Florida. Both coaches spent a lot of time arguing back and forth during the series and at one point Coach O ’Sullivan came out and gator chomped at the Mississippi State dugout, so to see this home-run after that was thoroughly enjoyable for the moment (2 things I hate more than Ole Miss sports- Kentucky basketball and Florida baseball). However, the Gators did turn around and take Game 3 securing their spot in Omaha that year.
Here’s the video for those who would also enjoy seeing this gem again.
The Florida Gators enter this game with the #1 pitching staff in the SEC with a team ERA of 3.19 led by Junior RHP Brady Singer, the team’s ace, who is (10-1) on the year with an ERA of 2.25. Opposing teams are only hitting .227 on average against this elite pitching staff, which is a huge reason why the team is #1 in the country with a 41-12 overall record. The Gator pitching staff also includes one of the nation’s best closers in Junior RHP Michael Byrne, who has 12 saves on the year with an ERA of 1.29 and striking out 42 on the season as compared to only walking 4. One thing the Diamond Dogs need to be able to do is find a way to gain an early lead and keep it, because when Florida goes to the bullpen for Byrne with a lead, it normally ends well for the Gators.
The Florida Gators could be better at the plate, having the fifth-best batting average in the SEC at .287, but they are also second in the conference in home-runs with 76 on the year. They have three guys in the top-10 of the category (India, Dalton, and Schwarz), who have all hit double-digit bombs on the season. However, the Diamond Dogs have been really good at not giving up the long balls this year. The Mississippi State pitching staff is second in the conference in home-runs allowed (31) whereas even the best pitching staff in the conference, the Gators, have given up the fourth most (43). Maybe we could see Mr. Luke Alexander have another huge hit for the dogs this weekend...
For most baseball fans around the country, this will be a David-Goliath match-up this weekend, but Mississippi State fans have seen these Diamond Dogs take down two top-3 teams in the country at the New Dude including our up-state rivals (who we have now won 10 of the last 12 against, but who’s counting), and so why does this weekend have to be different? After all, it was David who slayed Goliath. So how do we have a chance?
Well, again we have won series against two highly touted teams in Ole Miss and Arkansas and stood toe to toe with another in Texas A&M here on our home field. Dudy Noble Field is not an easy place for teams to play with the atmosphere you fans bring each and every game and the dogs’s record has proven that. The Diamond Dogs are (13-7) at home, (6-6) home record in SEC play, but are going against a Florida team with an (8-4) away record in SEC play. Something’s got to give and Florida is definitely the better team, but in sports you always have to consider who has more to play for and in this case it is the Mississippi State bulldogs. With a Florida win, the bulldogs could keep their postseason hopes alive heading into the SEC tournament, but a Florida SERIES win would more than likely clinch a postseason birth for the bulldogs. What better way to end a season?!
Another thing to add about this weekend is this will probably be the last time we see Jake Mangum, Konnor Pilkington, and quite possibly some other guys like Hunter Stovall play at Dudy Noble Field. If a postseason birth was not enough to play for, then you definitely have to think their last time in from of the maroon faithful would be enough inspiration to come ready to play some of their best ball this weekend. Jake Mangum has yet again been one of main catalysts of this baseball team, hitting .342 with 76 hits (leads SEC) and 45 runs scored (leads team in all three categories) and of course fielding as well as anyone with a .986 fielding percentage in centerfield (only two errors all year). Pilkington has been the bulldogs’ ace all year long, but has not had the best luck this season with a 2-6 record and 4.31 ERA. On a better note, teams are only hitting .260 against Konnor and he has recorded 80 K’s to 20 BB’s on the year, which are pretty good pitching numbers. We need him ready to go Friday night, hoping he can settle in before we venture into possible postseason play.
But what are some other things we will need to fix for this weekend? Well, there are three things we have been terrible at all year compared to other teams in the league that we need to address going into this weekend.
Number one: Striking Out Looking- Mississippi State is second in the conference in batters striking out looking (146) this year. Going against a pitching staff as strong as Florida’s, the bulldogs cannot be scared to swing the bats because these guys are going to be pitching strikes consistently as a unit. The bulldogs need to be ready to swing and make things happen early on in the ball game. Often times we have had key moments where the dogs could have capitalized in key situations, but the bats did not come off of the shoulders.
Number two: Mississippi State is number one in the SEC in wild pitches (63) and number three in the SEC in hit batters (51). Mississippi State cannot give the #1 team in the country any help in moving around the bases this series, so these guys have hopefully worked a lot on their control this week building up to these games. With it being the last series at home, there are going to be a lot of nerves to go out in a winning fashion, but hopefully Henderson can talk to his staff to get them comfortable enough to go out there and play like they have the last three series at Dudy Noble Field.
Number Three: The bulldogs are last in the conference in RBI’s (258) despite leading the SEC in At-Bats, but these last three-four weeks have shown signs of moving away from that. Obviously, a team must be able to score runs to win games and going against a stout pitching staff makes that even harder. But these bulldogs are playing their best baseball when it matters and I think the dogs can get it done.
The Diamond Dogs have also done a lot of things right, especially over these last couple of weeks. The bulldogs actually have more players hitting over the .300 mark in their starting lineup with three guys (Mangum- .342, Stovall- .332, and Jordan- .304) to Florida’s two (India- .383 and Schwarz- .333). Both teams have most of their starters hitting above the .250 mark with Mississippi State’s lone exception being Luke Alexander (.212), but Luke is also the team’s leader in home runs (6) and makes up for a lot of that in the field with great play as well. Mississippi State has seen a lot of its players’ batting averages increase over the past few series, especially with the bulldog freshmen. Let’s hope this continues!
The Bulldogs also lead the SEC in doubles (116) and are third in the SEC in triples (12), meaning the bulldogs do really well in getting the clutch extra-base hits you need in ball games. However, they are also last in home runs with 27 compared to Florida’s 76, but again hoping our pitching staff can continue to do a well job of avoiding the long balls this weekend. Mississippi State just has to look to their junior leaders in Mangum and Stovall to get the dogs off to a hot start with some clutch extra-base hits to get Florida pitchers unsettled early and often.
Upon conclusion, this Mississippi State baseball team has found itself in the latter half of the year, but the team faces its strongest opponent of the season here at the finish. The Gators are definitely the number one team in the country for a reason, but coming through Dudy Noble Field is no easy task and the bulldogs need us fans to continue to make that known by showing up tonight through Saturday. It is the final time we will get to see one of the bulldogs’ greatest players to ever hit the diamond play at Dudy Noble Field, Jake Mangum, and how awesome would it be to come make the New Dude the loudest it’s been all year for the finale of this awesome individual’s playing career at home. Finally, I hate the Gators and O’Sullivan and that should offer some more incentive to come out and watch. HAIL STATE! Slimy out.