Mississippi State Baseball Returns Lots of Old and New Talent
The foul lines have been chalked,
The tarp has been pulled,
The Lounge has been revived,
The Dude has been completed,
And baseball is back in Starkville, Mississippi. The 2019 Diamond Dawgs return to the field of play Friday after coming up a single game short of a College World Series Final appearance last season. An improbable run to Omaha began with State starting 2-7 in conference play and struggling to find answers or production under interim head coach Gary Henderson. But then something clicked, and suddenly, not only did the Dawgs find themselves in a regional, but they found themselves with a pair of wins at TD Ameritrade park in the CWS and a third place finish nationally. This year’s squad seeks to regain some of that magic and retain some of that moxie the 2018 squad had, except without maybe driving its fans bananas with early-season struggles.
Coach Gary Henderson was magician-like with the turnaround the 2018 team had, but the mantle of Head Coach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs has been taken up by Chris Lemonis, formerly of Indiana. Lemonis is regarded as one of the best recruiters in the nation, and had a lot to do with a Louisville team that has more wins than any other program over the last twelve years. State does return Jake Gautreau, a recruiting guru and player favorite, who will continue his hitting coach duties for the Bulldogs after a remarkable job of coaching last season. Lemonis poached NC State’s accomplished pitching coach Scott Foxhall, a former recruiting coordinator and a great hire.
The roster returns much of the production from a position-player standpoint. Leadoff hitter ake Mangum, of course, is a Golden Spikes Award candidate at centerfield who is in position to break the SEC record for career hits. His leadership is unmatched, and no position player in baseball has a bigger effect on the outcome of a game than Mangum. Rowdey Jordan returns to left field after a breakout freshman campaign. A switch hitter like his predecessor Mangum, Rowdey provides consistency and a bit of pop at the plate. Post-season hero Elijah MacNamee is back in right field for his senior season. After starting off slowly last season, he finished on a hot streak the likes of which is rarely seen in any sport. In terms of sheer production and “clutchness”, Mac was on another level when it meant the most in 2018. Tanner Allen is the second Bulldog to earn pre-season honors after Mangum, and the leftie fielded a near-perfect first base last season while leading the team in triples. Allen started every game last season. Justin Foscue is slated to start at third base this season. Foscue is one of five dynamic sophomores returning with significant innings under his belt for MSU, batting .241 with 45 hits in 2018. Banana Man Jordan Westburg replaces Luke Alexander at shortstop. Fans will remember his towering grand slam in State’s second CWS game. Dustin Skelton, who’s struggled as a hitter over his career but really picked things up down the stretch last season, will be back behind the plate for the Dawgs. Marshall Gilbert, who started 31 games, is also back in the lineup.
Newcomers Landon Jordan and Gunner Halter are fighting for the last infield spot at second base. Each hit for an average of over .440 during their last seasons of organized baseball. Halter owns a career JUCO average of .423 and Jordan batted .464 for four years of high school.
On the mound, potential early-round draft pick Ethan Small will be the Friday night starter. First round MLB draft pick and two-way player JT Ginn will be on the bump for Saturdays, and coach Lemonis announced that Keegan James finish out the weekend rotation for the Maroon and White. Small was arguably the most productive starter last season, even ahead of 81stoverall pick Konner Pilkington. The hard-throwing southpaw has staying power on the mound, and you’d like to him to go deep into games as a starter. Small posted a 3.20 ERA last season. Ginn racked up enough All-American honors in high school to fill up a trophy case. His ERA his senior year of high school was a mind-blowing 0.36. It’ll be interesting to see how the number 1 high school player’s talents translate to the SEC. Keegan James is the biggest question mark of the three, having returned from a devastating injury two seasons ago. He feels surer of himself coming into this season than he did in 2018. In relief, roller-coaster ride Cole Gordon is back for his final year. Cole found his stride late last season and seemed to figure out this whole pitching thing after coming to Starkville to play first base. Peyton Plumlee, Jared Liebelt, and Kale Breaux are notable upperclassmen relievers. Bryce Brock, Eric Cerantola, and Jack Eagan are newcomers that could shore up coach Foxhall’s staff this season. Riley Self, who should be fully healthy, is back to resume his elite closer status alongside the 2017 SEC leader in saves Spencer Price, who’s recovering from Tommy John surgery.
The Bulldogs were picked by SEC coaches to finish 6thin the SEC West this season, which more than anything shows skepticism of all the turnover that has happened within the Bulldog baseball program over the last 12 months. But a 3rd place overall team that returns seven starters and a number 5 overall recruiting class should be extremely competitive in the SEC. Some concerns would include the middle infield. With two new starters and two kids jockeying for position at second base, it remains to be seen if chemistry is an issue in the 4/6 hole. Starting pitching is talented, but at least somewhat unproven, and middle relief is up in the air. There is huge potential at both stations, but will the pieces fall into place? Keegan James still hasn’t demonstrated the ability to handle the job of an SEC starter between injury and struggles, but the talent is certainly there with him. But to the Bulldog’s credit, Small, Gordon, Price, and Self should be bright spots on the staff. Keeping Gautreau at home to continue to develop these hitters is huge for MSU. The production of Mangum+Jordan+Allen+MacNamee should be at a high level all season long, and the back end of the lineup isn’t any slouch either. Oh, and they just so happen to be playing in the most beautiful, state-of-the-art facility in the United States, a place that should find itself full of Bulldog faithful satisfied with the product Mississippi State baseball put onto the field.