Mississippi State is doing things differently this season—and it’s working.
The character of a college baseball team can change dramatically from year to year. Heck, the 2018 Mississippi State squad can show you how a team can turn 180° from the beginning to the end of the same season. Despite returning 7 of 9 starting position players and 3 more semi-starters, 2019’s Bulldogs are very different from what we saw this time last year. For starters, their 8-1 beginning to the 2019 campaign certainly has the Dawgs headed in the right direction compared to last season. But the improved record isn’t all that’s changed. New head coach Chris Lemonis has State doing a lot of things differently than Gary Henderson did last season. There are several evidences for the turnaround, but one has been of the aggressive base running that Mississippi State has displayed through 9 games. Coach Lemonis commands a club that has stolen 12 bases in 14 attempts in the first 9 contests of the season. Compared to last year’s start, when State swiped only 4 bases in 9 games, this year’s base-stealing philosophy has been totally revolutionized. But steals aren’t the only thing that indicate the Dawgs’ new aggressive strategies. In Wednesday’s contest against Southeastern Louisiana, Rowdey Jordan hit a ball to left center field. It wasn’t particularly deep, and was in the part of the outfield closest to second base. However, these facts didn’t prevent Jordan from chugging right around first base and sliding under the tag at second without hesitation. (In that same inning, Jordan stole third while Gunner Halter stole second. Mississippi State attempted 0 double steals in the first 9 games last season). Jake Mangum has 5 doubles on the season, and nary a one of them were ones he didn’t have to leg out—most players would’ve been satisfied with the singles in these cases. But Jake, whose always been aggressive and fleet on the base pass, won’t be denied extra bases if he thinks he can get them. The moment of the season so far, Tanner Allen’s walk-off double against Southern Miss to take the series last Sunday, doesn’t happen if not for this new eager style of taking bags MSU has had. Jordan Westburg, who had just taken a hard foul ball of the left shin, had to hustle down the first base line on a sore left leg to beat out an errant throw to first. As soon as Allen made contact, Westburg was headed for third and was waved around towards the plate—sore leg be danged—and was able to slide into home and slide State into a series win. Of course, moving up the base pass in perilous situations is a gamble that sometimes comes up snake eyes for the Bulldogs. Jordan was thrown out trying to stretch out another double in the same game he accomplished the feat. This time on a right field ground ball, Jordan was gunned down with room to spare by the SELA right fielder. Against Jackson State, Elijah MacNamee tried to turn a standup double into a triple, and at first it appeared that he had beaten the tag at third base. Replay review, however, showed that he had made a mistake in attempting to take the penultimate base after his easy double. Despite these slip-ups, the Bulldogs have been mostly successful when they get greedy on the bases, and the offensive numbers from this time last season can’t begin to compare. State is averaging 8.9 runs per game, up from 5.7 last season. Of course, the Diamond Dawgs are hitting the ball much better as well, but the change in habits from last season to this season is as impactful as it is drastic. Putting pressure on a defense to get hitters out before those dangerous runners reach base can cause problems for fielders. Making pitchers throw to first to try and hold runners on not only disrupts a pitcher’s rhythm, but errors on the sequence have already resulted once this season in bringing Mangum from first to third and eventually all the way home. A leadoff single is a great start for an offense, but stretching that base knock into a two-bagger makes it almost difficult not to score a run. It’s not everybody’s preference, but it’d be hard to argue that this new aggression on the base pass hasn’t been a positive change from a year ago for State.
Mississippi State plays Sam Houston State today at MinuteMaid Park in Friscoe, Texas, at 3:00 pm. State faces Texas Tech at the same venue Saturday at 4, and finishes the trip with Nebraska at 11 am Sunday.