After Tough 2022, Revamped Mississippi State Starting To Find Footing

Image credit: Mississippi State second baseman Amani Larry (Photo courtesy of Mississippi State)

Mississippi State fans on Saturday packed Dudy Noble Field, filling it with 14,320 fans, the seventh-largest crowd in program history. They went home happy that evening, having cheered the Bulldogs on to a 5-1 victory against Arizona State.

For any college baseball game outside of the College World Series, that’s a massive crowd. And it didn’t come with Mississippi State hosting a rival or a ranked opponent or even a conference foe. In fact, it came after a disappointing 3-3 start to the season, having just lost, 13-4, the previous night.

Such is the love and interest for baseball at Mississippi State. That kind of support does a lot for the Bulldogs—it’s a big part of the reason why Dudy Noble Field underwent a $68 million rebuild five years ago—but it also means that expectations for the program are always sky high. And those expectations can weigh on a team, especially one trying to find itself in the early going.

But on Saturday night, the crowd helped lift Mississippi State to a 5-1 victory. The Bulldogs cruised to a 16-3 win Sunday to clinch the series against Arizona State and on Tuesday won a back-and-forth affair against No. 25 Southern Mississippi at Trustmark Park, home of Double-A Mississippi.

As the calendar flips to March and Mississippi State this weekend heads to Texas for the Frisco Classic to take on Ohio State, Oklahoma and California, the Bulldogs (6-3) are starting to find their footing. They still need to grow as a team to be able to compete in the SEC West and beyond, but being able to string together a few wins and rally late for a win against Southern Miss has them in a good spot as they head into another tough test.

“It gives us some momentum going into the weekend,” coach Chris Lemonis said. “We have a tough matchup on Friday night. They’ve got a really good arm going against us.

“Hopefully, it’s something we can build on.”

Mississippi State is coming off a difficult 2022. On the heels of winning the first national championship in program history, the Bulldogs went 26-30, finishing with a losing record and missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. There were some bright moments—Mississippi State won back-to-back series against Auburn and archrival Mississippi in April—but they dealt with some difficult injuries and finished the season in a deep slump, losing their last 11 SEC games and 12 of their last 13 games overall.

In response to the 2022 season, Lemonis and Mississippi State hit the recruiting trail hard. The Bulldogs had a strong traditional recruiting class committed and worked hard to hold it together through the draft, ending up with the No. 9 class in the country. The Bulldogs also went to work in the transfer portal, adding several impactful players with the fourth-ranked transfer class.

The result was a revamped roster. Mississippi State has 27 newcomers on its roster—14 freshmen and 13 transfers—and those players are making their presence felt. A trio of newcomers are regulars in the lineup—outfielders Colton Ledbetter (Samford) and Dakota Jordan (freshman) and second baseman Amani Larry (New Orleans). On the mound, Mississippi State has used 17 pitchers. All but four are newcomers.

The results, to this point, have been mixed. There’s been some real standouts like Ledbetter (.400/.533/.800, 3 HR, 7 SB) and Larry (.371/.489/.629, 2 HR, 4 SB), who are the Bulldogs’ top two hitters and bring dynamism to the lineup. Righthanders Landon Gartman (1-0, 4.50) and Nate Dohm (1-1, 0.00, 1 SV) have been the team’s most reliable pitchers after transferring from Memphis and Ball State, respectively. Lefthander Graham Yntema (1-0, 2.45), a junior college transfer, and freshman switch-pitcher Jurrangelo Cijntje (2-0, 0.00) have shown exciting upside and this week join Gartman in the rotation.

But other newcomers are still finding their way in Starkville—something that’s to be expected just two weeks into the season. No matter how they’ve done to this point, all the newcomers have had to deal with the pressure that comes from playing at Mississippi State.

“They’re all new,” Lemonis said. “There’s a pressure on them, so many transfers and new guys.”

Mississippi State is hoping to mirror the turnarounds experienced by division foes Auburn and Texas A&M a year ago. In 2021, the Tigers and Aggies finished sixth and seventh in the SEC West standings, finishing well outside the NCAA Tournament picture. Both teams revamped their rosters through the transfer portal that offseason and rebounded in a big way in 2022. A&M went from worst to first in the SEC West, winning 10 more conference games, and Auburn improved by six wins in SEC play. Both the Tigers and Aggies finished the season in Omaha.

While the end results were spectacular, there were plenty of hiccups along the way for both Auburn and A&M. Auburn lost a home series to Middle Tennessee State. A&M posted back-to-back losing weekends against Pennsylvania and in the Frisco Classic, part of a three-week stretch when it went 6-6 leading up to the start of SEC play.

The lesson is that while teams can dramatically revamp their rosters and get better from one season to the next in the transfer portal era, it does take time for those teams to gel and their development might not be linear.

Mississippi State has yet to suffer a bad weekend result along the lines of what Auburn and A&M experienced last season. But it’s still had its share of embarrassing losses. On Opening Weekend, the Bulldogs held a 10-1 lead after two innings against Virginia Military Institute and went on to lose, 14-13. A few days later, Louisiana-Monroe held an 11-0 lead at the seventh-inning stretch in Starkville and went on to an 11-5 victory. Then there was the 13-4 loss last Friday to Arizona State.

The through line in all of Mississippi State’s losses had been a bad day on the mound and in both the loss to VMI and Arizona State the Bulldogs walked 12 batters. But it’s not just one thing that has plagued the Bulldogs early. They’re fielding .952 as a team, No. 243 nationally, and while they’re averaging 9.67 runs per game (29th nationally), they’ve also had stretches where their bats have gone silent.

Like most teams at this time of year, the Bulldogs are still working through some kinks. The difference is, they are doing so with the added expectations that come with playing for Mississippi State and against the backdrop of last season’s disappointments.  

“We need some consistent efforts,” Lemonis said. “We’re playing good because we are getting good efforts. The next day we come out and we’ll have a hole here or a hole there.”

Building consistency is one of the keys to every baseball season. Now, having won three straight games, Mississippi State will look to do just that against solid competition in Frisco.

Ohio State lefthander Isaiah Coupet (1-1, 0.69) is climbing draft boards with his strong start to the season. Cal (6-1) is flying high to start the season and has already beaten Connecticut and Stanford. Oklahoma (4-4) is in a similar position to Mississippi State with a young team still trying to find itself.

As early season measuring sticks go, playing that trio of teams on a neutral site is about as much as Mississippi State could ask for. Lemonis will come away from the weekend having learned a lot about the Bulldogs.

One thing he’s already seen is that they are always ready to compete. Mississippi State has responded to every loss so far this season by coming out and winning the next game, never letting the previous day’s disappointments fester.

“Our kids just keep fighting,” Lemonis said. “We’re not perfect right now. We’re not playing clean enough, walking too many, making some errors, but they’re competing. As we grow as a team, hopefully we’ll clean some of that stuff up.”

At the beginning of March, that’s really all you can ask of a team like Mississippi State. There are big tests to come over the next three months. But the Bulldogs’ mentality gives them a chance to keep improving and rise to meet those challenges.

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