Off The Bat: Mississippi State Wins Top 25 Showdown, Mountain West Starts Strong

Image credit: Mississippi State lefthander Ethan Small (Kelly Donoho, Mississippi State Athletics)

Teddy Cahill runs through the biggest storylines. To see the updated Top 25, click here.

Mississippi State Walks Off With Key Series Win

The last couple of years have elevated the rivalry between Mississippi State and Southern Mississippi. The 2017 season saw Southern Miss put together one of its best seasons in program history, only to be upset at home in the Hattiesburg Regional final by Mississippi State.

The next year, the two teams met again in Hattiesburg for an Opening Weekend series that the Golden Eagles swept. The drama spilled over into the next week, when Andy Cannizaro resigned as Mississippi State coach due to off-field indiscretions.

With that as the backdrop, No. 9 Mississippi State this weekend hosted No. 21 Southern Miss in a much-anticipated series at the new Dudy Noble Field. The series did not disappoint, as it came down to the final pitch Sunday when Tanner Allen ripped a two-out, walk-off double to give the Bulldogs a 4-3 victory and claim the series.

Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis only got to Starkville in July, hired away from Indiana, and wasn’t with the Bulldogs the last two years for their showdowns with the Golden Eagles, but he knew all about the series’ recent history. After beating Alabama-Birmingham, 3-2, on Wednesday, some of the Bulldogs mentioned how important this weekend was to them.

Lemonis said he and his coaching staff briefly addressed the series history then but didn’t dwell on it.

“We said this isn’t last year, this is a totally different team and they’re totally different,” Lemonis said. “We have to go out in between the lines and prove it.”

That’s exactly what Mississippi State did. After losing a taut pitchers’ duel on Friday night, 1-0, the Bulldogs bounced back Saturday with freshman righthander JT Ginn, an unsigned first rounder, on the mound for an 8-1 victory. Sunday’s rubber game was a back-and-forth affair that entered the final innings tied at 3.

After Southern Miss lefthander Ryan Och retired the first two batters of the bottom of the ninth, Jordan Westburg reached first base on an error. That brought to the plate Allen, who has gotten off to a strong start in his sophomore season. The slugger drove a double down the right field line and Westburg raced around to score from first.

Allen, a draft-eligible sophomore, is hitting .357/.438/.714 with four walks and two strikeouts. His 17 RBIs are more than double the second highest total on the team (8, Elijah MacNamee).

Allen had a solid freshman season but is taking it to a new level in the early going. He has especially worked on his plate discipline after last year striking out 62 times and walking 27. But Lemonis said he doesn’t worry much about Allen’s hitting ability.

“This kid falls out of bed and hits,” Lemonis said. “There’s a lot of work on approach with him and (assistant coach Jake Gautreau). Defense and base running is what we work on most with TA. On the hitting side, I just have to make sure he knows what time the game is. No moment is too big for TA.”

Mississippi State’s offense is still rounding into form, but its pitching staff has been outstanding in the first two weeks. The Bulldogs held the Golden Eagles’ potent offense to five runs on the weekend, with lefthander Ethan Small and Ginn leading the way.

In Friday’s opener, Small threw seven scoreless innings, struck out 13 and limited Southern Miss to one hit. The next day, Ginn threw seven scoreless innings, struck out nine and scattered two hits and one walk. The bullpen combined to hold Southern Miss to four runs in 11 innings. Righthander Keegan James struggled with his control and lasted just three innings Sunday, one of the few glitches in the pitching staff on the weekend.

Through seven games, Mississippi State has a 1.69 team ERA and a 90-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 64 innings. Lemonis credited a combination of the talent on the Bulldogs’ staff and pitching coach Scott Foxhall for the fast start.

“We played great defense and pitched well against a great lineup,” Lemonis said. “We commanded the strike zone. Some of our guys with power stuff, when they throw strikes and hit their spots, they’re tough to hit.”

Southern Miss, which fell to No. 23 in the Top 25 after the series loss, acquitted itself well in a hostile environment. Righthander Walker Powell went toe-to-toe with Small on Friday night, throwing 7.2 scoreless innings, striking out two batters, walking none and scattering five hits. Och, a redshirt freshman, followed with 2.1 scoreless innings of relief to earn his first career win.

While starters Stevie Powers and Mason Strickland struggled the next two days, Southern Miss showed off some impressive relievers such as Och, closer J.C. Keys and righthander Cody Carroll. The Golden Eagles remain without the services of Preseason All-American outfielder/righthander Matt Wallner on the mound due to a forearm strain. If he’s able to return and solidify one of the spots in the rotation or even give Southern Miss another power arm out of the bullpen, it would be a big boost to the pitching staff.

For both teams, however, this weekend was largely just a starting point. There is a lot of baseball still to be played this spring, and both teams are facing a tricky week ahead. Southern Miss on Tuesday hosts New Orleans and then welcomes consistent West Coast Conference contender Gonzaga to Pete Taylor Park on the weekend.

Mississippi State, meanwhile, has two midweek games at home before heading to the Frisco College Classic, where it will face Sam Houston State, No. 8 Texas Tech and Nebraska in what promises to be a regional-type environment.  

Lemonis is looking forward to seeing how the Bulldogs handle the test.

“We’re still learning about ourselves and how we’re trying to play as a group,” he said. “We’re going out to play against these three teams in a weekend that should be a marking stick, a resume builder for us.”

Nevada Leads Big Weekend For Mountain West

The Mountain West Conference last year had one of its best years since it lost Brigham Young, Texas Christian and Utah in the last round of conference realignment about a decade ago. The conference finished ninth in conference RPI, bolstered by a resurgence from Nevada and Nevada-Las Vegas.

The conference’s early returns in 2019 have been positive, as well. After two weekends, the conference’s seven teams are a combined 34-16, and they are all at least. 500.

This weekend saw Nevada, last year’s regular season champion, go on the road to sweep Long Beach State. The Wolf Pack (6-1) won three tight games by a combined score of 9-5, highlighted by a near no-hitter Friday night in a 1-0 victory.

Righthander Ryan Anderson threw seven hitless innings, striking out 11 and walking four. Righthander Shane Gustafson followed and threw a hitless eighth before a leadoff infield single ended the no-hit bid in the ninth. The Dirtbags went on to load the bases, but Gustafson escaped the threat to complete the shutout.

Nevada coach T.J. Bruce said he was proud of the way his team responded in a pressure-packed situation.

“Our guys did a really good job just staying present,” he said. “That’s hard to do, especially when it’s a tight game or when it’s a lopsided game.”

Long Beach has stumbled out of the gate against a very challenging schedule and is 0-7 to start the season. But for Nevada to get a sweep at Blair Field was a significant result, something Bruce, who played and coached at Long Beach, knows well.

“Anytime you go on the road and win the weekend is big, but to go on the road and sweep is a huge deal,” he said. “It’s going to pay dividends down the road. Everyone knows what Long Beach is. It’s a great program, and I can’t say enough about their staff and the way they’re coached.”

The rest of the conference produced as well. Fresno State (5-1) went 3-0 in the Tony Gwynn Legacy Tournament, beating Utah, Cal State Fullerton and Missouri State. San Diego State (5-2), one of the hosts of the tournament, went 2-1 with wins against Utah and Kansas State and a 1-0 loss to Oklahoma. New Mexico (5-3) built on a solid Opening Weekend with a series win against Niagara. San Jose State (5-2) won a series against UC Riverside, UNLV (4-4) pushed No. 7 Stanford to the brink, and Air Force (4-3) won its series against Navy for the fourth time in six years.

“It’s a great baseball conference with ultra-competitive teams,” Bruce said. “It’s a grind every single day in our conference. That’s a tribute to the coaches and players. It’s a battle, and we’re fortunate to be a part.”

Nevada, which went 29-24 last year, again figures to be in the thick of the conference race. The Wolf Pack has a talented, albeit inexperienced rotation, with Anderson (2-0, 0.75) and freshmen righthanders Owen Sharts (2-0, 2.13) and Tyler Smith (0-1, 2.79). Their bullpen, with Gustafson and righthander Bradley Bonnefant leading the way, has been solid so far.

Offensively, Nevada is paced by fifth-year senior outfielder Weston Hatten and third baseman Joshua Zamora, the 2018 Mountain West freshman of the year. Hatten is off to an exceptional start and is hitting .455/.613/.636, while Zamora has been a catalyst at the top of the order and is hitting .375/.444/.531.

Nevada is built more around pitching and defense than a powerful offense, but with Hatten and Zamora leading the way, it should be able to keep pace even with the more offensive Mountain West teams. Just as importantly, Bruce said the Wolf Pack has done a good job of taking ownership of the team.

“We talk about leadership, and they’ve done a really good job,” he said. “I feel like we’ve got 33 leaders on our team. Home, road, any environment, it’s fun to watch these guys compete.”

Eight for Omaha

Florida, Florida State, Louisiana State, North Carolina, Stanford, Texas Tech, UCLA, Vanderbilt

Again, no changes to the field this week. Mississippi State impressed this weekend and has been just outside the field since I first predicted the College World Series field in July. But after just two weeks, I’m not ready to make any changes. We should know more after this weekend, as many teams take a step up in level of difficulty in the season’s third weekend.

Weekend Standouts

Six players or programs who put together big weekends.

Cal Baptist: The Lancers are reclassifying from Division II to Division I and won’t be postseason eligible until 2022, but they’re off to the best start in the country. CBU swept a four-game series against Ohio to improve to 9-0, becoming the first team in the nation to reach nine wins. Oregon State, the defending national champion, is 8-0, while six schools have a 7-0 mark.

Kendrick Calilao, 1B, Florida: The freshman put together an impressive weekend in his first taste of Florida’s rivalry with Miami. Calilao went 7-for-12 with six RBIs in the three-game series and on Sunday celebrated his 19th birthday with his first career home run in the Gators’ 4-1, series-clinching victory. Calilao is hitting .435/.563/.739 with seven walks and four strikeouts in eight games this season.

Jake Miller, RHP, San Diego: The freshman extended his scoreless innings streak to begin his career to 13 innings with four scoreless innings Sunday against Utah. He threw two scoreless innings in his debut last weekend against Wagner, threw seven scoreless Tuesday against Long Beach and then made an emergency start Sunday. Miller has struck out 11 batters and scattered three hits and six walks.

Ryan Shinn, OF, Kentucky: After getting swept, most of the Wildcats may prefer to forget this weekend’s trip to No. 8 Texas Tech, but Shinn is coming out of the series red hot at the plate. The senior went 6-for-8 with three doubles, a home run and was hit by a pitch four times. He reached base in his first seven plate appearances of the series and in 10 straight plate appearances, a streak that dated back to last Sunday at Austin Peay State. Shinn is hitting .474/.583/.895 this season.

Noah Song, RHP, Navy: Song was dominant Friday in a 2-1 victory against Air Force in Kinston, N.C. The senior recorded the first 10 outs of the game via strikeout and finished the night with 14 punchouts in six scoreless innings. In four career appearances (three starts) against rival Air Force, Song is a combined 3-0, 0.00 with 47 strikeouts and has held the Falcons to six walks and 10 hits in 21 innings.

Tennessee: The Volunteers swept Indiana to improve to 7-0, giving them back-to-back sweeps to start the season for the first time since 2014. After throwing four straight shutouts to begin the year, Tennessee finally gave up a run Friday against Indiana and trailed Sunday for the first time all season. In the end, the Vols ran roughshod over the Hoosiers, outscoring them by a combined margin of 21-4.

Looking Ahead

Three weekend series we’re most excited for

(2) Louisiana State at (19) Texas: Long circled on the calendar, this series has only gotten more intriguing since the season began. LSU is a perfect 7-0 but will be facing a much stiffer test as it hits the road for the first time. Texas (6-2) has two quality series wins—at Louisiana-Lafayette and at home against Purdue—but this will be a step up as two of college baseball’s blue bloods go at it.

(7) Stanford at Cal State Fullerton: This annual series has a little more juice to it after the last two years, in which Fullerton has gone to the Stanford Regional and beaten the hosts in the final in back-to-back seasons. The Cardinal (6-1) and Titans (4-2) are both off to strong starts, and this weekend should be a good measuring stick for both teams.

(14) Clemson vs. South Carolina: It is perhaps college baseball’s best rivalry, played across the Palmetto State with a home game for both teams bookending a neutral-site showdown in Greenville, S.C. Clemson (6-1) has had the upper hand in recent years, winning the series in four straight seasons. South Carolina (6-1) will be looking to snap that streak and make a statement this weekend.

Two weekend tournaments to watch

Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic in Houston: Annually the biggest non-conference tournament of the year delivers again this season. This year’s tournament has an all-Texas field, as No. 16 Baylor, Houston, Rice, Texas A&M, No. 24 Texas Christian and Texas State head to Minute Maid Park. The tournament features a showdown between rivals Texas A&M and TCU, a series which has produced several classic games in recent years, including a 15-inning marathon in the 2017 Shriners College Classic. The event also will showcase some premium pitchers, including Preseason All-Americans Matt Canterino (Rice) and Nick Lodolo (TCU), as well as Baylor’s Cody Bradford, Texas A&M’s John Doxakis and Asa Lacy and TCU’s Brandon Williamson, all of whom could be to be top-five round draft picks over the next two years.

Frisco College Classic: With No. 8 Texas Tech, No. 9 Mississippi State, Nebraska and Sam Houston State coming to Dr. Pepper Ballpark, the Frisco College Classic has put together another strong field. The highlight will be Texas Tech and Mississippi State’s showdown on Saturday night, but the whole weekend will have a regional feel. Sam Houston State (5-1) is off to a strong start, while Nebraska (3-5) is looking to bounce back after getting swept by Oregon State.

One midweek game to keep an eye on

North Carolina State at Campbell, Wednesday, 5 p.m. ET: The Wolfpack are off to a 7-0 start and coming off an impressive weekend at Coastal Carolina’s Baseball at the Beach Tournament. Campbell (5-2) has also started the year well and last week picked up a quality midweek win against No. 11 East Carolina. As they did against the Pirates, the Camels will likely turn to powerful righthander Seth Johnson, a converted infielder whose fastball last week touched 98 mph, to try to shut down the Wolfpack. Seeing how Johnson handles NC State’s big bats, especially Preseason All-Americans Patrick Bailey (.321/.429/.571, HR) and Will Wilson (.400/.486/.800, 3 HR), will make for a fun Wednesday.

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