STARKVILLE, Miss. (WTVA/MSU Athletics) - With Year Two of the Andy Cannizaro Era swiftly approaching, the Mississippi State head baseball coach, along with Preseason All-Americans Jake Mangum and Konnor Pilkington met with the media on Tuesday afternoon to preview the 2018 season.
The Diamond Dawgs have so for been ranked in all six major preseason top 25 polls. MSU is ranked No. 12 by D1 Baseball, No. 13 by Collegiate Baseball, No. 15 by USA Today, No. 17 by NCBWA, No. 23 by Baseball America and No. 25 by Perfect Game.
State is coming off a 40-27 year in 2017 that included a NCAA Regional Championship in year one of the Andy Cannizaro Era. On Friday, Feb. 16, MSU will open the 2018 season on the very field at which the regional title was won, Pete Taylor Park in Hattiesburg, Miss.
Fans will have opportunities to meet the 2018 Diamond Dawgs prior to Opening Day at a pair of free events on MSU’s campus. Fan Day is set for Sunday, Feb. 11, while Cowbell Yell will take place on Tuesday, Feb. 13.
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2018 Preseason Honors
Jake Mangum – OF – Third Team Preseason All-American (D1 Baseball, NCBWA, Perfect Game)
Konnor Pilkington – SP – Second Team Preseason All-American (Baseball America, Collegiate Baseball, NCBWA, Perfect Game), Third Team Preseason All-American (D1 Baseball)
Spencer Price – RP – Third Team Preseason All-American (Collegiate Baseball)
Media Day Quotes
Head Coach Andy Cannizaro
“Thanks everyone for being here today. It is extremely exciting when you get to this part of the year. It is college baseball season. We are excited to get everything started next weekend against an outstanding Southern Mississippi team. We have been extremely busy and hard at work these last couple of weeks since we have been able to get back together as a team. I feel like we have been able to accomplish some outstanding things the last couple of weeks in terms of getting our guys ready to play. This season is going to create such a unique opportunity for us with us not being able to play our first home game until March 6th this season. So, obviously you would like to start the season maybe in a little different fashion than we are this year, but at the same time, every single think that we talk about here in this program is embracing the opportunity, embracing what we have ahead of us. We have known all year long that we will be starting this season out on the road. I think our guys have rallied around that in terms of bringing it each and every day ad preparing 35 guys to open the season on the road this year for so much and so long of a period. I feel like we have an outstanding team in terms of makeup and character. Guys with physical and mental toughness that are going to be able to withstand being on the road for such a long part of the early season this year. In terms of guys that we are really going to be counting on, we have got some extremely battled-tested guys who have been through the wars of the SEC and have been through winning the SEC and winning 40 games and going to back to back supper regionals and playing in front of 10,12,15 or 20,000 people. That type of thing and obviously these two guys that we have sitting up here right now are a testament to what I am talking about. Our guys have worked extremely hard. They get after it each and every day. I love where we are in terms of what we have going on on the mound right now. We are going to welcome back several outstanding arms to our rotation this year. I am looking forward to those guys either competing for weekend or mid-week starting roles or those fitting right there in the middle or the back-end of our bullpen and are going to be able to give us outstanding options in terms of elongating our pitching staff which we did not have a year ago. Position player wise, I feel like we have some outstanding veterans that are back this year that are ready to have outstanding junior college baseball seasons. Jake Mangum obviously leads that group for us. He has had a terrific fall. He has had an outstanding last couple of weeks of the season. He has done a tremendous job as far as reading our team so far and trying to get some younger guys ready to play each and every day. Guys like Hunter Stovall, Luke Alexander, Elijah MacNamee and Hunter Vansau, those guys are a core that play each and every day last year and went through the battles of the SEC to win 40 and get to a Super Regional. Having those guys back has been able to allow us some veteran presence and some veteran leadership that is out on the practice field each and every day for us. We are extremely excited for the 2018 season. We feel like we have an extremely competitive ball club. We feel like we are going to be outstanding on the mound this year in terms of weekend starters certainly lead by Konnor Pilkington who I think has been a pre-season All American in every publication imaginable. He has certainly deserved each and every honor he has received this preseason. His work has been outstanding, his last couple of starts have been great. We are certainly going to lean on Konnor heavily this year just like we did a year ago, each and every Friday night to get us deep in the ball games and give us chances to win on Friday nights in the most competitive league, amateur baseball conference in the world. With that, obviously we are excited to be here. It is college baseball season. We look forward to a terrific season and getting things cranked up next Friday at Southern Mississippi. It is going to be a tremendous challenge for us, but I think it is one that we are certainly ready for and look forward to getting after.”
On who is expected to be in the starting pitching rotation…
“I had just mentioned earlier that Konnor is going to pitch every Friday night for us. He is a guy that has been outstanding for two years here. He made 17 starts last year on Friday nights which is incredible. He is better this year than he was a year ago. The secondary stuff is better. His breaking ball, his change-up, his fast ball command, he is a guy has continued to get better and better with each and every bullpen he has thrown with coach Henderson*. I think this past summer, being a part of the collegiate national team, Team USA, did Konnor a lot of good in terms of just being around some of the best pitchers in the country and learning what it is going to take each and every day to be great. So I think that’s an opportunity where he had to go out there and push himself and really compete. He has been able to take that back here this fall and this early part of the spring and he is outstanding. In terms of a Saturday/Sunday starter, Ethan Small has been outstanding as well. He is another 6’4 lefty with a mid-90’s fast ball, nice breaking ball, feel for change-up, has refined his mechanics and arm action to where he has become a strike thrower. We have had a lot of confidence in Ethan. Ethan is a guy who missed the entire 2017 season last year with Tommy-John surgery. He is a guy that pitched 10-innings, I believe, as a freshman and struck out 20 guys and I think he was up to 97 or 98 maybe as a freshman that year. He is a guy that has been working, 90/94 each and every outing so far. He is another guy that we have tremendous confidence in. In terms of a one two punch right now with a Pilkington and a Small, I think when you are talking about two 6’4 lefties that are going to run the ball in the mid-90’s with nice secondary stuff and strike throwers, I think that is an outstanding one two punch when it comes to running those guys out there on back to back days. Sunday starter is certainly up in the air right now. We have several outstanding options. We have senior, Jacob Billingsley that is certainly competing for that role. JB has been outstanding. His velocity is up this year. His secondary stuff is better as well. He is a guy, last year, that coming into the season that had 10 career innings before he did what he did for us a year ago. So, he is better. He had an outstanding summer in the Cape. He is another guy who has gotten better each and every time he has been out to the mound. I think Billingsley is a guy that is going to compete for that type of spot. Cole Gordon is another guy who could certainly compete for that Sunday rotation spot. Transfer Zach Neff, a lefty from Austin Peay, a transfer from Tulane by the name of JP France, I think those guys are going to be in the mix for that Sunday spot. Then if you rewind the clock back a year, we were basically a year ago only able to tell you guys that Konnor Pilkington was pitching on Friday. After that, your guess was as good as ours. So, this year, we feel like we have an outstanding pool of applicants that are going to be able to take the ball every Friday, Saturday, Sunday and really do a tremendous job in helping us win ball games.”
Junior LHP Konnor Pilkington
On the mindset of the team
“We can be as good as we think we can be. This is a team that pushes each other. I see these guys every day, the work ethic and the confidence that this team has. It’s not like it was the last two years. We had big-name guys come through here the last two years, but it’s the confidence and the make-up of this team that gets us to the next level. We’re going to take it one game at a time, one pitch at a time. With all that being said, you can’t look at the big picture, you can’t look at Omaha. You have to look at it as we’re starting off in Hattiesburg that Friday night and go from there. We’re going to take it one game at a time. Everybody has that mindset right now.”
Junior OF Jake Mangum
On why he returned to MSU for his junior season
“[We have gone] 0-4 in super regionals. There was no way I was going to leave after that. We went 0-2 at home and then 0-2 on the road. I’m not ending on that. [Konnor Pilkington] will agree with me, that wasn’t fun. We want to go to Omaha. That’s all we have been doing since August: getting ready for that.”
On the “Warriors” mantra of this year’s squad
“That goes back to Coach Neal. Brian Neal, our strength and conditioning coach, has pushed us. It’s the most that he’s pushed us in my three years here. He has gotten the new guys mentally tougher since August and he has pushed us every day. [We’ve had] Tons of 6 a.m. workouts when it was literally freezing. He had us running outside and up hills, sliding down and running back up. It was a grind, but it goes back to him. He has gotten everyone mentally stronger. Our first home game is March 6th, but until then we’re going to be ready to go on the road.”
On freshman infielder Josh Hatcher
“[I like his] Mentality. I think the hardest thing to do as a freshman is being able to handle failure. Hatcher has that mentality where if he has a bad opening night, I know he’s going to be able to go out there the next day and flush it. He’ll still have good at bats. That says a lot about him for him to be able to do that as a freshman. He’s produced when we’ve played squad games out in the field. He has always had that mindset, since I’ve met him. I think the most important time for a freshman is your Christmas break of your freshman year. It slows down a bit. In the fall, you’re running around like your head is cut off just trying not to get yelled at. Christmas break as a freshman does a lot for you. It’s the most you mature as a player and as a person. He came back ready to go. He knew he had a job that he could possibly win, and he’s done that so far.”