STARKVILLE, Miss. (MSU Athletics/WTVA) - Already with one day of team practice under its belt, the Mississippi State baseball program used Saturday (Jan. 26) morning to meet with member of the media and talk about the upcoming season in its annual Media Day.
Head coach Chris Lemonis and senior Jake Mangum talked with the media inside the Hall of Champions, with a full transcript below. The rest of the student-athletes talked with members of the media prior to the five-inning scrimmage at Dudy Noble Field.
Chris Lemonis | Head Coach
Q: Where are you in the process and who are the candidates for the weekend rotation?
CL: Friday night [is] Ethan Small. Then, TBA, TBA and TBA. So, hopefully we're a little bit closer to finding that out today, tomorrow or the next day. I've got a good idea, but we've still got to figure out some things on the field and see who comes back. The positives for us is that we have some really good candidates, so there's some competition going on. Right now, Ethan Small; he's done it, he's been there, he's been one of our best all year. [He is the] Leader of our pitching staff, so I feel confident about him there. After that we've got to figure it out.
Q: Where is the shortstop and second base race right now and where are they defensively?
CL: There's a lot of competition there. That's a really good question. It's probably one of our biggest question marks going in, because we did lose probably 100 RBI's in the middle, but also two guys who could really defend it. That really defended it happens at the end of the year, it seems like on those hard fields [near the end of the season], it makes a difference. Jordan Westburg's been at shortstop all fall and early spring. He looks like our leading candidate for our shortstop position. He has played really well, just emerging as one of those guys that has a chance to be a high-level talent. He still has a lot of work to do, but I'm excited about him. We have some competition going on at second base. Gunner Halter's a [junior college] transfer and high-level player. Landon Jordan's a very talented freshman who's in that mix, and we're even flipping Tanner Allen in and out of there some to see if it gives us some pieces to move some guys around. So, there a lot of competition there, but we have a chance to be pretty good there too.
Q: What do you see out of JT Ginn in the pitching rotation and what might you get out of him?
CL: JT's in that competition for the weekend. He's a very talented freshman, obviously, we know that, and he had a really good fall. He's playing a position too, so he's been bouncing around and swinging the bat. He is an ultra-competitor, even though he has a great arm, that is what I would say about him. He's in that mix. We've got to see how he comes back and pitches [early in the spring] and go from there.
Q: Where are you at catcher, some of the guys in the mix and I know you might be breaking in some of the new guys?
CL: We're fortunate to have a lot of depth there. Dustin Skelton is back from last year's team. Marshall Gilbert's back from last year's team. Then we have two freshman, Hayden Jones and Luke Hancock. They're all very talented players, so we're trying to figure that out. There's a mesh in there, we're trying to see where we are. I'd say Dustin is a little ahead this year, just from his experience side, but I see all of them playing at some point in time. One thing that you don't see in college baseball a lot is that we have a full-time catching coach, so having Coach [Kyle] Cheesebrough having the ability to work with our guys day in and day out as a full-time college catcher has been a huge piece. I think our kids would say that, and I think we'll be much improved in that area, even the guys that were returning from last year.
Q: What have you seen out of Elijah MacNamee on the defensive side?
CL: I've been surprised since the fall. He is an above average defender out there and that's been the biggest piece. He's a good thrower and for a big kid he moves around really well. He took one over the wall and brought it back yesterday, so that is why he got the yellow jersey. He's worn it many times, and I think one of the strengths of our team is our outfield defense. Obviously, we know Jake [Mangum] is really good in center, but like I said, he's pretty dang good out there, and then Rowdey Jordan. He's the guy that was an infielder and moved out there, and he's getting better every day, too. I mean Rowdey is a really good athlete, so he covers a lot of ground out there.
Q: With having so many sophomores and you not being here last year, is it difficult to see the jump between their freshman and sophomore year when all you've seen from them is what they've done so far?
CL: You see a little bit of what they did last year, just watching, but I wasn't with them day to day. I tell everybody the key to our team, the key to our success this year will be [if] that group of sophomores take a step forward. I think they will, they've had great years to this point and they work really hard. Tanner Allen, Justin Foscue, Jordan Westburg, Rowdey Jordan, some of these kids that had good years and were big pieces, but can they continue to play like they did at the end of the year? Was that their evolution of going through the season? That's probably why [the team] started a little bit slow. It's hard to win here with a bunch of young kids and I'm no genius, but I know that. As they got older, they played together, they acclimated better, and you saw it at the end of the year.
Q: We were talking to Spencer [Price] out on the field, what's your thought on his role in the backend of the bullpen?
CL: That's one of our big question marks and what I want to make sure we do is that we have him for the last two months. We'll probably be a little cautious with him [early in the year]. I know he's an ultra-competitor and a bull, when he's out there. As you're coming back, is it best to be thrown out there at the end of the game? Those innings, those stressful innings put more on your arm than anything. We're going to try to ease him back, that doesn't mean you'll see him. I say you may see him and you may see him open a night out there depending how these next three weeks go. He's not taking a heavy load right now. We're slowing getting him into it.
Q: How has Gunner Halter adjusted from the time he got here to now?
CL: He's come a long way. He's had to play shortstop [in the fall], so it was him and [Westburg] out at shortstop. As we got to the end of the fall, he didn't play as much short as second base. All the angles, all the things a second baseman has to do, first step getting to first. You just have a lot of responsibilities as a second baseman, so that's been his biggest growth. Just working on him offensively, he's got a really high side. You don't see many big athletic infields like him. He moves around. I mean he's 95 [mph] off the mound, if he really wanted to be. He can do a lot of special things.
Q: Not a lot of college stadiums have luxury condominiums in left field. I know you knew it would be there when taking the job, but now actually seeing it, what's that like as a coach?
CL: It's great. It's amazing, some days you walk out there and if you're having a bad day just walking out there makes you say 'man I'm just one of the lucky ones.' It is unbelievable. Once we're able to get inside, it is as beautiful inside as it is outside. The best part about [Mississippi State] to me is the ability to practice, the ability to work. We have the field, we have the Palmeiro [Indoor Center], we have the [cages] underneath. I mean just to be able to get our guys their work is great. I probably won't notice the condos [much during practice], I will day one when we're playing, but just to have that ability to work is the best part and [the stadium] beautiful.
Q: Cole Gordon was really excited about the possibility of hitting again this season. What is his status there?
CL: We've kind of taken him out of that for now. He's just pitching at this point. He did it at the fall but we just did that to see where he's at. But right now, we're just working him there. We could use him later in the year if we need him to but I want him to focus more on the pitching as we get into the start of the season.
Q: As a first-year coach, how do you manage the expectations that carry over from last season?
CL: We've talked about things. We kind of have put last year to bed in some ways. The kids will always have that memory, always have that experience, but it's a new group. Hopefully we pull from those experiences and those tough times they went through but it's been about coaching this year's team. Believe it or not, when I took over at Indiana, I took over a team where most of those kids had been to Omaha too. They had the best time during that program's history and our goal and our talk is about continuing and adding to the legacy. One of the biggest things with us is maybe being a little bit more consistent. I am excited about how we start our season and I want to be good start to finish and that's a big piece of this program.
Q: What is Josh Hatcher's role going to be this year?
CL: He has a good spring training to this point. He's swinging it well and he's very talented. He could play some first [base], could play some outfield, could DH. He can do a lot of different things; he's pretty versatile. We have him bouncing around. I don't know if it's just this time of year that he likes to play but he's been really good since we've been back so I'm hoping we continue that on. He learned a little but from last year, I think.
Q: What does the Left Field Loft do as far as how the ballpark plays?
CL: I wasn't here last year so I didn't know what it looked like without it, but the guys in the fall felt like the ball was carrying better. Now we're back in the spring and it feels like a different wind. The weather's been a little crazy. We've had it gushing out to right, gushing out to left. Some days it looks like it's going out the right and it's swirling. We're still in the progress of figuring that out. But in the fall, we felt like the ball carried a little bit better. The kids did at least.
Q: What has Jake Mangum done for your transition?
CL: He's been great. I lean on Jake a lot. You see it up here. He gives me goose bumps when I see the way he talks and when he talks about the 'M over S.' That's what I get from the players more than anything is how much it means to be a part of this program. You see that from Jake and he has had an experience here and it's been a lot. There's nobody else that loves this program more than that kid. I lean on him and I talk to him back and forth. It can be as simple as, 'hey, tell me about the shades this morning.' We were talking about the sun and how the sun sank because he's played so many games here. [He's been] a mentor to our young kids and how lucky we are to have him in the lineup, but also for all of those young kids in our program to see how he goes about his business. I've coached a lot of great kids and a lot of great workers but in between those two lines is as hard-nose as you'll ever see. That's what is in practice. He dives 10 times a practice in batting practice. He doesn't know how to play at half speed or 75%. He is 100% every day he goes out there. For a coach when your All-American has that attitude, it's a blessing.
Q: How have you seen JT Ginn embrace being a college player and over-going pro at his age?
CL: JT's situation is obviously unique, very similar to like Jake, JT wanted to be at Mississippi State. He made a conscious decision, turned down some money, but is so confident in his ability to be able to come in here and produce. Hopefully, [he] may get better and move into pro ball and be ready. The maturity level for JT has been like any other freshman. You know, "I've got to get up on my own, go to class, take care of myself and go through the rigor of a college student athlete," which is not easy. It's been a good experience for him. He had a great fall. He's a tremendous kid and a great teammate. Really, he stays away from the limelight a little bit and he just wants to be one of the boys, which I love seeing. It's been fun watching JT and it'll be a lot of fun watching him out there on the weekends.
Q: Where have you seen the immediate returns on such specialized training with catchers with Coach Kyle Cheesebrough?
CL: I think receiving day in and day out. Things that we just don't see, the actual getting a pitch here and there, talking to our pitchers in the middle of the scrimmage, seeing small things, the details of catching, the signals with communicating. There's such a communication between your pitching coach, your catching coach and the catcher and pitcher during the game and how they communicate and how we're setting up and different things like that. Very small things that probably are day in and day out, things that I don't see. I'm in the dugout watching the game and he's sitting there throwing his hat on the ground like, 'What happened?' and he's like 'we just missed a pitch.' He sees it probably a little bit better than most of us because he sees it through the catcher's eyes. That's why catchers make great coaches because they see all of it. You look in the big leagues and a lot of those guys were former catchers because they have a different perspective on the game. He's done a great job with them.
Q: How do you plan on using Spencer Price and Riley Self?
CL: Those are the pieces that I would really like to have some bullpen roles as we get into it. It's just so early for us, we don't know exactly. Riley could close. Riley didn't pitch a ton this fall so we're hoping we could get a good spring training out of him. For me as you run Riley out there, Riley is one of the few guys right now that we feel like we could run out there in a dirty inning. First and third, one out, I would feel pretty comfortable giving the ball to Riley Self, that he's going to make somebody hit the ball and put the ball in the zone better than a young kid. He could finish at the end of the game. I think the pieces of Spencer, Cole Gordon, and Riley Self is huge. We're trying to find that. The piece for us is, who is the lefty in that mix? We're really trying to figure it out. We have some candidates there. We're really trying to figure out who that left hander is that could come in and pound the zone with strikes. They hit it, they hit it, but we're going to make quality pitches and make some people put the ball in play.
Q: What role do you see for Denver McQuary and how has he improved?
CL: Denver is at that back end, too. Denver is one of those older, more mature guys. I think the command piece with Denver has been much better. We saw that in the fall. I watched one of his bullpens the other day and he's been just a lot more in the zone and making pitches for us. He's probably in that back end with those handful of guys.
Q: Who are some other true freshman that could make a contribution this spring?
CL: Landon Jordan is one, the two catchers, Hayden Jones and Luke Hancock. Also, on the mound is JT [Ginn], but we have a freshman from Canada, Eric Cerantola, who has a chance to get some really quality innings. We have a chance with Brandon Smith is another freshman that's in the mix. I could roll through them that could have some significant roles. We have a really group of some JUCO transfers like Gunner Halter, Jack Eagan, Colby White, some guys that could really help us out. There's others too, but it's just giving us a chance to give us a little more depth.
Jake Mangum | OF | Sr.
Q: At this event last year, you said one of the main reasons you came back was 0-for-2 in the super regionals. Well now you have one, so what's the new goal for this season?
JM: The goal right now is to be ready for February 15th. But, [ultimately] it's to win a National Championship. It's still that one thing missing about our program. That is the ultimate goal. We need to be ready February 15th and not wait until late March to get going.
Q: This time last year, you guys had a shell of a stadium. It was sort of functioning and you had to start the year on the road. Now that you don't have to worry about that and you have a brand new stadium, how do you think that will affect your start to the season?
JM: It definitely helps. Today, we're about to get live at bats on a baseball field. Last year's team wasn't able to do that practically all year. Being able to get out there with the team and have team practices on the field with the pitchers involved, outfield and infield involved, to all come together is going to help a lot.
Q: Obviously, the last big memory of last year is making it to Omaha and that's something to be proud of, but how do you balance being proud of that and trying to get the 2019 team ready?
JM: This team is full of older guys. We have a lot of old guys and a lot of young guys that haven't really experienced the battle of a 10 week SEC schedule. The best way to put it would to just be that my first two years here, losing and going 0-for-2 in both super regionals, that kind of sticks with you. It was like the hill you couldn't get over. Instead of looking back and thinking about what last year's team did, we have to think about what we didn't do. We were three wins short of a national championship, second best finish in program history. As awesome as it was, there's still more and however we can do that, we're going to try to do it. Coach Lemonis has asked a lot out of us, to come in every day and get our work in, be the best students we can be, the best people we can be, and we bought into that. We're all bought into it and we're all pulling on the same side of the rope, we just have to get it going. We're less than three weeks now, yesterday was three weeks, so it's time to go.
Q: Last year, you all benefited from a really good double-play combo, neither of those guys are here anymore, where is the team defensively in the middle of the field?
JM: Defensively, the guys are putting in tons of work. We got the outfield back, so that is awesome, but we have four guys up the middle right now that I think are doing a great job. You see them work every day and where they were at in August compared to now is light years ahead. They're starting to click and it's really fun to see new guys come in and do that. You see the older guys put their arm around them and tell them what to expect, it's just weird that you see that three years ago, except I was in those guys' shoes. Time here is very valuable and everyone's going to be ready, I can promise you that.
Q: You've got a lot of records that are within reach for yourself, at this school and in the SEC, did that factor in to your decision to come back or is it more just about the team right now?
JM: As fortunate as I am to be in that position, that wasn't a factor about coming back at all. This will be my third year being draft eligible and that's not going anywhere, but like I said, time here is very valuable and like it or not, it's my last year. That wasn't a factor about coming back, but we'll give it one more crack at it and we'll give it all we've got.
Q: During your time here at Mississippi State, you've had plenty of ups and downs between coach changes and things like that, as a senior, what left do you feel like you have to go through here?
JM: It's been a roller coaster, but the one constant we've had over the years is winning. I was committed to Alabama for a year, de-committed, then committed here. Why? Because this is the pinnacle of college baseball. It's Mississippi State, we wear this [M-over-S logo] with the most amount of pride you can possibly wear it with. Every day we come to the field, no matter what is going on around us and we're able to lock in and be in the present. It's been the most fun I've ever had and I'm not ready for it to be over with, so we plan on playing as long as we can this year. One constant we've always had [during my time here] is the brotherhood in the locker room. Every year there are different guys, so this year is a brand new team. Every year has been a different onslaught of guys, but every year you just see this brotherhood come together all because we take so much pride in wearing that [logo]. It's our shield, it's unique to everything else. At the end of the day we're going to do everything it takes to win. It might not happen, we might get beat 20-10, but we're going to bounce back the next day. It's kind of the mind set we've had. It's embedded in us and it's what we go through starting in August. It has been fun.
Q: Last year, you exceeded expectations. Now, that you have some expectations going into a season, how do you manage them?
JM: We do have expectations, but we also have a lot of doubters, too. A lot of people say last year was a fluke. We caught lightning in a bottle. I disagree with that. I saw it just as a bunch of guys who weren't ready on opening day. We finally understood what it took to win and we're looking to do that now. Twenty-eighteen is over and as awesome as it was, as amazing as it will be when we look back at it 20 years from now, this is a new chapter. A completely new chapter, a completely new locker room, a completely new stadium. Everything is new and it is going to be its own chapter. So, we just have to get past that and be ready to go. The coaching staff has done an amazing job with that, they've pushed us every day. The guys are buying into it and you see it every day as something else clicks.
Q: Outside of your teammates and yourself, not a lot of players in college baseball have four coaches in four years. Now is that something you can use as motivation to take from each guy? As far as the program goes with Coach Lemonis, do you feel it has reached a level of stability?
JM: Four coaches in four years has tossed us around a lot, but, like I said, you play for what the program represents and the tradition here. You never go out there [and go through the motions] any day at practice or for a game, even if there might be some days when you don't want to be out there, where it's a long day at school or you had a terrible test, you name it. The tradition here and what it means to play here is what gets you through that. Fake it until you make it on some days. You think about these guys, the '85 team, the '16 team, the '13 team, there are just so many moments that you think back on when you're just not having that good day. That's what you play for. If I talked to Burke Masters right now, what would he say? He would love to be out there today. He would love to be out there in a 20-degree game in the snow. He would love to go back out there and wear this [uniform] one more time. So, that's what you think about. You think about the tradition here, the guys that would give anything to come back for one more day, and that's what I think about. This is my last year and the guys that might not play at the next level think about that, this is all we have for right now. You think back about what we've had here and all of the guys that would give anything to go out there and play one more game, relive one more moment. That's what you have to think about.