Almost three months ago, the Vanderbilt Commodores went to Starkville to open SEC play and left Starkville with a 3-0 conference record after outscoring the Bulldogs 19-4 over that weekend.
At that time, Vanderbilt was 15-5 overall and ranked 11th in the country. Mississippi State was 10-10 and 0-3 in the SEC. The idea that these two teams would meet again in a Super Regional, at that point, was pretty out there. The idea that it would even be debatable whether said Super Regional would be in Nashville or Starkville would have seemed ludicrous.
The Super Regional is, in fact, in Nashville, but both teams ended up with 2-seeds in the Clemson and Tallahassee Regional, respectively. And Mississippi State didn’t recover immediately after the sweep against Vanderbilt; as late as March 31, the Bulldogs were 14-15 and 2-7 in the SEC. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt of course had a slide in April and May that left the Commodores needing a sweep of Kentucky to close the regular season in order to feel good about their tournament chances.
This has been a weird season for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs fired Andy Cannizaro after opening the season by getting swept by Southern Miss — ostensibly due to some off-field stuff -- and pitching coach Gary Henderson has served as the interim coach since then. They gave up 20 runs in a loss to Oklahoma in the regional opener, then needed a walk-off three-run homer (and some incredibly boneheaded pitching staff management by Florida State) to avoid elimination.
In short, Mississippi State probably shouldn’t be here. But they can win two of three from Vanderbilt.
Mississippi State’s lineup has a lot of contact hitters (.280 team batting average) who don’t strike out a ton, but not much power — they’ve hit 42 as a team all season, or about as many as Vanderbilt hit in the regional final against Clemson. State has five pretty solid hitters in the lineup but things tail off pretty quickly once you get around the 6-hole in the lineup.
Starting lineup for last game:
- CF Jake Mangum (junior, .354/.435/.488, 32nd round pick of New York Mets)
- LF Rowdey Jordan (freshman, .325/.405/.540)
- 1B Tanner Allen (freshman, .302/.369/.473)
- 2B Hunter Stovall (junior, .315/.362/.430, 21st round pick of Chicago White Sox)
- RF Elijah MacNamee (junior, .321/.392/.503)
- 3B Justin Foscue (freshman, .259/.342/.383)
- SS Luke Alexander (junior, .207/.295/.322)
- C Dustin Skelton (sophomore, .269/.364/.365)
- DH Jordan Westburg (freshman, .250/.330/.375)
Mississippi State’s starting rotation has been consistent all year: Friday starter Konnor Pilkington and Sunday starter Jacob Billingsley have each started 16 games; Saturday starter Ethan Small has started 15. I wouldn’t expect State to deviate from that rotation this weekend.
Pilkington, a third-round pick of the Chicago White Sox, is the clear cut ace of this staff, with a won-loss record (2-6) and ERA (4.61) that belie his component ratios (97 strikeouts and 30 walks in 91.2 innings.) This is the one pitching matchup this weekend that might actually favor Mississippi State.
Small, a redshirt sophomore, was a 26th-round pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks — though it’s not clear whether that’s over signability concerns or performance, because the numbers look solid: 107 strikeouts and 31 walks in 85.2 innings, and a 2.94 ERA on the season.
With everything we’ve said about Mississippi State, though, the Bulldogs could very well be in trouble on Sunday if they can’t win the series in two. Jacob Billingsley, the Sunday starter, has a 5.05 ERA on the season and 64 strikeouts and 36 walks in 67.2 innings. The matchup with Mason Hickman seems like it will clearly favor Vanderbilt. Billingsley, as a fifth-year senior, was drafted by the Houston Astros in the 32nd round.
Mississippi State’s bullpen is okay; 14th-round pick JP France (5-5, 3.41, 62/23 BB/K in 58 innings) is probably the best arm, along with 31st-round pick Zach Neff (3-2, 3.46, 35/8 K/BB in 41.2 innings.)