It. Is. Tiiiiime, or almost time at least. As I write this article, we are two weeks away from opening weekend of the long awaited 2021 college baseball season. The excitement is building by the day, and if you are anything like me, you are counting the sleeps until your team takes the diamond. This past week, I was able to attend virtual media days with Mississippi State baseball, and the purpose of this article is to provide a little insight on the state of the program and what coaches and players had to say leading up to the opening day tilt with the Texas Longhorns at Globe Life Field in Arlington, TX as part of the State Farm College Baseball Showdown.
Over the course of Tuesday and Wednesday, media was given the opportunity to speak with Head Coach Chris Lemonis, Hitting Coach Jake Gautreau, Pitching Coach Scott Foxhall, and Catchers Coach Kyle Cheesebrough as well as select players from this year’s Diamond Dawg squad. To open media days, Coach Lemonis thanked all of those who worked behind the scenes to keep the program running safe and efficiently through this pandemic. He then went on to say that the 2021 schedule is not necessarily finished and is still subject to change as contracts are signed and things happen. Coach Lem did touch on the mix of experience and youth that I mentioned in our season preview. He spoke to the advantage of having such a mixture of leaders to help teach the young guns the “Mississippi State way.”
For the sake of fluidity, I will go through the batting/fielding lineup and then the pitching rotation/bullpen one at a time with insight from the respective coaches.
Coach Lem first tackled the elephant in the room, and that is how to replace two first-round draft picks in the middle infield in Jordan Westburg and Justin Foscue. He said, “You really can’t replace two guys like that one for one, you have to replace them by accumulation.” The Dawgs will be counting on fresh faces in the infield to replace the deadly duo of Westburg and Foscue. Second base does, in fact, look to be locked down by graduate transfer Scotty Dubrule. He will look to turn plenty of double plays with sophomore Kamren James who was making a name for himself at third base before the 2020 season came to a grinding halt. Third base still looks to be an open race headed into these last two weeks of preseason. Freshman Kellum Clark is in a battle with freshman Lane Forsythe, junior Landon Jordan, and senior Tanner Leggett who spent his first two years at Northwest Mississippi CC (#RangGang). Coach Lem noted that Forsythe is one of the better defenders on the team and has the ability to play 3rd, SS, or 2nd. The only constant in the Bulldog infield is senior Josh Hatcher, who looks to lead this team back to Omaha. The catching position is probably as deep as any one position on the field and catcher’s coach Kyle Cheesebrough was proud to let that be known. Last year’s starter Logan Tanner finished the year on a tear at the plate, but junior Luke Hancock, who spent part of last year on the injured list and transfer junior Kace Garner from Meridian CC both have the same chance to gain time behind the dish or in the lineup as a DH. Right field and left field will of course be held down by veterans Tanner Allen and Rowdey Jordan respectively, but left field looks to be and open race between juniors Brandon Pimintel and Brad Cumbest, and senior Brayland Skinner.
In speaking on the offensive side of the ball, Coaches Lemonis and Gautreau both spoke on the power exhibited by Logan Tanner, and both look for the sophomore backstop to play a vital role in the lineup. Coach Lem spoke on Scotty Dubrule’s offensive prowess and noted the Dubrule has batted at every position 1-6 in his career and can be a viable option nearly anywhere in the batting order. He also spoke to the speed and base stealing ability of Dubrule, who looks to be a major contributor to this team. Coach Goat (Gautreau) was asked to speak on the offensive ability of Josh Hatcher, to which he said that Hatcher has picked up in 2021 right where he left off in 2020 and has really begun to turn the corner as an offensive weapon. He spoke on strength that Hatcher has gained in his time on campus and that he has really increased his bat speed and hitting ability. He also added that Josh has really embraced that leader role and takes pride in teaching the young guys the right way and the “Mississippi State way.” In terms of Kameron James offensively, Coach Goat was quick to praise him, saying he was “really good across the board.” He noted that James took a big jump over the offseason and that his bat is “really coming on.” Coach Goat was also asked about the power potential of this lineup and was quick to say that the power is there, but it’s not something they like to harp on, saying, “It won’t work if you try for it (power hitting).” He added that he just wants his guys to take good swings, grind at bats, and work hard to get into opposing bullpens.
Pitching Coach Scott Foxhall spoke on Wednesday and gave us a lot of insight on the state of Bulldog arms. He began by addressing the current state of junior right hander Brandon Smith who is coming off a 2020 that never saw him make a pitch, as he spent the year on the IR. Coaches Foxhall and Lemonis both spoke on Smith and echoed each other that he is sitting 89-91 and looking better than ever. Coach Lem stated that Smith has the chance to find a starter role this year and will definitely play a pivotal role on the Diamond Dawg pitching staff. Coach Fox was asked about handling the high expectations that come along with this pitching staff, to which he led off by saying that the hype is well deserved. Coach Foxhall said that he has a “staff full of unicorns” speaking to the load of talent at his disposal, and he added that they get better by the day. He also did not downplay the lack of experience on his staff, noting the youth of his pitchers, but he was confident in saying the “The game is the best teacher.” Another subject that many have been curious of is the state of projected Sunday starter Eric Cerantola. The Canadian fireballer has never lacked in the velocity department but has struggled with control at times. Coach Foxhall was confident in saying that Cerantola has made the biggest improvement of any pitcher on the staff. He reminded us that Cerantola is relatively new to the game of baseball, playing hockey in Canada for the majority of his life. He added that Cerantola’s misses have gotten much smaller and that he is learning to utilize off-speed and breaking pitches instead of relying solely on the fastball. The brightest spot of this incredibly talented rotation has got the be perennial ace Christian MacLeod. The junior from Huntsville, AL looks to be the Friday night starter on this year’s team and build on the exceptional year he was having in 2020. Coaches Lemonis and Foxhall both spoke on the junior ace. Coach Lem began by speaking on the work that MacLeod put in over the extended off-season on his own to get better. He noted that his velo is up along with a having an upper-level breaking ball and a big-league changeup. He finished by adding that the entire staff pushes each other daily to all be the ace of the staff. Coach Foxhall added that MacLeod has worked hard to make each pitch in his arsenal just a little better. Coach Foxhall was also asked about the younger arms on the pitching staff, and their contribution in the 2021 season. He spoke on sophomore righty Landon Sims who was utilized heavily out of the bullpen in 2020. He was quoted as saying that Sims has a slider that is “electric” and plans on relying on him heavily this year. He also spoke on the prowess freshmen Cade Smith, Mikey Tepper, Dylan Carmouche, and Jackson Fristoe, noting that Fristoe is the freshman most likely to get the nod in “high leverage innings.” Coach Foxhall also spoke on veteran relievers Spencer Price and Riley Self. The pair of seniors look to be major contributors and veteran arms in the Bulldog bullpen. Coach Foxhall said that Self is looking more athletic and pitching as good currently as he has all camp. Coach Fox spoke to the experience of Spencer Price, noting that he doesn’t have “premium stuff” but has the know how and toughness to come right at you and get you out. In winding out the report on the pitching staff, both Coach Lem and Coach Fox said that the weekend rotation for the State Farm College Baseball Showdown has not been set. They noted that it is a different situation playing three teams in three days versus the usual three game series against one team. Both coaches said they will study matchups and hope to have pitching plans set by the Monday before opening weekend. Coach Foxhall added that the weekend is “all hands on deck”, in terms of utilizing arms, to ensure a successful weekend for the Diamond Dawgs.
I was able to speak with a handful of players on Tuesday to ask a few questions and gain some insight from the minds of the Diamond Dawgs themselves. Seniors Rowdey Jordan, Tanner Allen, and Josh Hatcher along with sophomores Logan Tanner and Kamren James were made available to speak with the media. I asked all three seniors about the importance of returning to Omaha for a third straight College World Series, and they all share the sentiment of how special it would be to make back to back to back trips to “Somewhere in Middle America.” Tanner Allen added that the year is truly a disappointment without a trip to Omaha, but he also noted that one doesn’t make it there without putting in the work. Rowdey Jordan was asked about the ongoing battle in left field and added some player’s insight on the candidates for the corner outfield spot. He began by saying that people really got a false sense of Brandon Pimintel, who was streaky last year, showing flashes of greatness while also struggling at the plate. Jordan stated that Pimintel was the hottest hitter in the fall of 2019 and then got off to a slow start in 2020. He added that he feels that if Pimintel just takes a deep breath and let the game come to him, that he is truly elite. He also spoke on the defensive prowess and the raw power of 6’7, 230 lb. Brad Cumbest, who could see a lot of playing time in left. He finished by highlighting the speed and defensive ability of both Brayland Skinner and Drew McGowan. I asked senior Josh Hatcher to elaborate on the Bulldog’s early schedule, which includes the three games in Arlington, followed by games against Tulane, Louisiana-Lafayette, and Tennessee Tech, who are all postseason regulars. Hatcher replied that the opponent doesn’t matter because they know who they are and believe in their own ability. He left me with a quote worth hanging onto, “It’s not WHO we play, it’s HOW we play.” I was able to speak with sophomore catcher Logan Tanner who finished the abbreviated 2020 season on a hot streak at the plate. I asked him how he keeps that momentum going into a brand new season, nearly a year after the previous one ended. He was very concise yet confident in saying that he is just trying to get right back in that same groove and make the swing feel that same as it did in 2020. I also asked about the feeling of catching a pitching staff that is as talented as any in the country. Tanner was quick to defend the hype, adding that their stuff is outstanding and that he believes that they are the best staff in the country. In finishing player interviews, I spoke with sophomore shortstop Kamren James about the contribution of young guys to this team. He said that there is a little pressure being a young gun on such a talented team, but he doesn’t worry much and has put all his trust in his abilities that got him to this point. He left me with a simple, yet solid, “We’re Ready.”
As I wrap up this review of 2021 Mississippi State Baseball media days, there is one topic that was presented to all coaches that really had nothing to do with the product on the field. All coaches were asked to elaborate on the continuity of the staff that has been together as a whole from the beginning in June/July of 2018. The answers were honestly too similar to break down by coach, as they all echoed their happiness in their current situations. They all spoke on the lack of egos on the coaching staff and how well they are able to co-exist toward the common goal of a College World Series title. They all also spoke on how much they enjoy coming to work every day. Coach Gautreau did add that Mississippi State is a special place that has, “Changed my life.” He also added praise for Coach Lemonis as more than just a head coach, but a CEO of the program. He mentioned that there are so many things that go on behind the scenes, and so many responsibilities that Coach Lem has to handle that nobody knows about. There was a resounding sentiment from the entire staff about their quality, on and off the field, of their skipper.
That is going to do it for this media day recap. First off, if you’re still with me, I truly appreciate it. This has been a long article, and for that I apologize, but I wanted to provide some insight from inside the program to go along with the educated speculation I provided in the season preview a couple of weeks ago. As I leave bid you farewell until next article, I leave you with a banger of a tune that is the goal of every team that will take the diamond in two weeks. Goodbye and HAIL STATE!!