By JOEL COLEMAN
Mississippi State head coach Andy Cannizaro’s search to aid his struggling bullpen has made its way to the MSU starting rotation.
Nine games into the 2016 season, the Bulldogs have struggled to close games out in the late innings. MSU sits at 6-3 this season, but Cannizaro’s relief corps have been shelled in the process. This weekend, when the Bulldogs travel to Oregon for a three-game weekend series, MSU’s bullpen might be about to receive a reinforcement in the form of Graham Ashcraft, whose only two appearance so far this season have come in a starting role.
“Graham Ashcraft is going to be kind of in a floating-type of role right now,” Cannizaro said. “If we have an opportunity to win Friday or an opportunity to win Saturday, you might look for Graham to come out of the bullpen for us on a Friday or Saturday in a three-game series where now, all of a sudden, your back end of the bullpen becomes really strong when you start talking about a three-headed monster with Graham Ashcraft, Spencer Price and Riley Self.”
Self and Price have already separated themselves from the rest of MSU’s bullpen pack. Self has allowed just one run and four hits in 9 1/3 innings of relief this season. Price has allowed just two runs in 4 2/3 innings. In the process, Price has featured swing-and-miss stuff as he has struck out 10 batters in his limited time on the mound.
Now, Ashcraft is set to add another strong option into the mix for Cannizaro. With a fastball that tops out in the high 90s and a good slider, Ashcraft has the tools of a dangerous late-inning reliever. Even so, Cannizaro reiterated Ashcraft’s move to the bullpen isn’t something that is absolutely set in stone.
“Graham Ashcraft could certainly go out there and start on Sunday,” Cannizaro said. “He’s had two really good starts for us – two quality starts. His last start was outstanding last Saturday. Him not starting this Friday or Saturday is zero indication of what he has done. It’s more of a promotion for him to where I have the confidence in Graham that I know I can bring him out of the bullpen and he can go and attack guys bringing a 96 to 98 mile per hour fastball out of the pen with a really sharp slider and just be able to shorten the game on a Friday or Saturday.”
In Ashcraft’s two starts this season, he sports a 1-0 record with a 5.00 earned run average. He’s allowed six runs (five earned) and eight hits in nine total innings.
While Ashcraft seemed to be settling into his starting role, he’s not at all disappointed that Cannizaro trusts him enough to call on him late in games too.
“It makes me feel really good to see the coaches have enough confidence in me to send me out there at any time of the game, do what I can do and hopefully help the team,” Ashcraft said.
If anything, a move to the bullpen could make Ashcraft more lethal on the mound. Already a hard-throwing right-hander, Ashcraft said that as a reliever, he can reach back and throw even harder knowing he doesn’t have to preserve strength for a lengthy appearance.
That’s good news for Cannizaro and the Bulldogs. In a bullpen that has five relievers with ERAs of 9.00 or higher, State can use all the late-inning help it can get. Luckily, perhaps a solution to the problem was right there starting games for the Bulldogs all along.
Yet Cannizaro’s search for key relievers isn’t done yet. Several Bulldogs have had good moments this season out of the bullpen including names like Jacob Barton and Trysten Barlow. Cannizaro indicated those roles, too, might increase as he searches to lock down leads late in game.
“We have to find guys that can pitch at the end of the ballgame,” Cannizaro said. “As of right now, I have the utmost confidence in Riley Self. I have the utmost confidence in Spencer Price. We have to find more guys than that to pitch at the back end of ballgames for us. This is a really long college baseball season. If I keep going to the whip with Riley Self and Spencer Price three times on a weekend to go and get games where we’re able to hold leads to beat a Morehead State or Marist, then all of a sudden, we’re going to get into SEC play two or three weeks from now and I’m going to need to bring Spencer Price out of the bullpen or bring Riley Self out of the bullpen and those guys are going to be on fumes halfway through the season. It’s really important for us as a team right now to develop guys on the mound to where we don’t have to keep going to Spencer Price and Riley Self every single time we get a lead.”
Weekend rotation announced
Cannizaro announced on Tuesday that left-hander Konnor Pilkington will start MSU’s series opener at Oregon on Friday. Pilkington (1-1, 3.18 ERA) is coming off of an appearance in which he earned his first win this season by throwing a career-best eight innings of shutout baseball over Indiana State last week.
Peyton Plumlee (2-0, 0.64 ERA) will start on the mound for the Bulldogs Saturday. The right-hander has been dominant in his two starts this season, limiting opponents to just a .146 batting average over a team-high 14 innings pitched.
MSU’s Sunday starter is yet-to-be determined. Candidates could include Ashcraft, if he isn’t used in relief on Friday or Saturday, as well as Ryan Cyr, who has started games in each of the first two weekends this season, but struggled mightily.
After being limited to just one pinch-hitting appearance last weekend due to a strained hamstring, second baseman Hunter Stovall is expected to return to the MSU lineup this weekend at Oregon.
“I anticipate Stovall being full-go this week,” Cannizaro said. “He ran (Monday) and felt really good, so I would anticipate him being full-go at practice (Tuesday), then having Hunter Stovall in a full capacity this Friday at Oregon and being ready to roll this weekend.”
Stovall leads Mississippi State with a .500 batting average this season (10-for-20).
A pair of key Mississippi State relievers have been battling injuries. Right-handers Ryan Rigby and Blake Smith have each had ailments with Rigby dealing with a groin injury and Smith facing a possibly season-ending problem with his arm.
Rigby has made just one relief outing this season in which he threw two scoreless innings.
“Ryan’s (groin injury) basically bothered him all through the fall and limited him in the fall,” Cannizaro said. “That same groin injury started bothering him again. He was able to make one appearance this year where he threw the ball fine, then the groin was bothering him the next morning and he could barely walk.”
Smith has pitched twice this year, but struggled as he surrendered five runs (four earned) in two innings.
“They’re reviewing an MRI (Tuesday) on Blake’s elbow,” Cannizaro said. “There’s nothing to announce as of yet with Blake other than there is something going on with his elbow right now and he’s going to be down for the foreseeable future. I would expect us to move forward without Blake for the time being. I don’t know how long that’s going to be. It might be a couple of weeks, it might be an entire year, but I know we are going to be without Blake for the foreseeable future.”
Marrero still out
Catcher Elih Marrero remains unavailable for MSU and won’t travel with the team to Oregon due to an undisclosed reason. Marrero served as Mississippi State’s bullpen catcher last weekend, but didn’t play in any of the Bulldogs’ four games.
Cannizaro said on Tuesday there is no update on Marrero’s status as of now.
“We will readdress Elih’s situation after we return back from Oregon,” Cannizaro said. “He won’t be with us at all this week. It’s kind of a week-to-week thing with him. There’s some things going on that are just going to keep him from being out on the field with us right now. So he needs to take care of his responsibilities and priorities away from the field, in the classroom and off the field. When we feel like as a staff and as a team he’s ready to return to the baseball field again, we’ll readdress that situation.”
Though he is hitless in his 10 at-bats this season, Marrero is highly-regarded on the diamond by the Bulldogs. However Cannizaro said the current situation is more important than what Marrero can contribute on the field.
“Certainly Elih is a talented player,” Cannizaro said. “We could certainly use him behind the plate, but it’s bigger than baseball. It’s more important than baseball. There are things that he needs to do to earn his way back out on the field with us.”
Rooker earns another award
A day after earning the SEC Player of the Week award along with a National Player of the Week mention by Collegiate Baseball, MSU’s Brent Rooker was honored again.
Rooker was named National Hitter of the Week by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association on Tuesday.
Rooker earned all of his honors courtesy of a week in which he hit .474 with a .583 on-base percentage and 1.158 slugging percentage.
Rooker did most of his damage on Friday night and Saturday. In back-to-back games against Indiana State and Marist, Rooker went 8-for-8 with three home runs, three doubles and 14 RBI.
“I was able to find the barrel of the bat,” Rooker said. “I made a small adjustment before the (Friday night) game during batting practice and I think that paid off. I was able to get the head of the bat out a little bit more and catch a few balls out front, which felt pretty good. I was really seeing it well.”