Updated: Dec 13, 2020
“The challenge has been to come back, to be a better player, to be a better draft pick. I always challenge them, I think one of the coolest things about being a player here is getting your degree at home plate. We’re trying to turn a negative into a positive.”
Mississippi State head coach Chris Lemonis was spot on when he outlined this season’s goals for his players at a September press conference. Following a year in which COVID-19 cut the college baseball season short and limited the MLB Draft to just five rounds, Lemonis has something on his team this year that he rarely has had during his last two years in Starkville: seniors with MLB potential. Typically, with the draft spanning 40 rounds, Lemonis’ roster is depleted of experienced starters the next season. With the flood of talent returning to Mississippi State, this very well could be the year that the Bulldogs capture that long awaited national title.
“For me, knowing that Tanner Allen, Rowdey Jordan, and Josh Hatcher are back, and they wouldn’t have been back in a normal year—it’s been nice having guys that know how we do things,” -Chris Lemonis, Mississippi State Head Coach
“For me, knowing that Tanner Allen, Rowdey Jordan, and Josh Hatcher are back, and they wouldn’t have been back in a normal year—it’s been nice having guys that know how we do things,” said Lemonis. Allen, Jordan, and Hatcher form a trio that will be foundational to the team’s success. Allen, a senior outfielder, hit .500 in Mississippi State’s three-game fall world series last month. Hatcher had four hits and two RBI this fall, and Jordan, who played in just one game, was an impressive 5-for-5, with two runs scored.
With more depth than normal on the bench due to the expanded roster sizes for the 2021 season, Lemonis has plenty of talent at his disposal. Newcomers like JUCO transfer Brayland Skinner, who flashed signs of a strong power hitter this fall, may not start immediately. The Bulldogs brought in a talented freshmen class that was ranked No. 17 in the country by Collegiate Baseball and have hardly any weak spots, at any position in the field.
I feel like we have one of the better pitching staffs in the country. I just need more innings and more balls to hand out.” -Chris Lemonis, Mississippi State Head Coach
“We have bigger rosters than normal; we’re trying to figure out our guys,” said Lemonis. “We have a lot of newcomers. And the competition is hard because, in our world, I feel like we have one of the better pitching staffs in the country. I just need more innings and more balls to hand out.”
It is hard to say whether the hitting or pitching is stronger this year for the Bulldogs. Lefty Christian MacLeod, who very well could be the next first-round draft pick out of Starkville, will be one of the top starters on the pitching staff heading into 2021. With the departure of JT Ginn, MacLeod is In line to be the team’s Friday night starter, as the Huntsville, Alabama, native, posted a 4-0 record with a 0.86 ERA during the COVID-shortened 2020 season.
In a media availability last month, MacLeod said he was “very impressed” with the arms the Bulldogs bring back this spring.
“Just based off the pitching I’ve seen this fall, the guys that are coming in and the guys that are back, I’m really impressed with the arms we have here,” said MacLeaod. “We have a ton of guys who have been 95-plus (velocity), a lot of guys that are 90-plus. It’s been extremely impressive to see, whether guys are starting or guys in relief, it’s been really impressive to watch. [I] can’t help but be excited about what's going to be on the mound this year.”
One of those “guys in relief” is fifth-year senior Riley Self, who is sixth in Mississippi State history in career appearances. A proven veteran on the mound, Self is versatile, with an ability to close out games or keep runners off the basepaths in a mid-game appearance. He did not pitch more than two innings in an outing in 2020, but was frequently called out of the bullpen, making seven appearances, and throwing 7.2 innings of work.
The main challenge for Lemonis and his staff has not been the on-field play. That has been phenomenal. It has been building the team chemistry that has kept the “Diamond Dawgs” in the fight for the College World Series title in recent seasons that has been hardest to construct.
“One of the hardest parts for us this fall is building a team,” continued Lemonis, “guys that get along, guys that understand each other. And shoot, everyone has to be six feet apart, wear a mask, they can’t do anything after they leave. These things as we’re building a team, and a family-like atmosphere, make our staff a huge part of that.”
At a program such as Mississippi State, where players are constantly leaving for the MLB, success is not solely found in the players on the field. It is the coaching staff, led by Lemonis, who is 64-19 at Mississippi State, that has continued to put together top-notch teams year after year. In fact, Lemonis has not had to replace a single assistant coach while in Starkville.
“Our group is very close. Going through COVID, it’s been stressful. The continuity is huge for our kids. I think that comfort level [is key].” -Chris Lemonis, Mississippi State Head Coach
“It’s been huge,” said Lemonis, when asked at a recent press conference about the value of his coaching staff having been the same since 2018. “Our group is very close. Going through COVID, it’s been stressful. The continuity is huge for our kids. I think that comfort level [is key].”
The Bulldogs exit the fall at number eight in College Baseball Nation’s Post-Fall Top 25. With the team solid from top to bottom, the coaching staff the same, and a tough schedule to prepare for, Mississippi State is ready to roll into the 2021 season.