Bulldogs, Tigers have talent all over field

MSU's Brent Rooker
Staff Writer

Andy Cannizaro knows a little bit about the talent on the LSU roster.
Mississippi State’s first-year head baseball coach and former LSU assistant is getting ready for his first-ever meeting against his old club as the No. 11 Bulldogs and No. 10 Tigers start a critical three-game series Thursday night at 6 p.m.
It’s a set featuring both Southeastern Conference Western Division and overall regular season title implications.
“Everybody is kind of talking about how cool it is that this whole season has come down to Mississippi State versus LSU for the SEC West," Cannizaro said. "You couldn’t have drawn this up any better.”
Cannizaro is a Louisiana native and spent two years as an LSU assistant coach and recruiting coordinator before he was hired at Mississippi State last November. His background with the Tigers ensures he knows exactly what the Bulldogs are getting themselves into at Dudy Noble Field over the next three days.
First, there is the obvious. LSU is red-hot, having won nine of its last 11 games, including four in a row. As a team, the Tigers boast the SEC’s second-best batting average. LSU’s rotation is anchored by two of the nation’s premier arms in the forms of junior right-hander Alex Lange and senior lefty Jared Poche.
There is also the familiarity and personal relationships Cannizaro forged in his stint with the Tigers. He knows the LSU’s roster inside and out. In fact, in some ways, he’s been pulling for them all season long, but doesn’t think it’ll be strange for him once it’s time for the series to start tonight.
“I don’t think it’ll be awkward or weird,” Cannizaro said. “I’ve said all year that I’ve pulled for those (LSU) kids all season long because you develop that relationship with those kids each and every day for two and a half years. You’re in the cages with them. You’re on the field with them. You’re eating with them. You’re doing all kinds of things and getting to know those kids deeper than their swings or deeper than starting a double play.
“I certainly want the best for those kids and my family wants the best for those kids, but at the same time, we’re in a completely different jersey now and we want to beat them.”
Toppling the Tigers will be no easy task. The first step is finding a way to get to Lange and Poche. It’s a challenge MSU’s Brent Rooker is looking forward to accepting.
“That’s why you come to the SEC because you get to see guys like that every weekend,” Rooker said. “Alex Lange is going to be a first-round draft pick. Jared Poche is one of the best pitchers, really in SEC history with the amount of wins and amount of success he’s had in this league for four years. That’s why you come to this league is to face guys like that and live up to that challenge and see where you stand against those guys.”
Even if MSU’s bats get to Lange, Poche and the rest of the LSU pitching staff, the Tigers’ offense is potent enough to carry the team all by itself. LSU is hitting .292 as a club.
“They’ve got terrific players,” Cannizaro said. “They are by far the most talented group of position players that we’ve faced all year. Top to bottom in their lineup and even on the bench, they are tremendously talented.”
It’s a task that the Bulldogs must tackle though if MSU has any aspirations of winning a championship this weekend. To claim a share of the overall SEC regular season title, the Bulldogs must sweep the Tigers, then have Kentucky take two of three from Florida. That would allow MSU to end the season with identical SEC records as Florida and Kentucky.
The path to claiming at least a piece of the SEC West championship is a little clearer. If State takes two out of three against LSU this weekend and Arkansas loses just one game, the Bulldogs and Tigers would end the season tied at the top,  Mississippi State can win the West outright if it can sweep LSU.
The bottom line for MSU is to just win. That’s precisely what Cannizaro plans to do at his old team’s expense.
“I’m so fired up for our guys and the way they’ve navigated the first 27 games in this league,” Cannizaro said. “They have put themselves in position to face LSU this weekend for a chance to win the SEC West. I think that is so freaking cool. It’s unbelievable.”