MSU baseball veterans have some unfinished business

MSU's Jake Mangum
Staff Writer

In Jake Mangum’s eyes, the job at Mississippi State wasn’t finished yet.

MSU’s junior centerfielder had a pretty good opportunity to leave Starkville for professional baseball after last season when the New York Yankees selected him in the 30th round of the MLB Draft, but when the Bulldogs begin their 2018 season this Friday at Southern Miss, Mangum will be patrolling centerfield for State instead of working his way towards the big leagues.

“We have gone 0-4 in super regionals,” Mangum gave as the reason behind his return to MSU for his junior season. “There was no way I was going to leave after that.

“I’m not ending on that.”

Mangum is the centerpiece of the returning veterans who’ll anchor Mississippi State’s lineup in 2018. He’s a preseason first-team All-Southeastern Conference selection by league coaches. He’s a former SEC Freshman of the Year. Maybe most importantly, he’s a leader.

“He had a terrific fall,” MSU head coach Andy Cannizaro said of Mangum. “He has had an outstanding last couple of weeks of practice, and he has done a tremendous job as far as reading our team so far and trying to get some younger guys ready to play each and every day.”

Yet while Mangum is maybe the most well-known veteran who’ll be in State’s lineup come Friday, he’s far from the only guy who Cannizaro is counting on to be a linchpin for the Bulldogs.

In a lineup that’ll likely be heavily featuring first-year guys, Mangum, as well as fellow returnees Hunter Stovall, Luke Alexander, Elijah MacNamee and Hunter Vansau will be key.

“Those guys are a core that played each and every day last year and went through the battles of the SEC to win 40 games and get to a super regional," Cannizaro said. "Having those guys back has been able to allow us some veteran presence and some veteran leadership that is out on the practice field working all the time for us.”

Three of State’s veterans will make up the middle of the field. While Mangum holds down centerfield, Alexander and Stovall will take care of things at shortstop and second base, respectively.

Alexander is moving to short this season after primarily spending last year at third. Stovall is back at second after starting 43 games there last year.

The duo is productive offensively – Stovall hit .288 a year ago while Alexander hit more home runs for the Bulldogs last season (five) than any returning player – however, it’s the two’s defense that is earning the most praise as the season draws near.

“I think when you start talking about those two guys who have played for two years now in the SEC, that gives us a great veteran presence and a lot of ability up the middle of the field that is really going to allow us to defend at an extremely high level again this season,” Cannizaro said. “With a lot of confidence, I can tell you that Hunter Stovall is the best defensive second baseman in the SEC. Watching him turn double plays every day, watching his range laterally, he is able to come get the baseball extremely well. He is a guy that is continuing to get better and better each and every day out on the field. His at-bats have been outstanding and he has really become a leader this year for the first time in our program.

“(Alexander) is a guy that is going to slide over from third to short this year. He is a guy that has lost five to 10 pounds from a year ago. He is moving better. His range is better. I think he is a guy that is really going to do an outstanding job of defending at a really high level this year at shortstop for us."

Like Cannizaro, Stovall is expecting big things out of himself and his double play partner.

“I truly believe we will be the best middle infield in the SEC, if not all of college baseball, this year,” Stovall said. “(Alexander and I) have worked together and been buddies for a long time. I have a feeling we’re going to make some crazy plays. We push each other day in and day out and we’re out there turning double plays every single day. I’m looking forward to working with him up the middle.”

While Stovall and Alexander’s biggest contributions to MSU this season might come with the glove, two other Mississippi State veterans will likely be known more for their bats.

Vansau and MacNamee both split time in right field and as the designated hitter last season. Both showed glimpses of offensive potential.

Vansau hit .297 with six extra-base hits and drove in 14 runs. MacNamee hit .267 with a pair of homers, six doubles, a triple and 22 RBI.

After the conclusion of MSU’s season, both Vansau and MacNamee seemed to take strides forward over the course of summer ball. Both were selected all-stars in their respective leagues.

Vansau led his team in homers (eight) and RBI (33) while batting .359. MacNamee hit .315 with eight doubles, three homers and 24 RBI.

Early indications are that MacNamee will begin the year as MSU’s starting right fielder, though it’s possible he could play first base. If Vansau isn’t in the field, he’ll almost certainly be the Bulldogs designated hitter.

No matter what happens, Vansau and MacNamee are pretty much locks to be in the middle of State’s lineup and if they can keep up this past summer’s pace over the course of the regular season this year, it’ll go a long way towards making the Bulldogs a dangerous offensive team.

Stovall thinks that can happen.

“It’s going to be a balanced lineup,” Stovall said. “You have guys like myself and (Mangum) that can show power, but most times we’ll get base hits, then you’ll have guys like (Macnamee and Vansau) that can drive gaps and get us in. If we can get on base at the top of the order, there’s a high probability of one of those other guys driving us in.”

Mangum, Stovall, Alexander, MacNamee and Vansau won’t be alone in trying to make MSU a dangerous team both offensively and defensively. First-year players and a few other veterans will try and do their part to make 2018 a successful year for the Bulldogs.

However teams often go only as far as their leaders take them. If Mangum has his way, State’s returnees will guide MSU right into this year’s College World Series.

“We want to go to Omaha,” Mangum said. “That’s all we have been doing since August is getting ready for that.”