MSU experiences frustrating opening day in baseball

Staff Writer

It had been eight months since Mississippi State triumphantly left Southern Mississippi's Pete Taylor Park with a Super Regional berth in hand and offense spearheaded the Bulldogs two-win night to get there.

The No. 12 Bulldogs longed for that type of magic again on Friday when the 2018 season opened on that same field.

It was a disaster in the field defensively, on the mound and at the plate for the Bulldogs, who were left stunned in an 11-0 blowout. Ace pitcher Konnor Pilkington lasted just four innings, State managed just six hits and its returning starters were 2-for-16.

"It was just frustrating," MSU coach Andy Cannizaro said multiple times post game. “We’ve got to be better on the mound and better in the bullpen. The good thing about baseball is we get to play again (today) at 1 o’clock. We’re not looking at the whole weekend as a whole. We’re looking at three individual battles. They punched us in the mouth, but I’m looking forward to seeing how we respond.”

Facing off against All-American and Preseason Conference USA Pitcher of the Year Nick Sandlin, the Bulldogs were baffled. Jake Mangum was 2-for-4 at the top of the order, but was the only returning starter to record a hit.
With a lineup of three freshman and a first-year junior college player, MSU needed veteran leadership against an experienced Southern Miss club and couldn’t get enough.

“For us to do the things that we want to do, we need those guys to perform," Cannizaro said. "You lose guys like (Ryan) Gridley, (Brent) Rooker and Cody Brown and that’s tough to replace, but every year is a different year, They’re going to have good years, but this is just opening night.”

It wasn’t until the third inning until either pitcher would blink. The Bulldogs started to find some success against Sandlin when Rowdey Jordan, Mangum and Josh Hatcher strung together three-straight two-out hits. A grounder ended that threat, however and it stayed scoreless.

Southern Miss got to Pilkington in the fourth inning when former MSU player Luke Reynolds got a one-out single and moved into scoring position with a wild pitch. With two down, Hunter Slater laced an RBI double in the gap in left field as the Golden Eagles took the 1-0 lead.

Pilkington’s struggles continued on the first pitch of the fifth inning when Matthew Guidry smoked a solo home run to right field for the 2-0 advantage. That lifted the All-American starter Pilkington and gave way to Keegan James.

Southern Miss added another run in the inning on a two-out fielder’s choice by Reynolds as State just missed a double play. A comfortable 3-0 lead was in Sandlin’s hands headed to the sixth.
The Golden Eagles were handed some fortune in the bottom of the sixth when James threw away a pickoff attempt with one out moving a runner to third. Guidry struck with a long fly out that scored that run for the 4-0 advantage.

The former Bulldog Reynolds was back to cause more issues for MSU pitching in the seventh when he doubled home a run making it 5-0. Jared Liebelt was pitching for State with the bases loaded and two outs and had a grounder to Tanner Allen, who couldn’t step on the third base bag and another run scored making it 6-0.

Liebelt continued to struggle in the eighth when he walked three batters and hit two more and Southern Miss tacked on five runs chasing Liebelt.

Hatcher came in from first base and retired the two batters he faced with strikeouts, but the damage was done and that 11-0 lead held.

The freshman Hatcher turned out to be the most productive player both on the mound and at the plate. He led the Bulldogs with a 3-for-4 night batting which was unusual for the night against Sandlin.

“I had a good approach coming in and just stuck with that approach and it worked out,” Hatcher said. “It would have been a lot better had we gotten the win. It’s a tough loss on opening day, but we’re looking to bounce back (Saturday).”

Pilkington finished by giving up five hits, two earned runs and striking out six batters. Sandlin stood tall as the alpha in this game with a career high seven innings in his first career start and nine strikeouts.

Cannizaro knew his team would be in for a battle, but 11-0 is something he mentioned he’s excited about forgetting by Saturday. The two teams will meet again for game two at 1 p.m. Saturday afternoon.

“This is an outstanding ball club," Cannizaro said of Southern Miss. "They’re veteran, (and) they’re physical. Sandlin did an outstanding job setting the tone and he was the best player in the ball park. It was just a frustrating night.”