Years of anticipation have led up to the moment Mississippi State baseball will finally experience Friday.
Back in 2014, MSU announced its plan to build a new Dudy Noble Field. After playing a season with the facility still under construction last year, the new park – now in its completed form – opens its doors for the first time Friday when the Bulldogs host Youngstown State at 4 p.m.
“I’m still remembering when we were playing and there were fences along the third base line and we can’t run in foul territory because of all the construction and stuff,” Mississippi State pitcher Ethan Small said. “This is definitely special and it means a lot to us. Hopefully, it means a lot to everyone else too.”
The new Dudy Noble Field is the largest on-campus facility in all of college baseball. The rebuilt structure features a 360-degree view of the field and has 130,000 square feet of space along the concourse and berm areas. Other features include 96 Left Field Lounge rigs, 20 suites, 12 Left Field Loft units and three unique fan areas – the Farm Bureau Triple Crown Club, the Charlie and Dana Stevenson Omaha Club and the Rooftop Club.
The project cost a total of $68 million.
While the park itself is brand new, that’s not the only things fresh this weekend. In the home team dugout will sit first-year MSU head coach Chris Lemonis making his Bulldog debut after being hired last June. He’s anticipating a wild experience in his first official games as State’s skipper.
“I don’t know if it’s any more anxious than normal years, but it’s not just (my) debut here,” Lemonis said. “It’s opening this park. It’s all the festivities. It’s going to be a crazy weekend. I’m ready for them to say, ‘Play ball’ and all that (other stuff) to be to the side, be able to sit, coach and watch these guys play, but it is exciting. I’ve got family coming in everywhere, so it’ll be a crazy weekend.”
Between the lines, Mississippi State’s lineup this weekend should feature familiar faces. Other than at second base and designated hitter, all of MSU’s expected primary starting position players are returnees from a year ago.
The pitching rotation however, like the ballpark and head coach, will be brand new. Small, the rotation’s lone returnee, will get the ball for Opening Day this afternoon. It’s Small’s first-ever MSU Opening Day start after he ascended to the top of the State pitching staff late last season.
Small could have left after last year’s campaign as he was chosen in the 26th round of the Major League Baseball Draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks, but he elected to return to Starkville. He doesn’t seem to be regretting that decision one bit given what awaits him Friday and in the new season.
“Coming back for another year is definitely worth it when you see (the new stadium) and can be a part of something so big and be a key piece of the team this year,” Small said.
Small will be followed to the mound this weekend by a pair of rotation newcomers. For Saturday’s 2 p.m. game, freshman J.T. Ginn will toe the rubber. Ginn’s mound debut will be one of the most-anticipated starts to a career in MSU history. Ginn elected to come to Mississippi State after being a first-round pick by the Los Angeles Dodgers in last year’s MLB Draft. The Dodgers reportedly offered Ginn $2.4 million to start his professional career, but instead, Ginn chose to fulfill a dream and play for the school he always wanted to play for. Lemonis is confident Ginn can be every bit as good as advertised.
“He was drafted for a reason,” Lemonis said of Ginn. “He’s very talented. I don’t want to put too much on a freshman, but I just think he’s earned it to this point. He’s pitched really well. It’ll be fun to watch him.”
Junior Keegan James will start on the bump for MSU at noon on Sunday to close out opening weekend. James will be starting for the first time since the 2016 campaign. He had 26 relief appearances a year ago, but by all accounts made big strides this offseason to earn a rotation spot.
Small believes James, Ginn and himself give State as good of a 1-2-3 punch as any pitching rotation in the Southeastern Conference.
“I’m really confident in (Ginn and James),” Small said. “They have really good stuff and they’re both high-level people. I think they’ll be fine really. I really think our rotation is going to be very strong. I think any of the three of us could pitch on Fridays.”
Perhaps any of State’s three starting pitchers could indeed pitch on a Friday, but at least for this Friday, that honor is all Small’s. He’ll be the man counted on to usher in a brand new era of Bulldog baseball.
It’s a new park, a new head coach, a new pitching rotation and a new start for MSU. Small is determined to do all he can to make sure it all begins on a winning note.
“I don’t know if I can put it into words,” Small said. “It’s so special. It really means a lot. Hopefully I embrace the pressure and perform well. That’s what we all hope to do, but it really means a lot. I know that’s not saying enough, but it’s so special. This place is crazy and I know (Friday) it’ll be packed and we’ll hopefully get a nice win.”