Ethan Small

Ethan Small is the ace of the Mississippi State pitching staff.

Mississippi State head coach Chris Lemonis and the Bulldogs are ready.

They better be, because here comes Southeastern Conference play and it’s starting off with a top-10 showdown.

No. 5 MSU (16-1) hits the road this weekend for a three-game set at No. 7 Florida (14-5). The series opens up at 5:30 p.m. Friday and continues with 1 p.m. tilts on Saturday and Sunday.

Riding a 12-game winning streak and after winning 16 of 17 non-conference affairs, Lemonis says his club is as prepared as they could hope as the gauntlet that is SEC play begins.

“If you’d told me at the beginning we’d be where we are now, I’d take it,” Lemonis said. “I think we’ve learned a lot.”

Indeed the Bulldogs do appear to have answered many of the questions they had a month ago when the season started. Over the last four weeks, MSU has appeared to completely solidify a weekend pitching rotation. Expected ace Ethan Small has lived up to the billing. Saturday starter and freshman J.T. Ginn has emerged as a star to give State one of the country’s best one-two pitching punches. Keegan James has been solid on Sundays. All three of State’s weekend starters sport earned run averages of 1.80 or lower.

The MSU bullpen has made for a complete Bulldog pitching staff. In all this season, Mississippi State has had 15 hurlers on the mound. Of the 15 pitchers, 12 of them have ERAs under 1.80. As a team, the Bulldogs have a 1.69 staff ERA.

“We had to learn so much about our pitching I felt like (coming into the year), and our position players, but mainly our pitching,” Lemonis said. “We’ve had some guys really develop their roles in a short amount of time and I’m excited about it.”

By the way, MSU’s bats haven’t been all that bad either. The Bulldogs have battled inconsistency in the lineup, but overall State is hitting .311 as a team. If there’s a knock, it’s that State has been a bit streaky.

Rowdey Jordan has been mired in a season-long slump. Tanner Allen began the year on fire with a pair of homers and 13 RBI in the first three games, but he fell off before a strong showing on Wednesday in a midweek win over Grambling. Elijah MacNamee was a bit up and down through the first few weeks, but he’s suddenly 8-for-15 in his last four games and hit a grand slam and drove in five runs on Wednesday.

It’s the inconsistency that MacNamee says is keeping MSU from fully clicking on all cylinders. MacNamee says the Bulldogs have to do a better job of staying locked in so they can reach their full potential.

“I think focus is a big thing,” MacNamee said. “We need to keep looking forward and getting better each day and not settling in where we are.”

Focus shouldn’t be an issue against the talented Gators. Like Mississippi State, no one would be surprised if Florida were to be a College World Series team by season’s end.

The Bulldogs have pretty much passed every test with flying colors so far this season. Now, with Florida looming, the biggest exams are about to start. MSU is ready to see how it stacks up with teams like the Gators.

“They’re very talented all around, so are we” MacNamee said of Florida. “I think, especially when there are even better guys on the mound, there’s going to be more focus from us. We’re going to go in there and do what we do and take care of business and stick with our plan and our approach.”

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