Bulldog bats gearing up to step up
Mississippi State hitting coach Jake Gautreau has developed a plan. When Gautreau met with reporters a few days ago to talk about MSU's progress this fall, he laid out how the 2021 Bulldog lineup will replace the production of Justin Foscue and Jordan Westburg – two big bats that were taken in the first round of this year's MLB Draft.
"We’ll just put all the pressure on (pitching coach Scott Foxhall)," Gautreau joked. "We have a really deep pitching staff, so we’ll make sure we really pitch it and punch everybody out. We’ll just play a little bit of small ball and win games."
To reiterate, Gautreau said this in jest. But he's absolutely right in one regard. When Opening Day rolls around in a few months, MSU is expected to boast arguably the most talented top-to-bottom group of hurlers in school history. Neither Gautreau, nor the Bulldog bats, have any plans to put all the pressure on those arms though.
"We lost some really good players in the middle of the lineup, but we have some guys who are still here that can do some damage," Gautreau said. "As these guys are getting better and getting older and understanding how to use their body – use their legs in their swing – you’re starting to see guys hit for more power, especially the older guys. I think we’ll have plenty enough athleticism, plenty enough talent and plenty enough strength to do what we’re used to doing here offensively."
It's far too early to roll out any kind of starting lineup for the 2021 Diamond Dogs, but the guys State will count on the most seem somewhat obvious. All of last year's position players return, save for Foscue and Westburg up the middle at second base and shortstop respectively. So if things roll over from a year ago, the Bulldogs seem likely to rely on Tanner Allen, Rowdey Jordan and Brandon Pimentel in the outfield from right to left. Josh Hatcher is expected to play first. Logan Tanner and Luke Hancock give State an incredibly talented duo to handle catching duties. Kamren James played third last season, but he seems to be the odds-on favorite to be State's shortstop. Transfer Scott Dubrule will have a chance to win the second base job. Meanwhile veteran Landon Jordan and freshman Kellum Clark could either one possibly play third. Other names could factor in too, with Tanner Leggett and Drew McGowan among them. So what are Gautreau's impressions out of these players so far this fall?
On Rowdey Jordan, Allen and Hatcher: "Those guys are continuing right where they left off. They’re playing really good baseball. We know what we’re going to get with those guys. You know what you’re going to get, but they’re getting better. They’re doing some really impressive stuff this fall."
On James: "Kamren James is showing to be a real SEC shortstop. The profile is what Major League Baseball loves in regard to his body and the way his overall game plays out."
On Pimentel (who struggled in last year's shortened season): "A little first-year jitters (last year). Right before Opening Day and the two weeks before, he was the best hitter on our field. When you see him do it over and over again, you know it’s in there. Now, it is what it is. When the season starts, there’s 13,000 people in that ball park. There’s a little more added pressure. You start to think too much and press a little bit. He kind of got out of his groove, out of his approach. I think he was trying too hard, but there’s a special player in there. He’s done well. We’re working every day. He’s a guy if it clicks, and he stays consistent, he can do some real damage in the middle of the lineup."
On Clark: "We knew he was a special player. We’re playing him at third, but he could play first or corner outfield. He’s a very physical, athletic, left-handed bat with a real feel to hit and real power. You’re real excited about him."
On Dubrule: "He’s a table setter. He’s kind of a grinder. He’s a baseball player that does everything the right way. He’s really competitive... (He's a) veteran, real middle infielder. He led Jacksonville with a school-record in hits (and) knows how to play the game."
On other guys: "Tanner Leggett has been working like crazy. He can play anywhere for us. Brayland Skinner came here as a centerfielder who can really defend. (He is) highly athletic, still learning the game, learning an approach, but is pretty promising when you look at what he can do on a baseball field. I’m sure I’m leaving a bunch of guys out...Kyte McDonald has made a big jump. Drew McGowan is doing well. I don’t want to leave anybody out and I know I am, but in general, I like our team."
It's a promising group for sure, but the Bulldogs could absolutely stand to get more from their bats than they were getting a year ago when the season was shut down. Even in a lineup that included Foscue and Westburg, MSU's team batting average (.258) was next-to-last in the Southeastern Conference when everything was called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Bulldogs were also next to last in the SEC in home runs (11) and slugging percentage (.378). They were dead last in the league in on-base percentage (.354) and runs scored (85). It does bear mentioning that State accumulated these numbers playing only 16 games while most of the SEC played 17 or 18, but the fact remains, the Bulldogs would love to do better.
Now if MSU's 2021 pitching staff performs at the level many expect, the Bulldogs won't need to be a juggernaut with the bats in their hands this upcoming season. But the name of the game is still outscoring the opposition and, with a long way to go before MSU begins trying to pave a path back towards the College World Series, Gautreau thinks he has a group that can produce in multiple ways and provide plenty of support for State's stable of arms.
"I like the guys we have in place," Gautreau said. "We’ve got guys returning that can hit with some juice and we’ve got some new guys who can do the same. On the flip side, we have some ability as athletes and they can create a little bit different kind of chaos in the game. We’ll see how it all plays out. We’ll just keep doing what we do."
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