No. 10 Mississippi State started baseball practice on Friday and held its annual on-campus media day the following day.
Second-year coach Chris Lemonis fielded questions from the media about his team.
CL: "It's an exciting time of the year for baseball players. Yesterday was an opening first team practice for us. Everybody is excited to jump on the field. Here at Mississippi State, you get pretty excited because that's the day we start moving into the rigs. Not only is the team out there, your fans are moving in, and their excited to bring in all their stuff. It's just a fun day for us and it'll be like that all weekend. I'm sure we'll have a ton of fans in the park, and if you don't know already, we probably have the best fans in college baseball. [We] enjoy seeing them out there. It's been a great offseason for our guys and I'm proud of them. We just finished our semester with over a 3.2 GPA. A lot of credit goes to our academic coach Amanda Seifert. We had 30 out of 38 guys with over a 3.0. I know we talk all about their baseball talent, but we have a special group of guys. [On] Friday nights they've been out in the Challenge League, they're out in the community. [It's] just a special group of kids that we have, and I credit that to the kids but also our coaching staff. Jake Gautreau [was the] national assistant coach of the year and Scott Foxhall [was the] national teaching pro of the year. We surround these guys with some special people, and then all of our staff. We've spent a long time in the weight room, and, hopefully, we're pretty strong right now, in shape, healthy, and ready to go. We've been ranked from four to about 15 in the country. I think everybody is about right because we have some really good players and we have some really big holes. If we can fill those holes and find the guys to play in those spots, which I think we have [those guys], then I think we have the chance to be a very special team."
Q: Now that you've gotten a chance to be around the fan base, what were your thoughts on your first season and what can you take away from it?
CL: "Like you said, I had a pretty good idea [of Mississippi State's environment and fans] but when you walk out that tunnel the first night, you realize "Oh this is special, this is a little different." As the year went on there were just so many moments like 'Jake Mangum gets the big hit, and it's a crazy day at the ballpark.' Then you have the regional and that ninth inning of the super regional, just some special moments in my career [and] things that I couldn't imagine going through. It's more the relationship piece, seeing somebody in town, going to speak at a luncheon, yesterday greeting people at the rigs and learning the story of "one tortilla grill." The history here is huge and the passion is huge. It's been a lot of fun and I'm looking forward to year two."
Q: Did any players tell you how nice it was to have the same coaching staff for an offseason?
CL: "They don't say it. They would never tell me that, but I think it is. Also, the ballpark, this time last year we still weren't moved in. [We were] dressing across campus and walking here going through construction. I think having the same coaching staff and also having everything in-house is so nice, having such an easy place to work out in and accessible from a facilities standpoint."
Q: How have you seen players adjust to the change in leadership with Jake Mangum and Elijah MacNamee being gone?
CL: "I think we've seen that this fall. We're still working on it. Our team at this point hasn't gone through too much adversity. Usually when you have adversity is when you see those guys stand up. Our group is great with [Jordan Westburg], [Justin Foscue], and [JT Ginn]. They work, they get after it every day, and they lead in that world. But we haven't hit adversity yet, and we will. No matter how good we want to be, when you play in the SEC West, you're going to get punched in the nose at some point. Our strength and culture will be a big part in how we fight through that. I'm excited for those guys, I mean Jordan Westburg, Justin Foscue, Tanner Allen, and Rowdey Jordan. These guys have played a lot of college baseball at a high level. I feel good about where we're at. It's just hard to replace Jake Mangum and [Ethan Small] with their numbers and their personalities.
Q: How do you feel about the catcher position?
CL: "It's good. I'm excited about Luke [Hancock]. He's caught JT [Ginn] since he was about 14, so they've been together a long time. Luke is a pretty steady personality back there. [Logan Tanner] is another guy coming up that was maybe one of the better catchers in the country coming in, so we feel like we'll have a good spot there. Then [Austin Kelly] backing them up. We feel good about it. I'll be honest with you, I was more nervous about last year at this point and [Dustin Skelton] ended up having one of the better seasons behind the plate over anybody in the country. I give a lot of credit to Kyle Cheesebrough, our catching coach [and] to those guys and their work ethic. Hopefully we'll see the same thing with Luke."
Q: Who's the guy this year that nobody is really talking about that we may see this year?
CL: "We have a couple of special guys back there. We have a lot of depth, so trying to figure out who can run out in between the lines, compete, and throw strikes in front of big crowds and pressure situations. We have a kid, Carlisle Koestler, who was a transfer. It feels like he's 30 years old even though I think he's only 24. He's been through a lot of college baseball. He was the closer at Hinds Community College. He was the Friday night guy at Southeastern Louisiana. He's done it, been there, has good stuff, and has a maturity. I think he's a swing guy for us because he can start too. We have a couple freshman guys like Landon Sims who threw yesterday. He's really polished, big time recruit coming in. The left-handed piece, Jared Shemper, Jack Eagan, and Houston Harding. We need to find a good left-handed piece, that's where Trysten Barlow for us was huge. It's going to be by comity for a little bit. We have handful of [junior college] arms that we brought in that will give us a chance like Chase Patrick and Jaxen Forrester. Just some of those names that we feel like we have some depth there. It'll be a lot of matchup probably. It won't be one guy like Cole [Gordon] last year.
Q: What's your thoughts on the starting pitching and the experience some of those guys have?
CL: "We have a chance to have a dynamic pitching staff, but a couple of them haven't done it yet. That's the piece we have to find out about. We all know JT [Ginn]. We feel like we can go Friday night with anyone in the country with JT. Christian MacLeod is a guy we loved last year who had to redshirt because of an illness and is back. We feel like he has a chance to be one of the better No. 2's out there in the country. We felt that way last year and we didn't get to have him and that was that left hander we needed most of last year. Then Eric Cerantola had a really good spring training, if he figures it out, he's a first-rounder type of guy. [In the] SEC tournament he was 96-98. Now on a starting role he's not throwing that hard. He has a chance. We have [Carlisle] Koestler. We have freshman, Davis Rokose, who has a chance to be really good, but we like to slide him in easily as time goes on to let him get his feet wet. We have a couple of really good options there."
Q: How much pressure is on the team and yourself to get back to Omaha this year?
CL: "It's always there. When you say yes to come to Mississippi State as a player or as a coach it's not just getting to Omaha, it's trying to win in Omaha. It's so hard to get there. That's what people don't realize all the time. Sometimes when you get there it's probably easier in some ways. Matching up right, getting there and staying healthy all year is a big piece, but it's expected in this program. When you come here, and you look around and see these facilities, much is given, and much is expected. We understand it, and the ballclub understands it."
Q: What do you expect from bullpen veterans Riley Self and Spencer Price?
CL: That'll be a big piece for us and seeing how they pitch for us over the next three weeks. I'd love to be able to get those guys back in the mix and have their experience and maturity with everything. Spencer [Price] had an okay fall and Riley [Self] didn't pitch this fall, so us seeing them this spring will be a big piece. Riley was my guy in the middle of the inning outside of Jared Liebelt. I felt like the toughness factor with Riley being able to go out there and get us outs was huge for us, [and] Spencer getting back the mix, finding his confidence, and being able to find that slider."
Q: So far, what has impressed you most about Logan Tanner?
CL: "He's a very talented kid. The first pitch that he threw [in the fall] was 97 [miles per hour], but then I think he walked the bases loaded. He has a chance to be a special player on both sides. He's an advanced catcher and that's where we're probably going to use him most this year. [He has] great hip flexibility and ankle mobility. He sits in there and catches. I watched him yesterday and he catches the low pitch as good as any young catcher I've seen. He has the arm strength behind the plate. The knock on him coming in was that he was a very average hitter, which is probably why he didn't go [in the draft] out of high school. Though, to this point of the year, he's been really good offensively for us. If you come out and watch batting practice, he is strong and there are balls going out of the stadium to every field. He hits balls off the [batters eye], out to left and out to right. He has a lot of strength to him. You'll see him a lot this year. Over his career, you will probably see him on the mound, too."
Q: How long do you anticipate it taking to figure out the spot for the midweek role and the back end of the rotation?
CL: "I hope I don't have to figure [the rotation] out too much. I'm hoping as we lay it out, those guys stay in there. We have a couple early in the year where we play five games in a week and that's where you're trying to figure out some extra guys and get guys some extra work to see who can do what. We have so many new guys, we have 22 new guys in the program, so trying to figure out our arms is huge. Hopefully, we settle into some guys. Sometimes your midweek is just a by committee game. Two guys here, two innings there, three innings there – so I don't get too consumed with the midweeks. It's nice when you have one and you have that guy every midweek and he's rolling, but even last year, we didn't really settle on a midweek guy. We bounced around all year and had a lot of success. We were really good at coming back from 4-0 or 7-0 last year early in the game, which was a credit to our offense. I'm more concerned about building that bullpen right now. Our bullpen was the reason we were very successful last year."
Q: It looks like left field and third base might be the two spots that are up for grabs right now, how do you see those spots shaking out?
CL: "I'm excited because we have some talent in both spots, it's just inexperienced. I don't know if one guy is going to play third base all year, I have a feeling it's going to be a little bit by committee, same with left field. We did that with Josh Hatcher and some of those guys last year and matched them up. We were able to get more success because we do have a couple guys [that can play] in left field. Bryce Brock has been a nice surprise. Drew McGowan is a young kid for us. Hunter French has been one and we just got Brad Cumbest [back] from football. Brad is very talented, but just getting back and getting his feet wet. I think out there with is having two left-handed hitters and two right-handed hitters, that we can use that. You may see us play three guys in a game. It may be a situation where all three are playing, and third base is the same. Kamren James has a chance to be a really good player, but so does Landon Jordan, Noah Fondren, Mason Land and Tanner Leggett. We have some nice depth to this ball club, a little more than we had last year. [When it comes to] matching guys up and putting them in the right scenarios, if a guy is playing bad, I feel like I have another guy to put out there. Defense is going to be the key in those spots. I've harped on those outfielders. I think in terms of infield defense that we're better than we were last year now that we've made the Foscue move and everything else. Josh Hatcher is a really good first baseman. Third [base], I think we can be better defensively. Outfield and defense are where we're spending a lot of time right now. We were just so good with Jake [Mangum], but we have moved Rowdey [Jordan] over. Rowdey's a great centerfielder, so I had a centerfielder playing left field last year."
Q: How would you assess where this team is at. And does it look like it has the makings of a team who can do what you all did last year and make that run?
CL: "I think so. Like I said, there are just some unknowns for us right now. Starting rotation, bullpen, couple spots [in the lineup], but we had the same questions last year. I have a lot trust in our staff, not just in developing them, but we have one of the top recruiting classes in the country that just came in. It's a short window here because most kids don't spend four years, so developing guys and getting the next guy ready is huge. I think we have that type of ball club. We have four, really five [returning] in our lineup with Josh Hatcher. Hatcher, from last summer to now, may be the most impressive guy we've had. Not to put pressure on him, but he's just been really good in everything he's done. I think we have five guys that have played a ton of college baseball from an offensive standpoint. It gives us a shot to go out there and compete every day."
Q: Does this team have an identity yet or is that something you have to get into a few games to develop?
CL: "I think that's one of my biggest question marks. We're still trying to figure that out. We had such an identity last year, with Jake [Mangum] and Ethan [Small] being a piece of of that. We're still fighting in that piece. Some of my older guys, Jordan Westburg works as hard and plays as hard as anybody, but is normally a pretty quiet kid, where Jake [Mangum] was not. Elijah [MacNamee] and Cole Gordon, we lost some real personalities on our team from last year, which was a lot of fun to coach. I think that you'll see some others blossom. I don't think we have our identity yet. Hopefully, it's just that our guys play so hard. That's what I would like someone who watches us play [to think], 'Man, Mississippi State plays hard'. That's the biggest one for us right now."
Q: What is the one thing that you feel like you have to get accomplished not just in the next three weeks, but soon thereafter?
CL: "I think lining up our pitching staff, getting everyone their innings right now, keeping everybody healthy going into that opening weekend is a big piece for us. We're not used to too much cold weather, so getting through this time of year and getting guys their innings, for me, is the biggest piece. The more innings we get, the more at-bats we get, our guys will be ready. I'd really just like to come out of spring training with a healthy team. That's the biggest thing that you're trying to fight. Our system is in and most of our guys know it. We've spent a lot working at it, so I feel pretty confident there."
Q: Speaking of health, I know JT [Ginn] had some arm issues last season, what kind of off-season did he have? Do you think there will be any lingering problems on that end?
CL: "No, he pitched yesterday, and he was really good, especially for the conditions that we had. I think the biggest learning piece for JT was 'Wow, going through the SEC I need to prepare myself, my mind, and also prepare my body'. JT has done a great job with that. He looks like he is in the best shape he's ever been. He works, he loves this game and getting after it, and I think he's more mentally prepared about what he has to do. He actually got up and spoke to a lot of our younger pitchers and said 'Hey, the game itself isn't any different, it's just going out there and pitching on a weekend night.' The atmosphere and strain on you, I think is the biggest thing that JT learned. He's a special player and special makeup, I'm looking forward to watching him pitch this year."
Q: You mentioned personality, JT has some of that – what does it do for the guys to have a first-round draft pick and know that he has their back and will do everything they need him to do?
CL: "He's just got that air about him. Hopefully, that's where the confidence comes from. Ethan Small had it last year. Ethan was kind of the Friday night guy or the lead duck, and everybody followed along right behind him. You've got a special personality there and JT probably does have more of it than anybody in our program. I've been proud of him in the fact that even as a sophomore, he's really not that old but has taken a real leadership position on our pitching staff, especially with our younger guys. When he talks, guys listen. They are tuned into what he's saying and understand what he's gone through already to prepare themselves. He's a huge piece, when I look up at us and think that we can do special things, he's one of the big reasons. You've got to be able to match up on Friday night and we can do that with JT [Ginn]."