May 18, 2017 10:09:53 AM
STARKVILLE -- If only he had played a stint with the New Orleans Baby Cakes, Andy Cannizaro would have Louisianan influences at all levels of his baseball career.
Still, removed from his home state, Cannizaro knows what this weekend means for the state's baseball community.
As Mississippi State's baseball coach, Cannizaro will lead his team against LSU, his former employer and flagship university in his home state, for the Southeastern Conference West Division championship. The series between the Bulldogs (34-19, 17-10 SEC) and the Tigers (36-17, 18-9 SEC) will begin at 6 tonight (SEC Network).
"It's been a busy week. Text messages, phone messages, phone calls. Those kinds of things," Cannizaro said. "Having grown up in the state of Louisiana, I understand high school baseball in Louisiana. I understand the passion they have for baseball in the state of Louisiana."
Cannizaro's connections in Louisiana branch out from his upbringing just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. St. Paul's Catholic School in Covington, Louisiana, was his route to Tulane, which was the school "he was always going to go to." After four years as a player for Tulane, Cannizaro's eight-year Louisiana sabbatical -- otherwise known as his professional playing career -- led to his route back to the state as a scout for the New York Yankees.
Scouting the area for the Yankees gave Cannizaro a link to the only thing missing from completing his Louisiana baseball resume: coaching for LSU.
Cannizaro served as an assistant coach for two years at LSU, including most of the fall of the 2016-17 school year. That tenure ended in November, when Cannizaro was hired to replace John Cohen as LSU was finishing fall practice.
"I've got a lot of people that are following (MSU baseball) and saying how cool this is," Cannizaro said.
Cannizaro admits those relationships are nothing like the ones he has with his competitors.
LSU freshman infielder Jake Slaughter is one of them. Recruited out of Ouachita Christian school in Monroe, Louisiana, Slaughter committed to LSU the day he met Cannizaro.
"He's a young, energetic, fiery guy," said Ouachita Christian baseball coach John Parker, who coached Slaughter. "I think he attracts a lot of high school kids based on that enthusiasm and love for the game of baseball."
Fellow LSU freshman Zach Watson, although not recruited by Cannizaro, also has seen his impact on the current roster. He said he has heard stories from players recruited by Cannizaro, but the team has put those in the context of the weekend to come.
"We have to win," Watson said.
So does MSU.
If MSU sweeps LSU, it will claim the SEC West championship outright and, with help, could take the SEC tournament's top seed. If Kentucky wins two of three games at Florida, combined with a MSU sweep, those three teams would be tied with conference records of 20-10. They would be crowned co-champions, but the tiebreaker would move to the record against the highest-ranked common conference opponent, which would be LSU. MSU then would claim the No. 1 seed, based on its sweep the Tigers.
MSU's path to a SEC West championship also is complicated. MSU will be eliminated from the division title race if it wins one or no games this weekend. Winning two games could result in a shared championship. MSU beating LSU twice would leave the teams tied at 19-11. The only way they don't finish the season as co-division champions is if Arkansas sweeps Texas A&M. That would push the Razorbacks to 19-10. Arkansas had one of its games against Tennessee rained out. It would clinch the division on winning percentage.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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