STARKVILLE — Andy Cannizaro believes in competition.
MSU’s first-year head baseball coach has facilitated plenty of it at practice, and it looks like his players will get more of it prior to the season opener.
Cannizaro provided that outline for his Bulldogs on Saturday at Media Day. He said every-day competition will continue at some positions to determine starters and will extend into the opening weeks of the season at other spots.
“I’ve always believed in the theory that if you let them compete against each other the cream truly does rise to the top,” Cannizaro said. “That’s the model I’ve gone into the last couple of weeks with: put them on the field, head-to-head competition, show me who can play, show our coaching staff who can help our team win, show (pitching coach) Gary Henderson who we can trust putting on the mound.”
Henderson knows Konnor Pilkington will be his No. 1 starter because Cannizaro announced Pilkington will start at 4 p.m. Friday when MSU faces 2016 College World Series participant Texas Tech in its season opener at Dudy Noble Field. Pilkington was 3-1 with a 2.08 earned run average in 11 starts as a freshman last season. His ERA was second on the team among Bulldogs with at least six starts.
“You’re talking about a 6-foot-3, 230-pound, physical left-handed pitcher that’s going to run his fastball up to 93, 94 mph with a plus breaking ball and a swing-and-miss changeup,” Cannizaro said. “He’s a guy that, in my opinion, and our coaching staff’s opinion, will be the next great Mississippi State pitcher. ”
While the remainder of the starting rotation hasn’t been determined, Pilkington’s teammates have no doubt he can anchor the staff.
“Pilkington is a Friday night starter in the SEC,” center fielder Jake Mangum said. “He is 100 percent ready to take the load for this pitching staff.”
Cannizaro described an infield that is nearly complete. He said junior Ryan Gridley has impressed at shortstop and that sophomore Luke Alexander has shifted to third base and will start there.
“Ryan Gridley is going to be our shortstop, and Ryan Gridley has been sensational over the last few weeks,” Cannizaro said. “He keeps getting better, better, and better. I really feel like he’s going to be one of the surprise, breakout players in the SEC this year.
“(Alexander) is new to the position, but he’s already made plays over there I don’t think anybody else on our team is capable of doing. That’s athleticism and quickness in his hands.”
Cannizaro said sophomore Hunter Stovall is, “more than likely to be the second baseman,” while the bulk of early playing time at first base will be split between sophomore Cole Gordon and senior Cody Brown.
The third outfield spot with Mangum and Brent Rooker and the bullpen are spots where the Bulldogs will continue to work to answer questions.
“I’m not ready to name a closer or a setup guy, but the three veteran guys I feel really confident in are Blake Smith in the back end, Ryan Rigby in the back end and then newcomer Spencer Price has been outstanding for us in the last couple of weeks,” Cannizaro said.
Cannizaro also said Riley Self, a freshman from Coldwater, as a potential starter or reliever.
MSU will play four games in its opening weekend. It will take on Western Illinois on Saturday afternoon and play one game against Texas Tech and another against Western Illinois on Sunday..
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson