STARKVILLE — In November, Andy Cannizaro took the kind of job he had been dreaming of.
At 4 p.m. Friday, Mississippi State’s first-year baseball coach will begin it in earnest when his team opens his inaugural season against 2016 College World Series participant Texas Tech at Dudy Noble Field.
“It’s been even better than I could have anticipated,” Cannizaro said of his time on the job. “The residents and the people in Starkville have been amazing to myself and my family. It truly, in my opinion, without even playing a game, is the mecca of college baseball.”
Judging by what the players have said after their first weeks of playing for Cannizaro, Friday will begin a changing of the guard in terms of MSU’s playing style.
“I have enjoyed coach Cohen so much, and I’ve really enjoyed coach Cannizaro, too, but it’s two completely different style coaches,” MSU shortstop Ryan Gridley said. “The way the practices are run are completely different. We have focused a lot more on fastballs with coach Cannizaro, whereas before it was being able to recognize when to stop your swing on a breaking ball with coach Cohen. It was just a different focus.”
That focus is rooted in a core value of Cannizaro’s.
“We’re going to play the game offensively the way I used to play the game offensively,” Cannizaro said, “We’re going to put pressure on the defense. We want to be aggressive on the fastball. We’re not going to strike out, and we’re going to take a lot of pride in putting the ball in play, making the other team pick the ball up and throw us out. I believe in putting pressure on young players defensively, make the defense handle the baseball.”
Gridley also has noticed the difference in locker room demeanor between Cannizaro and Cohen.
“Before practice, it’s not always talking about baseball, it’s, ‘Hey man, how’s your day going?’ Getting to know you as a person, I really value that,” he said. “He does a great job of that, and you can tell he really means that. It’s not an every month thing, it’s a day-to-day process. He’s one to get to know you, and I think that’s a great coaching tool for any coach.”
The Cannizaro era begins with little to no expectations at the national level, as no major poll or ranking includes MSU in its preseason top 25. Cannizaro understands the program suffered key losses from a team that won 44 games and the Southeastern Conference regular-season title in 2016. He is confident this team has something in it to outperform those expectations.
“I think we’ve got the opportunity to come out and play with energy and surprise people on the national stage,” he said, “and I think our guys are taking a lot of pride in the fact that it’s bothering people that nobody is talking about Ryan Gridley, nobody’s talking about a Luke Alexander or a Cole Gordon.”
In addition to a motivated group of Bulldogs, expect to see a fired up Cannizaro.
“Am I going to be excited? Absolutely. Probably dying to go out there at shortstop with Ryan Gridley and take ground balls,” Cannizaro said.
n In other news, sophomore outfielder Jake Mangum has added to his preseason accolades by named to the Golden Spikes Award watch list, USA Baseball unveiled Wednesday.
Given annually to the top amateur baseball player in the country, the 40th Golden Spikes Award will be presented in partnership with the Rod Dedeaux Foundation on June 29 in Los Angeles.
Coming off of a freshman season in which he claimed the SEC batting crown and was named to seven All-America lists, Mangum has received four 2017 Preseason All-America honors.
In 2016, Mangum recorded a league-high .408 batting average and was named SEC Freshman of the Year and first-team All-SEC. His .408 single-season average is seventh in school history. It eclipsed Rafael Palmeiro’s .406 batting average in his rookie campaign in 1983. Mangum spent the offseason playing for the Bourne Braves in the Cape Cod Baseball League.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson