STARKVILLE — Chris Lemonis’ first fall as Mississippi State’s baseball coach will conclude with a weekend of evaluation and some time with fathers and sons.
MSU will kick off its annual intrasquad world series with Game 1 at 4 p.m. Thursday. The series will wrap up with games at 7:30 p.m. Friday and at 11:30 a.m. Saturday.
Also Saturday, MSU will hold its Fall Father and Son Overnight Camp.
The Dispatch talked with Lemonis on Tuesday for a question-and-answer session.
The Dispatch: You said when you were introduced you were probably the first coach to take over a team days after it was one of the final four in Omaha, Nebraska (at the College World Series). What has it been like to start with a team like this?
Lemonis: It’s a lot of implementation, the players getting to know us and us getting to know the players. As we finish going through the last week of the fall, there’s things we need to work on a little more — putting in our system, learning how it works around here, learning the kids, their personalities and vice versa, learning about us and our personalities. That’s been a big part of the first eight weeks.
The Dispatch: Would culture be another way to put it?
Lemonis: It’s learning everything about it and developing it. It’s hard to be a family or that close when you don’t know each other that well. We’re in that process of building that relationship piece.
The Dispatch: What do you want the trademark of your culture to be?
Lemonis: That we live this, that this is a big part of us. We jump out there, we play the game, and we play it the right way. I think that’s a big piece, and we take that off the field in everything we do. Like I talk to them all the time, you can’t just be great on the field. It’s about being great off the field, being a good guy, being a good teammate, playing the game the right way. We feel like if we get the right player in this type of program they’re going to blossom. That’s the big key to us is on our side we have to recruit the right kind of player, but the flip side, if you can get them in the right culture of being their best every day, how good can you become? It’s very coach speak, but it’s true.
The Dispatch: One of many benefits of taking over this team at this point in time is a lineup that is heavy with really good bats, but it’s your job to improve those bats. Where are you working with the lineup as a whole?
Lemonis: It’s a little bit tough. We do have some really good pieces in our lineup. I tell everybody one of the biggest keys for us will be how our sophomores develop, I think that’s a big piece. I think you know what you get from Jake Mangum or some of those kids, but it’s that younger group that played well over the last month last year. How will they develop? That could be the difference in us being great and good.
I’m a big believer in your position players because those are the ones that play every day. They’re your energy. They’re the face of your program a lot of the time. Great pitchers will pitch once a week, but you’re running a lineup out there five days a week, the fans get to know these guys. We have to improve. Every guy that came back, even Jake Mangum, we’ve talked about areas we can make better. That’s the biggest key to me: Are we going to get the Justin Foscue we had at the end of the year or at the beginning of the year? (What about) Rowdey Jordan or some of these guys? I think that’s a big piece.
The Dispatch: That was something that struck me at the end of last season, I kept waiting for those freshmen to hit the freshman wall. Your predecessor (Gary Henderson) even mentioned it early on, they’re going to hit this wall. They never did. What do you think it says about them that they went to Omaha and never hit that wall?
Lemonis: We were talking about it yesterday. I hate to use the word, “gamer,” but we do have some kids that when the lights come on, boy they really like to play. They embrace that. When you get to play in this environment day in and day out, it doesn’t overwhelm you, whereas right now I’m worried about freshmen: What is it going to look like when the lights come on?
The Dispatch: You’ve got Mangum and Ethan Small back. You’ve got guys who are expected to be at the top of their positions. How does that help establish what you want to be?
Lemonis: It’s nice to have an established Friday-night guy. It’s nice to have an established hitter who’s gone through the league like he has. Elijah MacNamee (has) really walked through a maturity wall, ‘Hey, I belong here.’ Jordan Westburg’s been a guy that’s been tremendous for us this fall in the way he practices every day and how strong he wants to be a better player. The guy’s an animal.
The Dispatch: What do you want in a shortstop?
Lemonis: To catch everything. He’s still learning the position, but he’s very talented and he can play the position for a very long time. There’s still a couple of plays here and there that he’s learning, but that’s part of the process of growing. He’s been really good, probably one of our better players of the fall has been Jordan Westburg. He can run, he can hit, he’s hit for some power. He’s done some things across the board.
The Dispatch: You mentioned at the Columbus Rotary Club meeting that you like having set roles in the bullpen. What do you look for in a setup man, in a closer, and in a middle reliever?
Lemonis: There’s a piece of consistency. If somebody’s going to beat us in the ninth, I want them to get a couple of hits. It’s got to be a guy who pounds the zone, makes pitches, and can throw his breaking ball for a strike under pressure. In those other roles, you need something they’re going to swing and miss at, and also I like a funky guy from the right and a funky guy from the left. Last year I had a sidearm/submarine guy (B.J. Sable) that for two-thirds of the season didn’t give up a hit to a lefty. It gets you out of a lot of jams. He was a tough kid, hitting 83 (miles per hour), 84, but got every lefty out. I’d love to have some pieces like that. We don’t have that right now. We’ve got some candidates.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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