June 8, 2017 10:52:51 AM
Cody Brown woke up earlier than usual Saturday morning.
It was understandable because something was weighing on his mind.
Brown couldn't sleep as long as usual because he was staring down the prospect of the end of his Mississippi State baseball career. The only way to live to play another weekend was to find a way to help MSU win four games in two days. It was a grueling task for any squad, but it appeared to be even tougher for a team with a pitching staff as thin as MSU's.
But MSU coach Andy Cannizaro's team has fought all season. The first-year head coach has nurtured that mentality by supplying symbols of that mind-set -- a pair of boxing gloves that are signed by the player who best displays that grit -- to inspire that fight.
The latest episode of MSU punching above its weight class featured a journey through the NCAA tournament's Hattiesburg Regional with a pitching staff similar in roster size to that of the average Little League team. Cannizaro made that comparison when he likened it to his youth baseball days, when players would shuffle around the field and someone would take the mound.
Some would call winning the Hattiesburg Regional, including two victories against No. 1 seed and No. 14 Southern Mississippi on Monday, even with MSU's talent level, a stroke of luck. Cannizaro calls it character.
"Everything about this day, everything about this game (Monday night) summarizes who we are as a team," he said. "The resiliency, the fight, the grind. These guys never quit. They never, ever quit. There's never a game they think they aren't going to win."
Things will get tougher.
LSU is ranked No. 4. The Tigers swept the Bulldogs in a three-game SEC series last month in Starkville. A trip to the College World Series likely would mean MSU would have to face even higher ranked teams.
The Bulldogs likely won't benefit from anomalies like three Southern Mississippi errors, Josh Lovelady's first career home run, or Jacob Billingsley turning his first start of longer than five innings into a complete game.
MSU also won't have a home-field advantage from here on out. Pete Taylor Park in Hattiesburg wasn't as friendly as Dudy Noble Field, but MSU saw more maroon there than it will at Alex Box Stadium or at the College World Series.
But all of those challenges don't come in tournaments built to make this MSU roster fail.
After all, Cannizaro said after the Southeastern Conference tournament he trusted only six pitchers for the postseason, but the Bulldogs were forced to use 10 in the Hattiesburg Regional.
MSU's margin for error likely will be smaller this weekend. That could change if rain plays a role and forces the teams to change their schedule. If weather cooperates, a trip to the College World Series likely would be less taxing than the one MSU had to adjust to in Hattiesburg.
None of that is to say MSU is a favorite to win this weekend or get to the College World Series. But MSU won't care. It has come to live comfortably as the underdog and a team that fights to earn everything it gets.
"Having (the end of my career) in the back of my mind, at-bat after at-bat, it's tough knowing this could be your last day wearing a Mississippi State jersey, but it's awesome," Brown said. "We pushed through it, and I can't wait to play at least two more games."
Brett Hudson is the MSU beat writer for The Dispatch. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Brett_Hudson.
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