December 11, 2017 10:27:41 AM
STARKVILLE -- There's still a lot of new things coming at Andy Cannizaro, even in year two as Mississippi State's baseball coach.
For the first time in his head coaching career, Cannizaro got to go through an entire fall practice schedule with his team and do so with a full roster of healthy pitchers -- which is also new, given the injuries that plagued his first season.
The benefits of it all were clear to Cannizaro after the fall, which concluded with a final intrasquad scrimmage series Nov. 17-19 at Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson. Cannizaro looked back on what he deemed a productive fall with The Dispatch.
"I think one of the biggest differences in a year is an overall comfort level over a majority of your roster and who can do what," Cannizaro said.
That applies to the pitching staff more than anywhere else.
The fall was the first time back to game-like situations for both Noah Hughes and Ethan Small, both of them coming back from Tommy John surgery that kept them out of the entire 2017 season. Keegan James and Blake Smith were not at full blast during the fall, but could get that way as early as the preseason in January and February.
Their return, in addition to a crop of five newcomer pitchers, has already shown Cannizaro he will have options he never had last season.
"Every day at practice, it was such a welcomed addition to be able to run out more than five or six healthy pitchers," Cannizaro said. "We were able to intrasquad every single day, we had a full roster of guys that were able to take the ball. I think the entire team is going to really benefit over the course of 65 and 70 games from having a full allotment of healthy arms and not having to go to the well in game three and four and five, and have those same guys in game 65 and game 70."
Among the newcomers that stood out was junior college transfer Cole Marsh, who started the first game of the final intrasquad scrimmage, and freshman Zane Stephens. Stephens, out of Live Oak, Florida, pitched the final 2 1/3 innings of the final game in scoreless fashion, flashing potential for the future.
"Zane's going to be the ultimate strike-thrower here at Mississippi State," Cannizaro said. "He's a guy that's built like a true freshman: three years from now, you're going to see him increase velocity and you're going to see him increase workload the stronger he gets."
Cannizaro added the depth of the pitching staff is going to help Stephens. In a perfect world, Cannizaro can be picky with when he uses Stephens to get him innings in low-leverage situations, easing him into college baseball.
That may not be the tact for freshman infielder Rowdey Jordan.
"Rowdey was on base all fall," Cannizaro said. "Rowdey's my kind of player: there's some versatility with him defensively, he can really run, he gives you ultra-competitive at-bats. He's kind of a hard-nosed kid that loves playing baseball and he's going to find his way on the field early."
When exactly that time comes remains to be seen -- as does most of MSU's lineup configuration. Center fielder Jake Mangum and some infield combination including Hunter Stovall and Luke Alexander seem to be the only guarantees; everyone else is either battling for a spot in the lineup or, in the case of Elijah MacNamee, deciding where in the field he will play. MacNamee started in the outfield last year but spent the fall experimenting at first base.
The questions left to be answered when preseason begins in late January are of no concern for Cannizaro.
"Part of the job is you're always thinking about it. Even in then middle of December with no baseball going on, our staff meets about it every day," he told The Dispatch. "We're coming up with depth charts, lineup movements, lineup possibilities and there's a lot of it that's going to change before Opening Night in Hattiesburg because we're going to be on the field for a month before then."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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