February 7, 2018 12:06:55 AM
STARKVILLE -- When freshmen saw the field for Andy Cannizaro's first Mississippi State baseball team last season, it was a matter of necessity. When Riley Self, Denver McQuary and Graham Ashcraft were called to pitch, it was because they were among the few healthy and able.
When freshmen see the field this year, it will be because they are the best option on a full roster.
MSU is a little more than a week removed from opening its season with a three-game series at Southern Mississippi, and when it does, it won't surprise Cannizaro to see a handful of freshmen in the starting lineup. If that's how he ultimately fills out his lineup card, he and none of his players will have any hesitations.
"Last year we had some freshmen that came in and were kind of timid; this year, there's no timidness to our freshmen," junior second baseman Hunter Stovall said. "They're all attacking it and fitting in well. They all have good personalities so we bond very well.
"They're kind of like me, they're dirtbags and they all have the mentality of, 'I want to play.' They're pushing each other more than any freshman group I've seen before."
It's possible a freshman or two could join Stovall in the infield. Cannizaro announce the result of the battle for shortstop between Stovall and Luke Alexander at the team's media day Tuesday, saying Alexander will start at shortstop and Stovall at second base. The move results in a vacancy at third base, where Alexander once stood.
"I think a guy that has played really well of late is Tanner Allen," Cannizaro said of the 5-foot-11, 181-pound freshman from Theodore, Alabama. "Outstanding young left-handed hitter, he's an extremely tough out each and every time he's at the plate. Tanner was an infielder and outfielder in high school and in summer ball, but he's a guy that's been working exclusively at third base the last couple of weeks."
Allen has two more freshmen behind him there, one of them being Justin Foscue, a Huntsville, Alabama, native at 6 feet, 197 pounds. The other is Rowdey Jordan, a 5-foot-10, 181-pound Auburn, Alabama, native, but Cannizaro said he sees Jordan seeing more time at left field than third base
Jordan could be a second freshman in the lineup, and the possibility of a third lies in Josh Hatcher, an Albany, Georgia, native at 6-foot-2, 182 pounds. Winning his primary position of first base will come down to the experiment with Elijah MacNamee and his move from the outfield to first base -- exactly what Cannizaro did with Brent Rooker last year en route to his Southeastern Conference Triple Crown.
Cannizaro reserves the right to move MacNamee back to his natural right field, which would open first base for Hatcher. If that's the ultimate result, Hatcher will have the confidence of his teammates.
"Mentally, the hardest thing as a freshman is to handle failure. Hatcher, he has the mind-set where if he's out there on the field against Southern Miss Friday night and he has a bad opening night, I know Saturday he'll be able to flush it and have good at-bats," junior center fielder Jake Mangum said. "That says a lot about him and his makeup."
MSU could also turn to a freshman on the mound in Zane Stephens, the 5-foot-11, 163-pound Live Oak, Florida, native. Stephens is not in the mix for a spot in the weekend rotation, but bullpen innings remain up for grabs, especially after Spencer Price's recent injury that will make him miss the 2018 season after Tommy John surgery.
Clearly, opportunities for freshmen to play immediately are there for the taking. Stovall sees. Cannizaro's structure as one that makes them ready to rise to the occasion.
"He pushes us to be the best we can be: every rep we take is supposed to be game-like," Stovall said. "These freshmen, they get after it. That's all I know how to say. We have guys out there getting early work, we have guys out there half an hour before early work starts taking ground balls. They want to play so bad and you can see it in every single one of them."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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