This weekend’s LSU-Mississippi State baseball series is going to have a little bit of everything.
Kudos to whoever drew up this year’s Southeastern Conference baseball schedule. In the last chapter of the season, the Eastern Division’s top two contenders (Kentucky at Florida) will battle, while the Tigers and Bulldogs go at it for supremacy in the Western Division in the college town that never sleeps: Starkville.
Then there’s the little matter of NCAA tournament implications. LSU, with its current one-game lead over State, top-10 rankings in the polls and a No. 12 RPI, has muscled its way back into the conversation for a top-eight national seed, while State is trying to at least secure a regional host site.
Hovering above it all, over what is already a highly charged atmosphere whenever the Tigers and Bulldogs square off on the diamond, is this little matter of the two coaches.
The boxes that sit unpacked in Andy Cannizaro’s office have just arrived there.
Lost in these parts last October, in the midst of all the acrimony over how or if the LSU-Florida football game would happen, was the fact that Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley was planning on retirement.
He was replaced by Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin, which opened State’s athletic director’s chair for its baseball coach, John Cohen. That created a baseball job for Cohen to fill.
Enter former LSU hitting coach Andy Cannizaro, who left Baton Rouge in November under circumstances that didn’t exactly please LSU coach Paul Mainieri.
Mainieri said he understands Cannizaro wanting to become a head coach, especially at State. For all the jokes folks make about “StarkVegas,” Mississippi State has to be one of the nation’s best jobs.
But Mainieri doesn’t understand the fact that Cohen spoke to Cannizaro weeks before Mainieri knew about it (Cannizaro and Cohen confirmed this to The Advocate’s Ross Dellenger).
In the end, all’s fair in love, baseball and coaching searches, even though it often doesn’t make for happy endings. The athletic director at Whatsamatta U. isn’t required to call the AD at North by Northwest State for permission to interview his sitting head coach. And said AD isn’t required to call a coach to notify him that he covets said coach’s top assistant.
Cohen and Cannizaro played by the non-existent rules, and if it left Mississippi State’s biggest baseball rival scrambling for a hitting coach and recruiting coordinator less than three months before the 2017 season began, well, that’s just a tidy little side benefit.
Mainieri, for his part, would like to downplay the whole him-versus-Cannizaro thing, though I don’t think Andy should be asking Paul for his mother’s manicotti recipe when they exchange lineup cards Thursday night.
“I know a lot is made of who’s coaching in this game,” Mainieri said, “but it’s really about the games between LSU and Mississippi State.”
When you get down to it, Mainieri is absolutely correct. And you can understand that he should be concerned about how this whole subplot involving Cannizaro (who was well-liked by many LSU players) could be a distraction.
But for the rest of us, what’s wrong with the guilty pleasure of this spicy relationship turning an already simmering rivalry into a boil?
As for all the fretting this season over LSU’s often-struggling offense in the wake of Cannizaro’s departure and Mainieri’s hiring of former Tigers catcher Micah Gibbs to replace him as hitting coach, the numbers don’t bear out all the angst.
LSU is second in the SEC hitting .292 while State is third at .287. LSU has scored 347 runs to State’s 310. The Tigers have hit 48 home runs to the Bulldogs’ 47 — this despite having Brent Rooker, the SEC triple-crown leader (.406 average, 20 homers, 71 RBIs).
“Sometimes things aren’t as bad as they seem” should be the catch phrase for this 2017 LSU baseball team, which still has a chance to do many great things — even if the ultimate goal of a national title still seems like a remote prospect.
And sometimes things are better than they usually are. That could be the catch phrase for LSU-Mississippi State this weekend.