BATON ROUGE, La. — Strategy and planning go out the window as LSU comes to Starkville, Miss. to play a three-game series against Mississippi State this weekend.
Mississippi State head coach is Andy Cannizaro spent the previous two seasons as LSU’s hitting coach and recruiting coordinator under Paul Mainieri. As a result, Cannizaro knows everything there is to know about Mainieri’s tendencies and roster.
But Mainieri also knows Cannizaro’s tendencies. And both coaches know that they know these things about each other.
After a while, there is no upper hand. There’s just baseball. And that’s what Mainieri wants to stress heading into this, the final and most important series of the regular season.
“It’s still going to be a matter of the guys have to play,” Mainieri said. “Which players play better? You can know all that you want about a particular team, but the players still have to go out and play the game and execute it. We can over-analyze it 1,000 times.”
Mainieri’s LSU baseball team comes into the weekend 36-17 and 18-9 in the SEC, putting the Tigers in sole possession of first place in the SEC West.
Cannizaro’s Bulldogs aren’t that far behind. They are 34-19 with a 17-10 SEC record, one game back of LSU.
For LSU, the goal of the weekend is easy. Win the series; win the West. For Mississippi State, it’s a little bit trickier. The Bulldogs must win the series and get help from Texas A&M versus Arkansas to secure the West’s top seed in the SEC Tournament.
With that much drama on the field, LSU and Mississippi State don’t need the Cannizaro connection for this weekend to feel like a Super Regional. But there’s no ignoring the storyline. It’s there.
Cannizaro was LSU hitting coach until last fall, Mississippi State swiped him away in the middle of the Tigers’ training session. He is as much a part of this year’s LSU team as his replacement, Micah Gibbs.
And, as LSU right fielder and leading power hitter Greg Deichmann said, things are awkward and weird for everyone.
“It’s definitely going to be a unique weekend,” Deichmann said. “Seeing him in crimson is going to be a little bit different because he was here with us just in the fall. But it’s going to be a fun weekend. It’s going to be a really electric atmosphere.”
I’ll be you
You won’t find a person within the LSU baseball team who’ll say that Cannizaro wasn’t a vital part of LSU’s success over the past couple of years. But you also won’t find much of a dropoff between the success under Cannizaro and what Gibbs has achieved.
The 2016 Tigers hit .295 . The 2017 Tigers are hitting .292. Last year’s Tigers averaged 6.45 runs per game. This year’s Tigers are averaging 6.55 runs per game. Under Cannizaro, LSU had a .385 on-base percentage in 2016 — identical to its stat under Gibbs.
The only real difference between Cannizaro’s offenses and Gibbs’ unit this year has been the relationship between power and speed. Cannizaro’s hitters averaged a home run every 1.4 games, but stole 1.4 bases per game. Gibbs flipped that narrative, with more home runs in 53 games than Cannizaro’s offense produced in 66 games, but an equally significant drop in stolen bases.
Part of this has to do with Cannizaro’s fascination with the running game. Mississippi State attempted 98 stolen bases this year, the second most in the SEC, and swiped 66 of them.
But a bigger part of this is roster turnover. LSU lost its most significant base stealer, Jake Fraley, to pro ball and added freshmen and transfers Zach Watson, Josh Smith, Nick Coomes and Jake Slaughter to the lineup. They combined to hit 11 home runs.
As Deichmann put it, the two coaches run similar drills and think in a similar manner, but Cannizaro was more focused on situations and mentality, while Gibbs tends to focus on mechanics and balance. Ultimately, as senior shortstop Kramer Robertson put it, they’re two sides of the same coin.
“I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to learn so much from Andy Cannizaro and Micah Gibbs,” Robertson said. “They both know so much about hitting and have had success in their career. Anything they’ve told me, I take to heart and I try to learn from it.”
Message to the boys
When the Tigers and Bulldogs take the field on Thursday, Mainieri and Cannizaro will be coaching against one another. But it won’t be as a master trying to thwart his apprentice.
It’ll be as two coaches trying to win a crucial series and put their teams in the best positions to succeed in the postseason.
“This is not about Andy Cannizaro and Paul Mainieri,” Mainieri said. “This is all about Mississippi State University and Louisiana State University. Our kids have worked awfully hard since they arrived here in August, and now here we are going into the last weekend of the season with a chance to win a regular season title. That’s where all the focus has to be.”
As Mainieri put it, this won’t be the last time that he and Cannizaro coach against one another. Players will come and players will go, and Cannizaro’s time at LSU will become a footnote. The longer he stays at Mississippi State, his rivalry with Mainieri and LSU will morph from familiarity to necessity, especially if he sustains the success he’s achieved in his first year in Starkville.
But for now, while the memory of Cannizaro’s contributions to the LSU baseball team is still fresh, this weekend might mean a little bit more.
Not that Robertson is going to let that affect his play.
“Andy’s not going to be throwing any pitches to me, and he’s not going to be taking any pitches off of Alex Lange or Jared Poché,” Robertson said. “We have to focus on their players. They’ve got some great players on their team. We’ve got to separate the two. Once we get between the lines, we’re trying to beat Mississippi State. He’s not going to be throwing any pitches to me.”