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2024: Mississippi State Back On Track, Success Created Hunger For Even More


(MSU Athletics photo)


By Colton Watson


It was a valiant effort, but the Mississippi State Bulldogs didn’t have enough gas in the tank to knock out host Virginia in the Charlottesville regional.


State, a hair’s breadth from hosting a regional themselves at highly-regarded and highly-spacious Dudy Noble Field, finished 2-2 in the regional, with two victories over St. John’s and four players on the all-regional team, shortstop David Mershon, left fielder Bryce Chance, pitcher Khal Stephen, and first baseman Hunter Hines.


The Diamond Dawgs finished 40-23 on the year, with 20 total SEC wins and a 4-4 postseason record, that also included the first two wins at the SEC Tournament at Hoover, AL, in five years, and two players making the all-tournament team, center fielder Connor Hujzak and Pitcher Brooks Auger.


Mershon, who had a comparable batting average as the all-tourney shortstop Michael Braswell III from LSU, and unlike Braswell did not make an error that week, was omitted but was named one of five national finalists this week for the Brooks Wallace Award Shortstop of the Year. He joins Austin Peay's Jon Jon Gazdar, Ball State's Michael Hallquist, Rutgers' Josh Kuroda-Grauer, and Virginia's Griff O'Ferrall on the list.


Entering 2024, head coach Chris Lemonis was considered by many to be on the proverbial hot seat. Mississippi State was picked to finish last in the SEC West by multiple media entities, including the conference’s coaches poll, after back-to-back seasons of missing the SEC Tournament in 2022 and 2023 with 9-21 conference marks.


The off-season saw the hiring of Justin Parker from South Carolina as pitching coach, after Lemonis had earlier relieved Scott Foxhall of his duties managing the State staff before the season ended. But as lauded as that move was, it remained that a complete 180-degree turn was needed on the mound after a program-high in ERA in 2023.


Lemonis also sought to improve the team via the transfer portal, and while the additions were deemed serviceable by many, the most-discussed stories of the off-season were the players Mississippi State couldn’t land. Stanford-to-Texas A&M transfer P/OF Braden Montgomery and Alabama-to-LSU transfer RHP Luke Holman were guys State fans coveted and desperately wanted suiting up in Maroon and White. Mississippi State maroon, that is.


Instead, Stephen's transfer from Purdue (a former Team Indiana teammate of RHP Nate Dohm) , 3B Logan Kohler's transfer from Memphis, and pitcher Karson Ligon's transfer from Miami were among the highlights of the portal class. At that crestfallen time, many on the State media beat were probably expecting more to cover a coaching search in May of 2024 instead of a regional, much less one at home.


But that’s not what happened.


Despite preseason generic pledges from Lemonis and key players to "turn things around," the early goings on of the 2024 season were far from enheartening. A pair of come-from-ahead losses to Austin Peay, an opening weekend defeat to Air Force, and a weather-moved morning start loss to sub-.500 Central Arkansas left a bad taste in the mouths of the Maroon and White faithful.


They also lost opportunities to win series at Florida and Ole Miss by not expanding leads and leaving themselves vulnerable to the very comebacks that cost them two or three more conference wins on the road, which ultimately could have turned a 17-13 mark into 19-11 or 20-10, taking the peril of the hosting decision out of the hands of a committee which was called out by many national college baseball media for playing favorites with their own schools on bids and host sites.


Injuries in the infield (that sidelined both Kohler and Mershon early), and at catcher (the season-ending loss of Ross Highfill that then turned veteran additions Johnny Long and Joe Powell into godsends), and erratic pitching availability all season long contributed to some of those losses. They explain many, but not all, of the team’s shortcomings, of which there were many of likely consequence.


But the high points were there, too.


State knocked off then-number-two LSU to open up the conference schedule, a frantic short comeback the only loss prior to a run-rule win on Sunday. They enjoyed a 10-1 stretch from April 16 to May 4, with series wins over Auburn, Alabama, and at Vanderbilt.


State also finished 3-2 overall over arch-rival Ole Miss, despite losing the regular-season conference series on the road, and they won a walk-off thriller over Ole Miss and a back-and-forth battle against Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament. A pair of one-run losses to Vanderbilt (Head Coach Tim Corbin moved past Ron Polk for most SECT wins and had some kind words for him afterward) and to eventual #1 national seed Tennessee (after taking a 5-3 lead) sent the Dogs home, but it was a trip they made knowing they still had baseball left to play.


Stephen was statistically the second-best starting pitcher in the SEC, and Jordan was a fringe Golden Spikes candidate all season long. Mershon committed 3 errors all year in the middle infield, while consistently batting .330 from both sides of the plate and stealing 27 bases.


Jurrangelo Cijntje’s ERA ticked down by 5 runs from a season ago as the both-handed pitching phenom dazzled baseball fans across the country and showed improvement and development from the raw talent of 2023 to a Top 50 pro prospect who won't have to wait long to hear his name and join Jordan in the July Major League draft.


The staff ERA came down nearly 3 runs from 2023, while the team batting average stayed nearly stable from a season ago. The team made tremendous strides on the mound and defensively from a season ago, becoming the third and first-best in the SEC in those categories respectively.


Inconsistency at the plate, and base running issues, held the team back all season from playing to their national seed potential. Their 38-21 record, Top-5 finish in the SEC, top 25 RPI, and 14 Quad One wins were perplexingly still not enough for the NCAA Baseball Committee to deem them a host team.


Controversially, ECU (with a much lower strength of schedule and fewer marquee wins) and Arizona (with significantly lower objective metrics) were chosen as host teams over State. Both were upset in their own regionals, Arizona a quick exit and ECU falling short of Omaha again, a destination yet to be attained by the Pirates.


Objectively, State overachieved relative to expectations, both close to and outside the program. While the 2024 season, and certainly the two prior seasons, did not meet portions of the Mississippi State fan base’s perennial expectations, the turnaround must be applauded.


Chris Lemonis’s seat has cooled down significantly, and Justin Parker’s efforts in 2024 approached near-miracle status, an accomplishment that should see him receive consideration for Assistant Coach of the Year awards.


Lemonis proved he could indeed win with his own players and earned more opportunity to continue the season's promised turnaround, but now the clock is ticking toward 2025.


Lemonis, Parker, Hitting Coach Jake Gautreau, and Assistant Coach Kyle Cheesborough will again have to attack the portal hard—probably even harder than last off-season, given the roster turnover after this season of players opting for the draft or upperclassmen who exhausted (or choose not to exercise remaining) eligibility.


While several pitchers who missed all or most of 2024 may return, State probably needs two or more weekend options on the mound and four to eight major contributors in the lineup. And, while the roster will look largely different in 2025, the expectations will certainly not be any lower.


In fact, anything short of surpassing this year, a regional hosting, a Super Regional appearance or host, or a 13th Men's College World Series appearance will not be considered progress by a very supportive, but very demanding, fanbase that proves the former at the turnstiles and the latter on the radio and internet.


All told, the 2024 season was a mixed bag. If you told any Bulldog fan in February their team would be the 2-seed in a double-digit seeded host’s regional, they would’ve likely been thrilled at the upswing that meant.


But, the manner in which this team lost the games they did and the strength of opponent to which State dropped games, combined with the quality of teams they also defeated (sometimes easily), understandably had State fans feeling the team left a good bit of meat on the bone, more that could have been achieved. It's said success can be its own worst enemy, and this may have been an apt example.


And, give credit to the players and coaches, who minced no words in stating a turnaround and playing to their best ability was the one goal they wanted to achieve first and most, this year’s finish was a far cry from what is expected among those in the locker room.


While no one is satisfied, the step forward that Mississippi State baseball took in 2024 makes the season a net-positive for the program. The ship has been turned around, the trajectory is up, and the program has momentum from which it should only build and improve.


*****

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