A surging offense will meet one of the best pitching staffs in the SEC this weekend at Alfred A. McKethan Stadium when Florida hosts Mississippi State in its second-consecutive top-10 matchup.
The No. 5 Gators (14-5) have remedied their offensive woes that led to some midweek slip ups against lesser opponents early in the season and just trounced Florida State. The No. 7 Bulldogs (16-1) boast a 1.69 team ERA and are riding a 12-game winning streak.
Here are the storylines to watch as both teams begin conference play Friday night:
Dog pound dominates the mound
Mississippi State holds a clear advantage on the mound over Florida.
The Bulldogs’ Friday night starter Ethan Small (1-0) has 40 strikeouts, the fifth-most in the nation, and a 1.50 ERA. JT Ginn (4-0) follows Small on Saturday with a 1.80 ERA, and a few of the Gators players have faced the freshman ace in the past. Coach Kevin O’Sullivan said that freshmen Kendrick Calilao, arguably the best hitter for the Gators this season, and Jud Fabian both faced Ginn and struck out on three pitches.
“Hopefully we’ll have some better at-bats on Saturday night,” O’Sullivan said.
James Keegan (2-0) rounds out the weekend rotation for the Bulldogs with a 1.80 ERA. All three weekend starters have below 2.00 ERAs.
The same cannot be said for the Gators.
Tommy Mace (4-0) recently moved up to the Friday night starter role after Tyler Dyson (2-0) struggled in the same position. Mace has a 3.55 ERA and is second on the team with 20 strikeouts. Dyson was relegated to the Sunday role as his 3.57 ERA is the highest of any pitcher on the team with more than 12 innings pitched. Jack Leftwich (4-0) will throw on Saturday. He leads the team with 25 strikeouts, and his 2.05 ERA is the lowest on the weekend rotation.
Both teams have stellar closers. Florida freshman Nolan Crisp’s seven saves have him tied for the most in the nation, while Gordon Cole (2-0) has five saves for Mississippi State.
Bats to watch
Florida’s Brady McConnell is riding a 15-game hitting streak and has 28 hits on the season, the second most in the SEC. McConnell is hitting .389 and has a .457 on base percentage.
His ability to get on base in the two hole has been a huge part of Calilao’s success at the plate. The freshman hits cleanup for the Gators and is tied for ninth in the nation with 25 RBIs on the season. He continually hits well with runners on base and already has two grand slams this season.
Jake Mangum bats leadoff for Mississippi State and leads the team with a .366 batting average. He’s just behind McConnell in hits with 26 and is a huge threat when he gets on base (which he does 44.6 percent of the time). Mangum’s 12 steals put him among the nation’s best on the bases, and the Gators do not fare well against the steal.
Both teams hit north of .300 on the season. Florida holds a slight advantage in power hitting (21 home runs to MSU’s 17), but the Bulldogs strike out far less than the Gators (98 strikeouts to Florida’s 147).
MSU handily swept UF in 2018 in Starkville, Mississippi. The Bulldogs outscored the Gators 31-13 in the three-game series to close out the regular season.
Mississippi State’s first road game of the campaign is Friday night in a conference showdown that will be the biggest test of the young season for Florida.
Follow Kyle Wood on Twitter @Kkylewood and contact him at [email protected].