April 13, 2018 10:06:31 AM
STARKVILLE -- On the surface, the Mississippi State baseball team is a bit of a statistical anomaly. Its team earned run average of 3.55 ranks ninth in the Southeastern Conference, but the stats that lead to ERAs of that rank aren't up to par, as it is 12th in batting average allowed (.250), 11th in walks allowed (128) and 13th in hits allowed (290).
MSU's pitching staff has counted on Luke Alexander and Hunter Stovall to erase those baserunners.
The Bulldogs' double play combo, Alexander at shortstop and Stovall at second, is currently tied for the league lead with 33 twin killings. High expectations hung over the two as they embarked on the season and they have not disappointed; MSU will need more in its weekend series at No. 23 Auburn (23-11, 4-8 SEC) beginning 7:30 p.m. Friday (SEC Network).
"It's awesome. Me and Luke have talked about this whole deal, being in the middle together, our whole lives, since we've known each other," Stovall said. "It's cool to live it out right now, looking over and seeing him everyday because me and him are friends, we live together. It's cool to go home and talk about it.
"I've got complete trust in him that if a ground ball is hit to him, he's going to get it to me and if a ball gets hit to me, he's going to turn it. We trust each other."
Their play to date has earned the trust of more than each other. In some of the game's most demanding defensive positions, they have committed a combined 11 errors over 34 games for fielding percentages of .967 for Stovall and .962 for Alexander.
The Bulldogs (18-16, 4-8 SEC) have come to expect the best from their double play combo when they need it most. The most recent example is the one MSU hopes it can look back on as the turnaround point of its season: the series-clinching, extra-innings 7-5 win over Ole Miss on Sunday. They turned two double plays that day, including one in the sixth inning to erase consecutive singles and preserve a one-run deficit MSU would erase in the next inning.
"They absolutely have, very much so," MSU interim coach Gary Henderson said. "Overall, our team defense has been really, really good.
"The defensive percentage numbers are skewed a little bit because our pitchers made so many errors early in the year, but our position guys have really done a good job so far this year."
Henderson is right: MSU's .973 fielding percentage as a team is 11th in the SEC, but 11 of MSU's 36 errors have been committed by pitchers. Of MSU's 13 errors in its first 11 games, seven of them were courtesy of pitchers.
Even then, Stovall and Alexander were the erasers of those mistakes. Their double play chemistry together has been honed over their years together through the youth baseball summer circuit, sure, but even to this day it remains an acquired skill. Now, they hone those skills with a little more flair for the dramatic.
"We work on it in practice, making dirty double plays, cool looking things to see if we can implement those in the games," Stovall said.
Whether they turn the highlight reel double play or the common place ones, it's likely MSU will need them in its series against the Tigers. Runs have been tough to find against the Auburn pitching staff: Casey Mize has the SEC's seventh-best ERA (2.17) and third-best batting average allowed (.166) as he takes the ball Friday night. Sunday starter Tanner Burns is not far behind with an ERA of 2.29, batting average allowed of .203.
Every run Stovall and Alexander can prevent with a double play could prove to be a pivotal one.
"You're going to see a bunch of really good arms," Henderson said. "Certainly their starting staff is really good and we're looking at one more weekend of really competitive pitching in the SEC. You probably get tired of hearing that, but it's true: every weekend, you're seeing top-flight guys."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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