STARKVILLE – Mississippi State head coach Chris Lemonis doesn't lecture hitters on what to do in the batter's box. He leaves that for hitting coach Jake Gautreau.
Recently, though, Lemonis put his hand on the back of one of his players and asked if he could offer some assistance.
"Can I give you a little help?" Lemonis asked.
"Coach, I know I'm supposed to hit strikes," senior center-fielder Jake Mangum said.
"No, I'm not saying that," Lemonis said. "You're the best hitter ever in this league. Just relax and it will come to you."
Mangum, the SEC's all-time leader in hits with 372 and counting, is in the midst of the worst slump of his collegiate career. Not once had Mangum ever gone more than two games in a row without a hit. When he went 0-for-5 in Mississippi State's 7-2 win over Central Michigan on Saturday, it was his fourth-straight hitless game.
Mangum's batting average reached a season-high of .423 on April 6 against Tennessee. Just three weeks ago, Mangum left Oxford with a .401 average after Mississippi State swept Ole Miss at Swayze Field. Now, the 2019 Ferriss Trophy winner is hitting .351.
He no longer leads the team in that category; sophomore first baseman Tanner Allen is hitting .352. Allen's average was as low as .240 on the same day that Mangum's reached a season-high of .423. The two have gone in drastically different directions since then.
"It's baseball, it's a game," Allen said. "It's a crazy game. You can't get too high, and you can't get too low. I tell Jake, 'You're the SEC leader in hits of all-time, man. Just keep doing you. You're a mutant at the plate. Nobody wants to pitch to you. Have some confidence, keep doing you and it's going to fall.'"
Allen called Mangum, a guy who's 4-for-51 (.078) in his last nine games, the "best hitter on the team."
Mangum has not registered a hit in his last 16 at-bats. Grounders have been finding gloves. Outfield shots have hung up long enough for fielders to get under them. Even the choppers that he's normally able to out-run with his speed have been getting to players quickly enough for them to throw him out at first.
Lemonis is waiting for the one Mangum-esque hit that changes the tide and gets things rolling back in his lead-off hitter's favor.
"We need a Jake hit," Lemonis said. "We need a chopped ball over the pitcher's head and him getting on base to pump his fists."
Lemonis thinks Mangum might be trying a little too hard -- just like Allen was during his slump earlier this season. Senior right-fielder Elijah MacNamee was in a slump of his own before he was taken out of the lineup with a foot injury. He returned to get the scoring started for State on Saturday with a two-run double in the first inning.
MacNamee has played with Mangum for three seasons now. He's been the benefactor of many Mangum moments over the years, and he said the least he can do is return the favor.
"He's picked this team up so many times in his time here that he knows sometimes other people are going to have to pick him up," MacNamee said.
That's not to say Mangum has completely relied on his teammates during his rough patch at the plate, though. Even in the middle of the worst hitting slump of his career, Mangum has found other ways to contribute to the success Mississippi State -- a team one win away from playing in a Super Regional on home turf -- is having.
Mangum made a leaping catch at the wall in center field in the bottom of the ninth inning Saturday that wow'ed the crowd at Dudy Noble and showed MSU's head coach that he definitely has not checked out on this ball club.
"A lot of kids who are in slumps, they don't make that catch," Lemonis said.
If there's anyone who isn't worried about Mangum's current play, it's his head coach. For a player who's trying to get back on track, that vote of confidence from someone as powerful as Lemonis might be all he needs.
"He's a special player, and he'll break right out of it," Lemonis said.
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