No. 16 Mississippi State (33-10, 10-8 SEC) has a huge series against No. 3 Vanderbilt (36-6, 16-2) starting tonight in Nashville. Win two or three, and you can at least start talking about NCAA national seed possibilities for MSU. But Vandy will be one tough customer, with stellar starting pitching, a well-rounded offense, and speed to spare on the basepaths.
A big matchup will be that speed versus MSU’s pitchers and its catcher, Nick Ammirati. The Bulldogs have done a good job of controlling the running game this year, and Ammirati is a strong defensive presence. He’s also pretty good with a bat, hitting .306 entering this series. In today’s series advance, I wrote about Ammirati and his path to being a starter for MSU.
I had a nice chat with the senior a couple of days ago, and I’ve got some excerpts for you below. He has a very interesting backstory and took a winding path to Starkville.
How has being so well-traveled helped you?
“I believe it taught me a lot. It’s been a lot of fun, having baseball take you all over the country. I sat down one day and actually counted, and I’ve played in over 30 states. You just get to meet a lot of people, make connections, make a lot of friends. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s helped me adjust to wherever I’ve been, because I’ve been everywhere. When I meet people, it helps me adjust to where I am at the same time.”
Why did you leave Seton Hall after your freshman year?
“I got to play a good amount for a freshman. I don’t know, I just felt like I wanted to – I went to Seton Hall Prep, which my high school coach was the older brother of the head coach at Seton Hall. I just wanted to go play in warm weather. That was a big thing.”
How did MSU end up on your radar?
“That’s actually kind of a funny story. I went to Panola (College, in Texas). When I decided to leave, (I looked at) the top 25 junior colleges at the time, and it was ranked. They called me and offered me, so I went there. Was talking to some smaller schools, then bigger-time programs like Vanderbilt. I was playing against Northeast Texas, and coach (Lane) Burroughs was there to see the other catcher – for the other team. Our head coach, Todd Shelton, was like, ‘Make sure you check out our catcher, too.’ I had a good game, and they called me the next day in class. They said they were going to offer me on the weekend. They called me back like an hour later and offered me. I pretty much said, ‘All right.’ They said, you need to tell parents, and I was like, nah. I think I’m going to make my own decision on this one.
“I didn’t really know much about Mississippi State. I never visited, never even been to Mississippi – maybe driving through. But I just looked at the website, and what really got me was I saw the picture of the stadium with all the fans. I remember playing at (Texas) A&M, and it was like that. We played A&M (when I was) at Seton Hall, and it was 6,000-8,000 fans there. I was like, I want to play at a place like this. And then I saw the stadium at Mississippi State packed with fans, it made me want to go there.”
Kind of unusual recruiting process, no visit.
“I was at a point where I kind of knew what I wanted. I wanted to play at a big program in front of a lot of fans. It fit perfectly. They said they had two senior catchers leaving, and I figured it’d be a good opportunity.”
What was your first impression of head coach John Cohen?
“He seemed like a really nice, like a genuine guy. A lot of college coaches, they’re nice guys and everything, they’re just looking after No. 1 most of the time, though. I felt like he was being honest with me.”
How frustrating was last season?
“There were a lot of ups and downs that year. In the beginning, I really wanted to play, and I wasn’t getting the opportunity. Maybe I didn’t deserve it. Then as the season progressed and we started doing well, my main goal was to put aside all the negativity and support my team, and I thought I did a really good job of doing that. We were called the Bench Mob, where everybody who’s not playing is really into the game, and it pumps up the guys on the field. I was kind of one of the leaders of the Bench Mob last year.”
Meeting with Cohen, you said you wanted to have a bigger role – when that that conversation happen, what was the substance of it?
“It happened at the end of the year. I remember going in, and he wasn’t sure that I wanted to come back, but I had no intention of leaving. He was like, ‘If you feel like you need to leave, I’ll help you find a good place to play.’ I was like, ‘No, that’s definitely not the case. I know I can play here. I want to prove it to you guys, so I’m going to go play in the Northwoods League.’ They play 70 games, so I get a lot of at-bats, get to play a lot. So I’m just going to come back and show you guys what I can do.”
How long have you been a switch hitter? Don’t see many switch-hitting catchers.
“My dad, he was a great college player, but he never got the opportunity to play professional baseball. The day I was born, he bought me a catcher’s mitt. He was a third baseman, so all the scouts told him if he was a catcher, he would’ve had an opportunity. He made me a catcher, and he made me a switch hitter, so I’ve been switch hitting pretty much since I was born. Actually, the first time I started doing it was my sophomore year in high school.”
So puts a catcher’s mitt in your crib, and you’ve been catching ever since.
“He’s been my biggest teacher with all that stuff. One thing I wanted to point out, coach (Jake) Wells has done an unbelievable job with me. He really motivates me. He’s so intense with every little detail. He really helps you focus on everything that you do.”