May 6, 2015 11:17:37 PM
STARKVILLE -- It took a simple adjustment for Zac Houston to become more comfortable on the mound for Mississippi State's baseball team.
"I talked with the coaches and tweaked a couple of things here and there," said Houston, a 6-foot-5 sophomore relief pitcher. "I started holding my hands a little higher, and that helped me stay on top of the baseball and keep the ball down when I pitched it. That's made all the difference in the world. Ever since I made that little change, I've felt like I've been unhittable."
That's all it took for Houston to emerge as one of MSU's most reliable arms.
Before April 19, when Houston said he made the adjustment after a meeting with pitching coach Butch Thompson, the Poplarville native was struggling, issuing nearly as many walks (15) as he was collecting strikeouts (18) through his first 12 appearances on the season. But Houston changed his approach, refined his mechanics and suddenly became a viable shutdown threat out of the bullpen.
Since April 19, Houston has made seven appearances and he's chewed up 12 2/3 innings for the Bulldogs. Over that stretch, he has not allowed a run. He has only yielded six hits and walked five over his last 13 innings, and he has 16 strikeouts over that span.
That successful stretch for Houston has included outings against No. 1 LSU, No. 6 Florida and No. 25 Arkansas.
"I'm really comfortable out there right now," said Houston. "I think it all boils down to my confidence. Those little tweaks on the mound kind of gave me the confidence that I needed so I can go out there and do what I need to do."
The recent surge started with a two-inning stint against Florida on April 19, and includes Houston's best performance of the season, a five-inning scoreless showing against LSU last Thursday night. Though the Bulldogs lost that game in 14 innings, that performance - coupled with 2 1/3 more scoreless innings on Saturday - convinced MSU coach John Cohen that Houston is for real.
"He really showed some glimpses in the middle part of the year, and he showed us more than that last weekend," said Cohen of Houston. "Not only from the standpoint of the fact that he pitched well, but the fact that he bounced back and really competed a couple of times. Our whole team got a jump start from seeing that."
Houston was good early this season, as he only allowed two runs through his first six appearances. But he had a rough March, giving up runs in three of his final four outings in that month. Then came a grand slam at Texas A&M that was the biggest blow Houston has given up during his two-year career. After that home run came the adjustment, and Houston hasn't allowed a run since.
"I was seeing flashes of being pretty good, I would see what I was capable of," said Houston. "I just never could fully get into that groove. Finally it started clicking for me."
Now that it's clicking for Houston, the Bulldogs (24-24, 8-16) will need that momentum this weekend when they head to Oxford for a three-game set with arch-rival Ole Miss (25-24, 11-13). First pitch is set for tonight at 7:30 p.m.
Houston, who was recruited by both Ole Miss and MSU out of Poplarville High, enters this weekend especially hungry.
"It's huge," said Houston. "As bad as every other player in that locker room, I want this weekend bad. This is our rivalry game and it means everything to us. This is a big weekend and we are going to do whatever it takes to come out on top."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat
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