February 1, 2018 10:15:11 AM
STARKVILLE -- Dustin Skelton spent his freshman season learning. He was given no other choice, as the freshman catcher was behind Josh Lovelady last spring as the latter pulled the Herculean task of catching 51 out of 67 games.
Now he's back in the same situation he was this time last year: battling for a starting catcher spot.
The Mississippi State baseball team is in the opening days of its preseason and, just like last season, Skelton is involved in a battle for the starting catcher role. After a far different freshman season from anything he'd experienced before, he's confident he's better poised for the battle this time around.
"I was used to playing every day, then I got here and there was a fifth-year senior in Josh Lovelady," Skelton told The Dispatch. "I had to put my work in and had to do what I had to do to get on the field and it didn't happen. I was pretty much waiting on my number to be called."
That number was called 34 times, only 17 times as a starter and 15 of those starts coming in the first third of MSU's season. He batted .206 over 68 at-bats with two doubles and 10 RBI. It was a sharp contrast from his being the talk of the program in January last year; he was lauded for not striking out for nearly the entire preseason.
As he had from everything else in his freshman season, he learned from it.
"The league's hard. The league's very hard and it's very challenging. It's a lot of games," Skelton said. "You have to know if you go 0-4 one day, the next game is just another game, you have to go out there and grind to the best of your ability.
"I learned that you can never take a day off because somebody is working harder or just as hard as you are."
As Skelton's on-field growth continues from that experience, he's doing the same in his defensive duties behind the plate. MSU coach Andy Cannizaro and Skelton discussed wanting more mobility and speed out of him, so Skelton dropped 12 pounds. Both are convinced the benefits will be apparent.
"That's going to help tremendously; I've already seen the first couple of intraquad (scrimmages) that I feel better, I move better," Skelton said.
Still, Cannizaro wants more in a catcher. Skelton's competition for the job, Marshall Gilbert, proved his ability to produce on the field in his year with John A. Logan College in Illinois, hitting .406 on his way to Second Team All-American honors. The two will still be judged on different factors.
"Both of those guys have looked extremely well during their individual sessions, but ultimately it's about performing out there under the lights," Cannizaro said. "That catching position is a lot about leadership and we're looking for guys who can control a staff, receive it and block the baseball, do those things that we put a lot of importance on in this program.
"That's going to be a battle that goes down to the wire."
Skelton is ready to be judged on that scale. When he wasn't preparing to give Lovelady a few innings of relief, he was taking everything he could from him.
"I picked his brain a lot about what it takes to lead a pitching staff and lead a program that has a national championship in mind," Skelton said. "It's knowing you're in charge. It's knowing you have to go out there and show them how to do it."
Skelton knows he will do so in a different way -- he's far from the outspoken leader Lovelady was for MSU last season -- but he said he's prepared to adjust Lovelady's techniques to his personality.
But first, he has to earn the role. He's more prepared to do so now than he's ever been.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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