March 5, 2018 8:48:45 PM
STARKVILLE -- Gary Henderson learned a great deal about the Mississippi State baseball team in its 11-game road stint to start the season, the final eight of which he served as interim head coach. He's still learning about the pitching staff.
The starting roles throughout the beginning of the season have remained consistent, but that doesn't mean MSU has settled in as it finally opens the new Dudy Noble Field at 6:30 p.m. today (SEC Network+) against New Mexico State. Despite the fact that Henderson's knowledge of the pitching staff is deeper than that of his position players since he was the team's pitching coach before being elevated to interim head coach, he is still learning what to do with those players.
"The roles of the pitching staff are constantly in flux -- they change all year and that's every year, that they change," Henderson said.
Previously, the starting rotation had been consistent with junior left-hander Konnor Pilkington starting on Fridays, sophomore southpaw Ethan Small on Saturdays, senior right-hander Jacob Billingsley on Sundays and graduate transfer righty JP France in the midweek game.
It's possible France doesn't start either midweek game -- MSU also plays New Mexico State on Wednesday.
"He's going to pitch when it's important, I'll tell you that," Henderson said. "Whether it's starting or on weekends, those types of things we still have to get figured out. Right now while we're still trying to figure out what we're going to do with the midweeks, hopefully we can continue to pitch him when we have the lead.
"Could he start on Wednesday? Sure, but we have to get through (today) first."
France has proven he can do both. He started the midweek game against Jackson State, pitching three innings and recording the win, then started a midweek game against UT Rio Grande Valley that was called off due to fog. After those appearances, he threw 3 1/3 innings of relief, allowing one run on three hits and no walks, in the Saturday win over Houston.
Henderson announced sophomore righty Cole Marsh as the Tuesday starter, granting the Mississippi Delta Community College transfer his first action of the season. Henderson did not announce a Wednesday starter, leaving it to be determined.
As MSU pieces together the midweek games, it will have to do so with left-handed specialist Trysten Barlow, who Henderson said suffered a minor injury. Henderson said it's, "a minor deal, but minor means you're out." He doesn't expect the injury to keep Barlow out long term.
Still, this is far from last year's decimated bullpen. MSU still has sophomore Riley Self, who Henderson said is completely healthy and building up arm strength after his minor shoulder surgery over the offseason; meanwhile, senior right-hander Blake Smith threw 3 2/3 hitless and scoreless innings of relief in the win over Houston and has not allowed a run in six innings pitched. MSU also has Cole Gordon, with his 0.90 earned run average over 10 innings and Keegan James, who has allowed 12 hits and five earned runs over 12 2/3 innings.
Henderson also pointed out MSU still has yet to use freshman righty Zane Stephens.
Consider all of those bullpen roles undetermined as well, especially as MSU navigates two midweek games. MSU can take solace in the fact it only has to do this one more time, when it hosts Alcorn State on March 20 and Texas Southern on March 21.
"We'll make our way through it and see how it goes," Henderson said. "You have to cover 18 innings, but at the same time, you don't want to burn too many of them for Friday night.
"What you really hope is you don't go play 15 innings."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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