March 12, 2018 9:57:41 AM
STARKVILLE -- Jacob Billingsley did not have his best stuff for his Sunday start, yet still soldiered through to give the Mississippi State baseball team five innings of one-run ball. It was more than enough to satisfy his former pitching coach and current interim head coach, Gary Henderson.
Much to MSU's fortune, that was the worst start of the week.
As MSU played five games this week and won four of them, with the only loss coming in extra innings, it was fueled by dominating starting pitching throughout. The week ended with a series win over Utah Valley after Sunday's 5-3 win.
"The first pitch strike has been pretty big for us. That's what's been working for us as a staff," Friday night starter Konnor Pilkington said after his seven-inning gem with no runs or walks, three hits and 12 strikeouts. "Those starters are just working, day in and day out. We toss every day, we take a responsibility on ourselves. It's all the little things we go through and it's really transferring on the mound."
Cole Marsh and Zach Neff got the week started with quality starts in MSU's two midweek games against New Mexico State. Marsh threw five innings and Neff threw six; Neff did not allow a run and Marsh allowed one, the two combining to allow just five hits and strike out 11.
Both of them entered Sunday's game in relief, Marsh giving MSU 1 1/3 innings of scoreless relief before Neff recorded two outs in four pitches via double play.
Small followed Pilkington with six innings and 10 strikeouts, allowing three hits, two runs and a walk. Billingsley's five innings with one run allowed featured four strikeouts while allowing four hits and a walk; his earned run average (ERA) dipped to 2.89 after the outing.
"I think they're showing they're continuing to get better," Henderson said. "You have to prove it every time out, but they're getting better: they're showing command of their secondary pitches, they're throwing in and out and, for the most part, they did a good job of making pitches when they need to make pitches."
Position battles update
MSU's lineup is beginning to take form.
Freshmen Josh Hatcher, Justin Foscue, Rowdey Jordan and Tanner Allen seem to be giving the Bulldogs the answers they need at first base, third base, left field and designated hitter, respectively. Allen came through with two hits each in the last two games against Utah Valley, both wins; Jordan had a pivotal grand slam in the Wednesday win over New Mexico State followed by a three-run blast in Sunday's win.
"Certainly Rowdey is doing a good job in left field for us," Henderson said. "Josh is doing well at first and Tanner Allen gives us as good at-bats as we've got.
"Justin at third base, you guys saw the game speed up a little bit for him, he looked like a freshman this weekend for the first time this year, did not look like that before but he's a good player. Good defensive play almost all the time with him."
Among qualified batters (those with at least 25 at-bats), Hatcher leads the team with a .351 batting average and three home runs. Allen is not far behind at .333, while Jordan has chipped in 11 RBIs, tied for the team lead, and Foscue has struck out just three times in 48 at-bats.
Allen has done it all as the designated hitter, an adjustment he had to make after starting five times at third base.
"(MSU assistant coach Jake Gautreau) told me he wants me to play defense, but right now we're playing good, and I told him we're playing good so we don't need to change anything," Allen said. "If I can help us win hitting and sitting, playing third, first, left, put me behind the plate if it helps us win."
The other positions lacking solidified answers are catcher and right field. The catching rotation between Dustin Skelton and Marshall Gilbert remains in tact, but right field is truly in flux: this week, Tanner Poole started on Tuesday and the second Friday game, Elijah MacNamee started on Wednesday and Hunter Vansau started the first Friday game and the Sunday game.
"They're all in the mix, nobody's out," Henderson said.
MSU's final non-conference game before Southeastern Conference play is against Southeastern Louisiana on Wednesday at Biloxi's MGM Park. Southeastern Louisiana already claims wins over UL Lafayette, UConn, LSU and Tulane.
Henderson said he did not have a final decision on starting pitcher, but did name Marsh, Neff, Denver McQuary, JP France, Keegan James and Cole Gordon as candidates.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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