March 19, 2018 11:16:53 AM
STARKVILLE -- Turbulent times, off the field and on, have overtaken the Mississippi State baseball team. Through it all, Keegan James has been a flash of good news.
In what would usually be an unpredictable season -- the first one back from Tommy John surgery -- MSU's relief pitcher has proven to be a valuable bullpen piece. He rebounded from a bad midweek outing to throw three innings in the Friday game of this weekend's series against Vanderbilt, in which MSU was swept. James threw three innings with just three hits and one run allowed, striking out two and doing it efficiently with 40 pitches.
"I felt strong," James told The Dispatch. "The command wasn't there early, obviously, but I'm still learning, still getting back from it. I'm only at 14 months, it's still kind of early in the process. I got cleared two months ago.
"Once I get in a rhythm and get settled in, I'm perfectly fine right now."
James took a couple of lumps in his first return, including two runs allowed in two innings at Southern Mississippi and the loss at McNeese State on Feb. 28, but he settled in after that: his next three appearances saw him threw 5 2/3 innings with one run and four hits allowed.
The version of James on display in the Vanderbilt series is reminiscent of the one from his freshman season in 2016, when he made four starts in 14 appearances with a 3.24 earned run average. James feels himself inching closer to it.
"I feel the game is slowing down a little bit for me; everybody has their sped up moments every now and then, but I'm getting back in the swing of things, going back to old things, freshman year and all that," James said. "I feel like I'm coming along like I should be and it's only getting better.
"My breaking ball's gotten a lot better. The spin's a lot tighter than it was a year ago, now it just comes down to command. It's spotty right now, but when it's on, it's good and it gets people out; when it's have, I have to go back to the two-seam and spot it."
James said he is hopeful his velocity continues to climb; he doesn't know what it is at the moment, he just knows he continues to feel stronger with each passing week.
Opportunities for freshman infield Jordan Westburg were few and far between in MSU's first 19 games, as he entered Sunday's game as a pinch hitter with all of four at-bats to his name. That didn't stop MSU interim coach Gary Henderson from pulling the trigger to put him in the game for struggling third baseman Justin Foscue; Westburg responded with his first career hit and RBI in the sixth inning, bringing the Bulldogs back within a run.
The pinch hit appearance made him the sixth Bulldog to make his SEC debut this weekend, joining Foscue, designated hitter Tanner Allen, first baseman Josh Hatcher, left fielder Rowdey Jordan and relief pitcher Zach Neff.
Room for more from Billingsley
Despite garnering the loss Sunday, MSU starting pitcher Jacob Billingsley (2-1) flashed a slider that had the Vanderbilt lineup confused at times. The right-hander registered five strikeouts in his 4 1/3 innings, each of those strikeouts dependent on the slider, particularly inside to right-handed hitters.
"Slider's always been a go-to pitch for me and it was on," Billingsley said. "Trying to get ahead with it early and put them away with it late, and that's what we wanted to do going in. They're a good fastball-hitting team, so we wanted to keep them off balance and the slider was working real well."
Only two things kept Billingsley from going further: walks -- four of them, essentially one per inning -- and pitch count, as he needed 92 pitches to retire 13 batters. Henderson pointed out Billingsley threw 44 pitches in the first two innings.
"I thought Jacob did a nice job," Henderson said. "Not super sharp, but competitive, and I thought early on when the game demanded him to make a few pitches to get out of jams, he did it."
MSU hosts two midweek games, Tuesday against Alcorn State and Wednesday against Texas Southern, both at 6:30 p.m. Henderson did not name starting pitchers for either game but said the usual candidate list is in tact: Cole Marsh, Cole Gordon, Zach Neff, Keegan James and JP France, among others.
Henderson also said left-handed relief pitcher Trysten Barlow is likely to return from his injury this week.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson