April 23, 2018 10:08:05 AM
STARKVILLE -- JP France has spent years as the guy his coach does what's needed to get him matched up against Southeastern Conference lineups. As the marquee arm for Tulane in the first three seasons of his college career, he was the man the Green Wave turned to for crucial Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) win opportunities.
Becoming a SEC player himself has not slowed France down.
France has been dominant against conference foes for most of the season, with his 2.08 earned run average and 22 strikeouts in 17 1/3 innings. The dominance reached new levels Friday, as he pitched four perfect innings of relief against No. 4 Arkansas (28-13, 10-8 SEC) as the Bulldogs pulled a weekend sweep. France struck out nine of the 12 Razorbacks he faced in the 6-5 Friday win.
"That's the best outing I've had since I've been here. It was kind of weird, after that first inning I kind of went on autopilot and everything was working," France said. "It was the best I've felt this year, all my stuff was working."
The approach was simple: beat right-handers with fastballs and mix some changeups to left-handers. At one point, it looked like the first three innings were going to be enough: MSU finally took the lead going into the top of the 9th, creating a potential save situation for closer Blake Smith.
Instead, MSU interim coach Gary Henderson made a point to go to France and tell him nothing changed. Once again, Henderson was riding the hot hand.
"Pretty unbelievable performance by JP. He's certainly talented, but in terms of 12 hitters, nine strikeouts, 12 hitters in a row, no walks, no hits, no baserunners, you don't see a lot of that in college baseball," Henderson said. "To give us that type of performance is pretty special."
MSU (22-19, 8-10 SEC) was not alone in wreaking havoc on the SEC standings. While the Bulldogs were sweeping the SEC West leaders, Texas A&M was losing its series to Tennessee and LSU racked up a four-game losing streak, one to Tulane and three to South Carolina.
Once on pace to miss the SEC Tournament, MSU is now one game out of that status and, more drastic, two games out of first place in the SEC West. Ole Miss and Arkansas are tied for the division lead at 10-8 and MSU holds the tiebreaker over both of them after sweeping the Razorbacks and beating Ole Miss in a home series two weeks ago. MSU has opportunities to ensure its placement in the SEC Tournament with the upcoming home series against Texas A&M before road trips to Alabama and Kentucky, all of them 9-9 or worse in SEC play, but a home series against No. 1 Florida (34-8, 14-4 SEC) awaits for the final series of the regular season.
Westburg strikes again
The coming out party for freshman third baseman Jordan Westburg came on March 18. Granted a rare RBI opportunity in pinch-hit fashion against Vanderbilt, Westburg delivered; since then, he has gotten more lineup time, but never the status of everyday starter, often splitting time with Justin Foscue.
If a clutch hit is what got him more playing time in March, another one might get him an everyday job in April.
In the eighth inning of the Friday win, with MSU trailing by two, Westburg drove in two runs with a single and then scored the go-ahead run two batters later.
His moment didn't come smoothly: he started the at-bat by chasing two low fastballs. He thought he was sped up, so he settled in and ultimately drove in the runs.
"It's the moments you'll never forget, the rest of your life," Westburg said.
Westburg is not alone in making his case for more playing time.
"I think we've got several guys that are doing that," Henderson said. "Certainly that's not the first time Jordan Westburg has come through for us, and I think you could say the same thing about (freshman left fielder) Rowdey Jordan: laying down the bunt and the catch there was big time."
Small keeps churning
Ethan Small's triumphant return from Tommy John surgery added the Razorbacks to its list of victims, even on a below average day relative to his 2018 standards. Small had to battle to the tune of 98 pitches over six innings, but he still kept Arkansas to one run and six hits in his start, helping MSU take the first part of the Saturday doubleheader 5-3.
"From early on we wanted to establish the fact that he could mix all three pitches, that was part of the game plan today," Henderson said. "I thought it was important to get them off his fastball early on and he did a really good job of that."
After the start, Small (4-3) has a 2.79 earned run average over 58 innings in 10 starts, striking out 75.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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