Mississippi State recognized its graduating baseball seniors before Friday night’s game with Florida. That group included Hunter Vansau, Blake Smith and Cole Gordon. Photo by: Mississippi State Athletic Media Relations
May 19, 2018 8:47:51 PM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State has the luxury of knowing exactly what to expect from its No. 2 starting pitcher.
The MSU baseball team turned that role over to sophomore Ethan Small in the preseason, desperately needing consistency after a hectic 2017 when it used seven pitchers to cover starting roles on three-game weekends. Going to Small was still no guarantee: MSU was turning to a pitcher in his first season back from Tommy John.
Through it all, Small has delivered that much-needed consistency. His last two months have featured stat lines eerily similar to one another, almost all of them between 90 and 110 pitches and almost all of them going at least five innings, most of them through six or more. Friday was atypical, as he needed 87 pitches to get through 4 1/3 innings.
The reason: he lost his curveball during the outing. He couldn't grip the ball the way he needed to thanks to the blister on his middle finger.
The remnants were obvious after his start, blood spattered across the front of his pants, but he still gave MSU what it needed for a 12-4 win on Friday. The Bulldogs (31-24, 15-15 Southeastern Conference) finished a sweep of No. 1 Florida with a 13-6 win Saturday.
MSU interim coach Gary Henderson did not know what Small status would be for the upcoming SEC tournament; MSU begins with a 4:30 p.m. Tuesday game against LSU. That game is a single elimination game before getting into the double elimination bracket.
MSU may also be without third baseman Jordan Westburg, who suffered an apparent right hamstring injury in the Friday game running out a groundout. Fellow freshman Justin Foscue took his place in the Saturday game and drove in two runs with a hit; the two have been alternating starting duties at third base for the last few weeks.
Bulldogs take late change in stride
The presence of Florida starting pitcher Brady Singer presented MSU with quite the opportunity and burden. Singer entered the weekend as the conference's wins leader (10) and at the top in earned run average in the conference (2.25); the Bulldogs expected to see him Thursday, but got a freshman instead, presumably to keep Singer on regular rest for a Friday start.
Up to the playing of the national anthem, a mere minutes before the Friday game, MSU was prepared to face Singer. Then assistant coach Mike Brown started making the rounds: Jack Leftwich is in the bullpen and he'll be starting. Brady Singer is hurt.
Tanner Allen knew he had one option.
"We take Singer's scouting report, we throw that in the garbage and pull up the other guy's scouting report," the freshman first baseman said. "That guy's good, he's probably going to go in the top five draft picks. There was a lot of weight off our chest when we heard that guy wasn't starting, but they threw another really good guy at us."
Florida said Singer did not pitch as a precaution with a sore hamstring. Henderson called the ordeal, "not unheard of, but pretty unusual," but MSU clearly responded well: the Bulldogs tagged Leftwich with eight hits and six runs, five of them earned, in three innings. It was just the beginning of an offensive onslaught as MSU won 12-4.
The blood from his blister was all over his pants after the game; he said he felt like he had control of all three pitches until the pain from the blister struck in the third inning.
Henderson said he is unsure if Small will be ready to go in the opening days in the SEC tournament.
Boosting the resume
Thanks to sweeping the Gators (41-15, 20-10 SEC), MSU now enters the SEC tournament with a 9-1 record against teams that entered the weekend in the top 10 of the NCAA's Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) rankings. Florida was No. 1 and Arkansas was No. 3, both of which were swept by MSU, and MSU took three of four from No. 8 Ole Miss.
How does a team with a .500 conference record attain such a claim? Allen credits location.
"I'm going to tell you, playing at home against top three teams, the No. 1 team in the nation, that's a big help," Allen said. "These fans are amazing. When we're down, they're up, and that really helps.
"The Dogs are hot right now at the plate. We're doing our best to give these fans something to cheer for."
Tuesday pitching plan
The opportunity at hand was clearly a big one, as Henderson addressed the media on Friday with a series win in hand at a shot at a sweep coming just hours later. Still, pitching decisions for the future weighed on his mind.
That process will continue on. Henderson did not exit the Florida series with a set plan for how he will divy up pitching duties for Tuesday's single elimination game.
"The answer is I think about it all the time," Henderson said. "What are we going to do? I've got a pretty good idea, but we'll see how everybody feels by the end of the game tomorrow when we have an idea of who pitched, how many pitches they pitched, is Konnor feeling good to go back on four days, all those things."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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