May 22, 2018 10:33:10 AM
STARKVILLE -- April was Riley Self's breakout month as a freshman. With all but one of his 12 appearances coming against conference competition, Self logged 12 1/3 innings with just four earned runs against him, striking out 18 and recording the first three saves of his Mississippi State baseball career.
This April was a lost month. Self appeared twice -- one went well and one didn't -- exiting the stretch with an earned run average over 6 and wouldn't be seen again for nearly a month, not seen again versus conference competition for a month to the day.
Self is pitching like a man making up for lost time.
The sophomore from Coldwater has appeared three times since his layoff and has yet to allow a run over seven innings. His most recent work, 2 2/3 innings of perfect relief against No. 1 Florida as MSU (31-25, 15-15 Southeastern Conference) swept the Gators, gave MSU a glimpse of the new Self that should be a weapon in the upcoming SEC Tournament. The 9 seed Bulldogs face 8 LSU (33-23, 15-15 SEC) 4:30 p.m. Tuesday (SEC Network) in a single elimination game for the right to enter the double elimination bracket.
"Take a little time off and come back with three pitches," Self said.
What made Self's freshman season so remarkable was that he did it all -- eight saves and a 3.42 earned run average over 48 1/3 innings -- with one pitch, a cutter. He was able to mix speeds with it and disguise it in other ways so hitting him wasn't a straightforward exercise, but it remains the amazing fact of one pitch dominating SEC hitters.
Now he has both a slider and a changeup, and they've proven to be enough. The slider was particularly useful against Florida, despite the fact that it breaks in to left-handed hitters and away to right-handers just like his cutter.
"One of them's got more depth than the other, one of them is sharper, has more sideways movement," Self said of his cutter compared to his slider.
Having more than one pitch has helped Self go longer, evidenced by his 46 pitches against Kentucky; he hit that threshold just three times in 31 appearances last season.
This is what he spent April building up to, away from the public eye.
The final three weeks of April and first week of May was not the first time Self was off the field: he did not pitch in the season-opening series at Southern Mississippi as he recovered from a minor offseason surgery on his shoulder.
"I was asking what the reason was, why, and (MSU interim coach Gary Henderson) said I have to work my strength back up, be able to throw with confidence and throw it where I want to," Self said. "To that moment, I hadn't gotten to that point, but then I showed him I can do it.
"I was so ready to get back on the mound, but I had to be patient. Everything from long toss, you're constantly working on the new pitches: flat grounds, bullpens. It kind of helps that I got that time off so I could work on some stuff I needed to work on."
The result has made both new pitches effective, even on their own. Self didn't use his changeup in his outing against Florida, but had the slider working as a go-to pitch when ahead in the count; one of his three strikeouts in his Kentucky outing came on the changeup.
His cutter remains the same out pitch it always has been.
"All the confidence I had last year in it," Self said. "I'm able to switch sides with it."
Three appearances after the layoff, Self feels his strength as where it needs to be: he said he could have entered Saturday's game if asked and hopes to be asked to pitch on Tuesday.
After an experimental phase in the fall, after an offseason surgery, after a midseason layoff, Self gives his teammates the same boost he gave them as he entered games last season.
"I'm very proud of Riley: he's overcome a lot, obviously, and he's going out there all-out," right fielder Elijah MacNamee said. "We missed him, we very much need him."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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