June 7, 2018 10:55:23 AM
STARKVILLE -- The timing of it all wasn't great, but Dustin Skelton was given no choice.
In April, the Mississippi State baseball team played 16 games; Skelton's fellow catcher, Marshall Gilbert, started 12 of them. The month saw his batting average climb from .238 to .298, amassing four multi-hit games and driving in eight runs. Gilbert ended the month with 15 hits; Skelton ended it with 19 at-bats.
Skelton was still getting some playing time, but not the amount that he wanted, so he balanced backup catching duties and changing his approach to hitting. The results have started to show with impeccable timing.
Skelton's performance in the Tallahassee Regional is a big reason why MSU (35-26) is in this weekend's Nashville Super Regional, beginning 7:00 p.m. Friday (ESPN2) at Vanderbilt's Hawkins Field.
Skelton's 8-for-14 performance over four games in Tallahassee, good enough to make the All-Tournament team, was foreshadowed by how he finished the regular season, getting a hit in his one game against Florida and two in MSU's lone game in the Southeastern Conference tournament.
The reason for Skelton's turnaround is evidenced by the location of some of his hits.
Skelton had two extra-base hits in Tallahassee, a home run in the first game against Oklahoma and a double in the regional championship game; both of them went to right field, the opposite field for the right-handed hitter.
"(Assistant coach Jake) Gautreau talked to me about hitting the inside part of the baseball, I guess it was two or three weeks ago. He said, 'Hey man, I think it really is this simple: look at the inside part of the baseball,'" Skelton said. "The stroke is so much shorter and quicker to the baseball and it's in the zone longer. I'm able to see the ball longer and put really good swings on it.
"It was tough, but I had to do something. I knew I had to do something to get back in there. I fought through it."
Watching Skelton and the rest of the Bulldogs take two games from Oklahoma to win the regional reminded Sooners coach Skip Johnson of their coach. Gautreau's playing career included the Conference USA Player of the Decade Award from his stint at Tulane, including one run to the College World Series, and a seven-year minor league career.
"I've known Jake Gautreau since he was 12 years old," Johnson said. "He was a good hitter himself and they hit a lot like he did. He had a great approach when he hit."
The adjustment may have been more natural for Skelton than others: the inside-the-baseball approach was one of his best in his high school days, back when the sophomore from Olive Branch was winning five-straight championships for Magnolia Heights School and being drafted in the 36th round by the Toronto Blue Jays.
Skelton has had it all working to the point that he has been doing the improbable: bunting for a single as a catcher. He did it twice in the Tallahassee Regional, another throwback move to his high school days.
He even had to guts to do it himself, without getting the bunt call.
"I looked back at the third baseman, he was kind of back and I knew; I did it a lot in high school and I got on base a lot," Skelton said.
When he got back to the dugout, teammates told him, "I didn't know you had that kind of wheels on you."
The weekend served as a bit of a revelation for Skelton in that sense. He did it all while catch a total of 440 pitches over three games in two days. MSU interim coach Gary Henderson is not crazy about using the same catcher over three consecutive games in as many days or fewer, but for him, the decision was simple: ride the hot bat.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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