April 14, 2015 9:45:30 AM
Josh Stillman didn't need an adjustment period.
Most pitchers would need several games to settle their nerves and to learn how to maintain their composure after being asked to move from the middle of the rotation to the front of the line. There's more pressure as a team's No. 1 starter. That title also earns a pitcher first crack at the best teams on a squad's schedule.
But Stillman pitched in enough big games last season in his first year as a starting pitcher on the New Hope High School baseball team's run to a second-consecutive state crown, including the clinching game. That's why Stillman accepted the challenge of leading the Trojans' rotation on a quest for a third-straight championship and is excelling in that role.
"The experience is a big thing when it comes to pitching," Stillman said. "I definitely feel more confident. The more you pitch, the more confident you get."
Last week, Stillman played a key role in helping New Hope secure the No. 2 seed in Class 5A, Region 2. He hit a game-tying solo home run in the seventh inning that put New Hope in position to rally past Saltillo for a 6-4 victory in nine innings on April 7. Two days later, he pitched a complete-game four-hitter in a 2-0 victory against Saltillo. He walked one and struck out 10.
But Stillman wasn't done. On Saturday, he smacked his second home run of the season in a 7-5 victory against Southaven and added three hits later in the day in a 10-0 victory against Smithville. The victories helped New Hope improve to 15-4.
For his accomplishments, Stillman is The Dispatch's Prep Player of the Week.
Stillman said he hoped take a step forward from his junior season. He admitted, though, that there typically is a bigger burden placed on the shoulders of seniors. That's a responsibility Stillman welcomes.
"I like that my teammates expect a lot of me," Stillman said. "I also know that they have confidence when I am up there, and it is good to know your teammates believe in you and you're the guy who is supposed to get it done."
Stillman has recorded 10 or more strikeouts in three of his six outings. He also is hitting .339 for the season with 20 hits and 14 RBIs. He has two doubles and two triples to go with his two home runs. A year ago, he hit .337 with 34 hits and 31 RBIs.
"I think I have gotten better control this year," Stillman said. "I have picked up some velocity, and that has helped. Like I said, the more you do it you get experience and you start to see things you wouldn't see early in the game and you figure out ways to beat the hitters once you see what their weaknesses are."
New Hope coach Lee Boyd said Stillman has handled transitioning from the team's No. 3 starting pitcher behind JC Redden and Taylor Stafford last season to being the team's "ace" this season. He said Stillman has received all of the Trojans' toughest assignments -- including a start against nationally ranked Oxford (a 3-1 loss). The loss is the only blemish on Stillman's record this season. The senior right-hander is 4-1 with a 1.03 ERA. He has allowed 25 hits and five earned runs in 34 innings. He has walked eight and struck out 50.
Last season, Stillman was 8-0 with a 0.92 ERA. In 53 innings, he walked 10 and struck out 62. He pitched a five-inning one-hitter in New Hope's 11-0 victory against West Jones that clinched the best-of-three Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A State championship series at Trustmark Park in Pearl.
"I think he has done a great job," Boyd said. "I don't want to jinx him, but I don't think he has had a bad outing."
Boyd said Stillman always has had good control, as evidenced by his walk-to strikeout ratio. He said another year has helped Stillman get stronger and add a few mph to his fastball. He said Stillman is "special" because he can throw three pitches for strikes at any time in the count.
Stillman's control is one of the main reasons he will have a chance to keep pitching later this year when he joins the Northeast Mississippi Community College baseball team. Stillman gave a verbal commitment to the team last September. He joined Sam Taylor (Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C.) and Payton Lane (Mississippi Delta C.C.) in January in a signing ceremony at the school.
First baseman Wells Davis also will play baseball at South Alabama.
"His velocity and his movement have helped him become that much better of a pitcher," Boyd said. "We feel like every time we throw Josh out there we have a chance against anybody. I hope he continues, and he is very confident. When he gets the baseball, he feels like he can win. So far, pretty much every game he has (won), except one."
New Hope moved up the start time for its game against Oxford to 4 p.m. today. It is scheduled to play Columbus at 4 p.m. Thursday and West Point at 7 p.m. Friday.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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