Conference Pitcher of the Year Ethan Small allowed just one run on three hits in seven innings of work Thursday against top-seeded Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference tournament. The Bulldogs fell short 1-0, however, with the offense batting 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position. Photo by: Courtesy photo/Wade Event Photography
May 24, 2019 10:38:06 AM
HOOVER, Ala. -- Mississippi State redshirt junior Ethan Small and Vanderbilt star outfielder JJ Bleday were feeling each other out.
Like a pair of prized fighters, the two top-flight talents took turns poking and prodding the other from the mound or batter's box.
Two balls and a strike opened their initial meeting in the first inning of Vanderbilt's 1-0 win. Another strike, a ball and a foul tip loaded the count. At 3-2, Small missed the zone to gift Bleday first base.
Score one for the Commodore.
"The first inning I was a little tight 'cause of the quick turnaround," Small conceded postgame. "I had like 30 minutes to get ready and then really started getting loose and as I got sweating and body moving just felt a lot better."
The stiffness Small alluded to is understandable. MSU coach Chris Lemonis sent him back to the hotel in the eighth inning of Wednesday's marathon win over LSU -- though Small stayed up until the 15th before allowing his head to hit his hotel room pillow.
Small and Bleday renewed their matchup in the third. Small again opened the at-bat with a ball, putting Bleday ahead 1-0. Three foul balls worked him ahead in the count 1-2 before he blew a swinging strike past Bleday to earn the first out of the inning.
The tipping point came in the fifth. With a runner on second, Small quickly led with a foul ball and a swinging strike. A missed third pitch brought Bleday back, 1-2.
Gathering, motioning and firing, Small sniped the inside corner with a fastball on the left-handed Bleday for a looking strikeout.
As he wandered off the mound, Small audibly yelled "Yeah! Come on!" as he twice flexed in a gorilla-like motion. Advantage MSU's ace.
"He threw some nice breaking balls in there and also threw some elevated fastballs," Lemonis said of Small. "His stuff was really good all night."
Small finished his night allowing just one run on three hits in seven innings pitched. He also added 11 strikeouts -- moving him into second place on the MSU single-season strikeout charts with 150 on the year.
And though Small's overall body of work Thursday was dazzling, it was his handling of Bleday -- a likely top-five pick in next month's MLB draft who has slugged a nation-leading 25 home runs -- that shone above all.
"I think the cool thing about throwing in this league is that everybody you face is 'a guy,'" Small said. "As much I've got to figure out how to get him out, he's got to figure out how to get a hit off me."
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch.