February 10, 2018 11:04:14 PM
STARKVILLE -- Jacob Billingsley has more competition this time.
Last year, as a junior, Billingsley was one of few options Mississippi State had as a starting pitcher thanks to the injuries that decimated the staff. Billingsley took the opportunity and proved himself as a serviceable starter, making 13 starts with a 4.78 earned run average and 52 strikeouts in 52 2/3 innings. It was exactly what he wanted: after a sophomore season with just 10 innings pitched, he went to summer ball intending to change his game to take a starting role and the extra innings that come with it.
Holding onto such a workload in 2018 is going to be much harder, and he knows it.
All of a sudden, MSU has a nearly full roster of pitchers for the first time since the fall of 2016, making the competition for innings among the most heated on the team. Those roles will be exposed when MSU opens it season with a three-game series at Southern Mississippi beginning Feb. 16; for now, competing with one another is proving to be difficult enough.
"You know you have these big-time guys coming back from injury and it's fun. I love it, I absolutely love it," Billingsley said. "Seeing the guys coming back, the guys that have been hurt, it's so fun to watch them pitch. Especially for me, having been here to watch them have a good freshman year, then get hurt and miss the spring; for me, I love watching those guys get better."
"It's absolutely a competition. Every year it is, and it's fun."
Based on what MSU coach Andy Cannizaro has seen of those pitchers coming back from injury, one of them is on pace to have one of MSU's most prominent roles: Saturday starter.
"In terms of our Saturday and Sunday starter, Ethan Small has been outstanding. He's refined his mechanics and arm action to where he's become a strike thrower and we've become confident in Ethan," Cannizaro said. "Sunday starter is certainly up in the air right now."
Small missed all of last season as he recovered and rehabbed from Tommy John surgery. He was a little used reliever in 2016, making 15 appearances, but has since developed into a pitcher that Cannizaro said resembles his Friday night starter, Konnor Pilkington. Both are tall left-handers that Cannizaro thinks can excel with a similar pitch package of fastball, changeup and curveball. Pilkington is the known commodity after his sophomore season with a 3.08 ERA over 108 innings with 111 strikeouts in 17 starts; two quality pitchers behind him could give MSU one of the Southeastern Conference's best rotations.
MSU has plenty of options for its Sunday starting pitcher; Billingsley is one of them, but he knows he's one of many.
"I'm sure hoping for it," he said. "You never know what happens, we have a lot of good arms around here."
In listing Billingsley among the contenders, Cannizaro praised the summer Billingsley had with the Cape Cod League's Harwich Mariners. He made six appearances, all of them starts, with a 3.94 ERA and 27 strikeouts, 18 walks allows and 30 hits allowed in 29 2.3 innings. Also in the mix for that spot is Cole Gordon, who started last season as a first baseman/designated hitter candidate but transitioned to full-time pitching to address a team need created by injury. Gordon appeared 19 times, nine times as a starter, with a 5.69 ERA and 59 strikeouts in 55.1 innings pitched.
MSU also has new graduate transfers competing for that job, Zach Neff and JP France. Neff, a left-hander from Austin Peay, was primarily a reliever for the Governors last season, appearing 23 times with 57 strikeouts in 59.1 innings pitched and three saves. France, a righty from Tulane, was the Green Wave's best full-time starting pitcher last season with a 3.84 ERA over 96 innings pitched in 15 starts. He struck out 73 and pitched some of Tulane's biggest games in his time there, such as beating LSU twice in 2016 and a start in the 2016 Oxford Regional of the NCAA Tournament.
Even with the new weapons, not everything is perfect for the staff: Cannizaro confirmed MSU lost closer Spencer Price for the year due to Tommy John surgery. Price earned 14 saves last season in 31 appearances, striking out 40 in 34 innings. MSU could turn to another pitcher coming back from injury to replace him: Blake Smith. Smith only appeared twice last year before suffering an elbow injury that ended his season; in 2016, he earned five saves in 20 appearances with a 2.93 earned run average.
There's more help on the way.
"I personally love watching Keegan James," Billingsley said. Cannizaro said James will be available to pitch at some point this season, just not on opening day. "Ethan Small has a great arm, we already knew that, but I've watched a couple of his bullpen sessions and he looks really good. He's one of those guys that busted his butt in the offseason and it shows, I really hope it pays off for him."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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