June 8, 2018 10:58:34 AM
NASHVILLE -- The nightmare Ethan Small is living was born out of a Monday night dinner at Outback Steakhouse.
It was May 21 and Small was with five or six of his Mississippi State baseball teammates at the Outback in Hoover, where the team was for the Southeastern Conference tournament. Graduate transfer pitcher Zach Neff, being the jester of the group, randomly blurted out, "I think I'm going to frost my tips." Small offered to do the same if Neff followed through; before Small could truly think about what was happening, he was shaking Neff's outstretched hand over the table.
Neff, Small and Riley Self still have those bleached heads of hair to this day.
"I can't do anything to it right now, because we just won a regional, obviously," Small said. "But I can't wait to get something done to it."
Small will have to wait at least two more days as MSU (35-26) begins the Nashville Super Regional at 7 p.m. Friday (ESPN2) against Vanderbilt (34-25); the three-game series will send one of the two to Omaha for the College World Series. While he won't get rid of the style until after the Bulldogs are eliminated from the NCAA tournament, he has already made a change to it.
The first group that decided to do it -- Small, Neff and Self -- got it done at JCPenney in Hoover, just for it to come out more orange than they hoped. They had plans to go back the next day to get it redone, but they were eliminated from the SEC tournament after one day and thus forced to return to Starkville.
They took the problem into their own hands, in the most literal sense possible. Small said they bought kits from CVS -- his was the platinum blonde kit -- and made the top of their hair a more appealing blonde color.
"We had a bunch of people there, it was a big event," Small said of the second dying. "We've caught some hard looks but it's getting better. I think everybody's getting used to it."
Now, the trend is spreading. Small said some teammates agreed to bleach their hair if the team won the regional; Small was ready to make the trip so he could see, "who had the guts."
At the team's practice at Hawkins Field on Monday, freshman first baseman Tanner Allen and sophomore pitcher Denver McQuary were sporting comparable looks.
Hawkins Field report
After spending a weekend at Florida State's Mike Martin Field at Dick Howser Stadium, with its chain-link monster fence in right field, MSU will be dealing with an even more complicated big wall in left field.
Vanderbilt's Hawkins Field features a 30 feet, 1 inch wall in left field that arches away from the field of play as it wraps around a new facility constructed last year. As that need to arch the wall ends, the regular wall juts back into the field of play, creating a pocket in left field that a ball can get trapped into and a point where the curved wall in true left field is deeper than the left-center alley.
The monster part of the wall is made of iron, meaning a hard-hit ball could take a big bounce off of it. MSU assistant coach Mike Brown made sure to hit balls off of it in the team's practice Thursday, and MSU interim head coach Gary Henderson does not anticipate it being an issue.
"It's a little bit different than the old wall, but for the most part it didn't seem to ricochet off at any weird angles, it seemed pretty true," Henderson said. "Not a lot of trampoline effect; sometimes they really trampoline off of walls like that, but it didn't do that all that much."
The other adjustment is the surface: Hawkins Field is entirely artificial turf, including the mound and the base paths. It can make ground balls in the infield travel quicker and make bounces in the outfield higher, but Henderson is leaning on prior experience on turf fields to manage those effects.
For the first time since the 2016 season, someone other than Konnor Pilkington will start a series on the mound for MSU.
Henderson said after practice Thursday Ethan Small will start the first game of the Nashville Super Regional, with Pilkington starting on Saturday and Jacob Billingsley starting Sunday if a third game is necessary.
Small's numbers for the season have been favorable to Pilkington's: Small has a 2.94 earned run average to Pilkington's 4.61 and Small has 107 strikeouts in 85 2/3 innings to Pilkington's 97 in 91 2/3.
"Ethan's done a really good job of chewing up six, seven innings his last few times out. We'll run him out there," Henderson said.
The only thing separating Small from having each of his last four starts last six innings is a popped blister that cut his May 18 start against Florida to 4 1/3 innings.
France thrilled with the call
JP France knew the call would come, there was just no way of knowing when. He had received a couple of calls on the first day of the Major League Baseball Draft and then a couple more on the morning of the second day, but still had not been drafted before he went to practice Tuesday.
The anticipation was killing assistant coach Jake Gautreau, so he stopped his practice duties and asked France if he had gotten the call yet.
As they were talking, his phone rang. France had just been drafted by the Houston Astros.
France said he has not discussed an assignment with the Astros yet, leaving that until after MSU's season ends.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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