STARKVILLE — No changeup. No problem.
Mississippi State junior pitcher Nick Routt hasn”t had his go-to pitch, which Southeastern Conference coaches have rated as the league”s best the past two seasons, for the entire season.
A year ago, it was the root of his elbow pain, which required elbow surgery and forced him to miss the majority of his sophomore season.
Routt didn”t pitch until 20 games into the 2011 season, and worked on a limited pitch count in his first three starts. In that span, he estimates he threw anything other than a fastball “a few times.”
In 43 1/3 innings, Routt has 43 strikeouts and a 4.15 ERA. He has given up more than three earned runs in his 11 starts just once
Not bad for a pitcher less than a year removed from elbow surgery.
“I”ve gotten used to not having that changeup,” Routt said. “It”s just these past two weeks, it seems like everyone”s been blowing it up.”
While Routt isn”t making excuses for his past two starts — when he was pulled in the second and third inning, respectively — he admits not having his changeup has forced him to over-rely on his fastball and to develop other pitches.
Routt was used to throwing a circle change with heavy pronation, which had a screwball-type motion. It was his go-to pitch in 0-2 counts, and was one of just two pitches in his arsenal.
MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson believes Routt”s pitch-counts wouldn”t escalate as early if he had his normal change. In a loss to Arkansas in the SEC tournament, Routt gained a string of early 0-2 counts, only to see hitters fight off pitches and then find space through the right side of the infield. Routt three 86 pitches in 3 1/3 innings in the game.
Against LSU in the final regular-season series of the season, Routt hit 70 pitches in 2 2/3 innings.
Thompson described Routt”s pitch-count dilemma as a “going to a gun fight with less bullets.”
“I think there”s a ton of respect for that pitch,” Thompson said, “but I think he gets the 0-2 and gets to that point, I know he wants to throw it. He hasn”t, and I think that”s what”s locking him up.”
Routt remains confident in his ability to get quick outs with his fastball after having success with that approach earlier in the year. He was effective at locating the pitch or getting hitters to chase it out of the zone.
“Give credit to Arkansas, I”ve struggled in two games against those guys,” Routt said. “They did a great job of taking marginal pitches when I did get to 0-2. They fought back through counts and, for the most part, I thought I pitched pretty well.”
Routt anticipated problems once opponents realized the fastball was the only pitched they had to hit. Routt has added a slider and has been working on a more traditional changeup in the past two weeks. However, he hasn”t used the new changeup in a game.
“It”s been working good (in practice),” Routt said. “I just kind of made up a grip that feels comfortable. This changeup doesn”t have any pronation on it. (The new grip) takes some speed off it and, hopefully, makes it effective. It”ll be interesting to get in a game and see how it works.”
Though Routt has struggled to keep his pitch count down, he admits he and MSU”s other starters have struggled to go deep into games. The inconsistency of the starters and the strong work by the Bulldogs” relievers has created a “cycle” Thompson admits has led MSU to go to the bullpen early.
“I don”t” want to do that, but we”re trying to win ballgames,” Thompson said. “I think we got caught in that instead of letting some guys work through stuff. This is who we are. We have to figure out how to get it done with where we”re at.”
Without the pressure of having to win games to qualify for the SEC tournament or NCAA field and having a week to prepare for this weekend”s NCAA regional in Atlanta, Routt believes the starters are poised to deliver the five- and six-inning starts needed to help the team make a deep run in the NCAA tournament — if Thompson has faith in them.
“At the first sign of trouble you run to the bullpen. That kind of kills a starter”s confidence,” Routt said. “It”s like, once I give up a few hits or a walk here or there, I”m gonna get pulled. I guess it”s a credit to our bullpen we”re that confident to go to it.
“We”ve regrouped and we know what”s separating each of us from having a good outing or a bad outing. We”ve been working on that this week to hammer out our weaknesses and go six or seven innings.”
Routt is a candidate to start Game 2 or Game 3 against Austin Peay or Georgia Tech. Sophomore left-hander Luis Pollorena will start against Southern Mississippi at 2 p.m. Friday in Game 1.