TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Gary Henderson pines after the Jacob Billingsley of June 5, 2017. On that day, with Mississippi State’s baseball season on the line, a pitcher with a 1-3 record and an earned run average over five went the distance, carrying a depleted pitching staff with a six-hit, one-run performance that kept his team’s season alive for a few hours and ultimately another week.
In a way, that version of him has been a ghost chasing Billingsley for the entire season that followed.
“Jacob Billingsley has heard that from me 50 times this year. That’s the guy we’re looking for, we’d like him every weekend please,” Henderson said as he cracked a smile, having just seen his pleas answered. “That’s fresh in his memory, I guarantee you that.”
The sweltering heat, brink of elimination and threat of college career ended was not enough to shake Billingsley. The redshirt senior from Senatobia saved his best for what could have been his last: his seven-inning start Sunday afternoon kept MSU in the Tallahassee Regional with a 9-8 win over Samford (37-26). The win sent the Bulldogs to a Sunday evening game against Oklahoma, which MSU won 13-5; the two meet again at noon today to decide the winner of the regional.
Much like the career that followed, this shining moment would not come without its valleys.
Home runs from Jake Mangum and Elijah MacNamee helped give Billingsley a five-run cushion entering the bottom of the third inning, a frame after 17 of his first 22 pitches found the strike zone. A balk — a call Billingsley was not happy with — brought in the first Samford run; two walks, a double and a single erased the cushion he was given.
Billingsley was not going to stray away from his approach. He hasn’t done so in five years, and this wasn’t the time to start.
“I felt like I threw some pretty good pitches, just some unfortunate luck, but that’s baseball,” Billingsley said. “A soft knock here, small stuff like that.
“Overall, I thought the pitch quality was good and I tried to compete with those pitches.”
The innings that followed proved he could do just that — compete with what he had. It’s been his only option for his entire career. Frankly, it is what’s made him so steeled for the moments when the season has rested on his shoulders.
Kimbal Billingsley, Jacob’s father, told The Dispatch about when he and his wife Lisa decided it was time to get Jacob in the travel ball circuit to expose him to better competition. When Jacob got there, he didn’t have much to work with — he rarely had rosters around him up to par with the league.
“We just tried to survive,” Kimbal Billingsley said. “We had to keep him motivated, and I guess some of it stuck with him.”
Routinely being thrown into such pressure-laden moments — and coming out on top enough times — can galvanize a person. That and the trials early in his career made Billingsley tough, one of the traits Kimbal and Lisa are most proud of.
Jacob Billingsley had to figure it out when, as a freshman, he was redshirted, even though he was told he would not be. He made it work, taking a trademark slider to the Cal Ripken League and ending the summer season with a 0.00 ERA; he came back to Starkville and was told he would be the closer. Come Opening Day 2015, he was having surgery, removing bone chips from his throwing shoulder. He was devastated.
It was then that Jacob Billingsley started to become what he is now. He arrived as an elite closer prospect and showed flashes of it when he finally got to play, making 12 appearances with a 1.80 ERA in 2016; he did it all while being asked to work on becoming a starter.
So he did, and he did so diligently. Kimbal said his son went to MSU with a fastball and slider; he’s since added a cutter, two-seam fastball and is grooming a changeup.
“He doesn’t need people to watch him work. He has that in his heart and in himself,” Lisa Billingsley said.
Kimbal Billingsley added, “That young man went to work and improved his craft.”
When all three of them wanted the results to show themselves the most, they remained elusive.
In this, Billingsley’s final college season, the struggles have found him and the opposition has noticed: Samford coach Casey Dunn pointed to his low innings total, 60 2/3, relative to 15 starts. He did not record an out in his start at Missouri and, in the last month, twice failed to amass three innings in a start. While many other pitchers would reach, searching for an answer outside of their usual selves, Jacob Billingsley did the opposite.
“We always try to focus on the positive. I think that’s the thing about Gary (Henderson), he’s such a positive motivator,” Lisa Billingsley said. “Each time he’s finished pitching, we always focus on the positive and what worked well. He’s well aware of what didn’t work. When he’s talking to us, we focus on what he did well and he knows exactly what he needs to improve on.”
Continued growing pains are understandable, as Jacob Billingsley continues to grow into being a starting pitcher. Where he needs no improvement in is fight, and that’s what gets him through starts like Sunday’s.
The memories of his start in this exact situation last year were unavoidable for Jacob: he admitted to thinking about last year’s June start at times in the morning before he pitched and maybe allowing it a time or two during the start. When those thoughts came up, he didn’t long for or crave the success: he craved the opportunity.
“When the guy showed up, it’s about competitive spirit, it’s about the moment and making the most of it,” Henderson said. “Jacob is a very good competitor, and I think sometimes the real mark of a true competitor is showing up when it matters and showing up after some rough experiences.”
Billingsley did just that, fighting off runners in scoring position in the fifth and sixth innings, and hopes to continue doing it.
Kimbal and Lisa Billingsley said their son’s ultimate goal is to become a college pitching coach, maybe even in the pinnacle that is the Southeastern Conference. Still, as Kimbal put it, Jacob remains more interested in throwing the ball than he is coaching how to do it. It’s possible Jacob has at least one more start as a Bulldog, if MSU gets to a super regional and forces a game three in it or gets to a third game in the College World Series. After that, the hope is to get drafted and take on the next level — the family has heard from as many as nine franchises about possibly selecting Jacob.
But they also know Jacob’s days of throwing the baseball will end eventually. If they end sooner rather than later, he can take up a SEC student-athlete scholarship he was awarded, giving him five years to use $10,000 toward a graduate degree. Or, he could use his connections through college baseball — having played for three head coaches and three pitching coaches — to start that coaching career right away.
All of that comes after Jacob Billingsley’s days of throwing are over — and that day could be today. If MSU doesn’t give him another chance to start, if he doesn’t get a chance in the minor leagues, the family supposes that would be okay. In that event, Jacob got to live his dream and exit the field with a win and to a standing ovation.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson