STARKVILLE — It’s been a week since a wintry mix of sleet and snow coated Mississippi. And despite the sun peaking through the outfield clouds Friday at Dudy Noble Field and temperatures climbing into the mid-60s, Mississippi State (3-2), and more specifically, starting pitcher Christian MacLeod, watched their scorching-hot start to the 2021 campaign come to a freezing halt in a 7-3 loss to Tulane (3-2).
“Sometimes the game doesn’t go our way,” head coach Chris Lemonis said. “He’s got to make more pitches. I mean, he’s going to have to compete more and make more pitches and give us a better chance to win.”
A 6-foot-4 lefty with a fastball that sits around 92 or 93 miles per hour, MacLeod had been dazzling in his limited MSU career. After missing his entire freshman season due to an undisclosed illness, the Huntsville, Alabama, native took over the Saturday night role that previously belonged to JT Ginn when first-round MLB draft pick Ethan Small patrolled the mound in Starkville during the 2019 season.
But after Ginn went down with a season-ending injury of his own, it was MacLeod who was suddenly slotted as MSU’s ace. In response, he turned in four starts of five-plus innings and struck out an average of 8.75 batters per start to finish the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season with a 0.86 ERA in 21 innings pitched.
Yet for all the good MacLeod did a season ago, Friday offered something previously unseen from the towering southpaw: a dicey start.
Rolling through the first two innings of the Bulldogs’ first home loss of the year, MacLeod looked like his old self. Finding the zone on 20 of his first 31 pitches, he forced Tulane into a 1-2-3 first inning before backing that up with a two-strikeout second inning.
Then the wheels came off.
After retiring the first two batters of the third via strikeout, MacLeod nicked Green Wave leadoff man Ethan Groff on the cleat to gift him first base.
As MacLeod set and delivered to Collin Burns on the ensuing at-bat, Groff took off toward second. Catcher Logan Tanner promptly rifled a throw onto shortstop Kamren James’ glove that squirted free for the first of his two errors on the day.
With Groff on second, Burns took MacLeod the other way on a ball that narrowly snuck over the left field wall to give Tulane a 2-1 lead. A single, a wild pitch, a full-count walk and an RBI single by Frankie Niemann gave the Green Wave a two-run lead it wouldn’t relent.
In all, MacLeod finished the shortest outing of his MSU career day with four innings pitched, three hits, three runs and six strikeouts on 87 pitches — 26 of which came in the third inning after James’ fielding error.
The result was further dwarfed by the eight-inning gem tossed by Tulane ace Braden Olthoff, who concluded his night allowing just two runs on six hits.
“We don’t make a couple plays, throwing a guy out trying to steal or defensive plays that just let the inning get away from us,” Lemonis said. “At that point the pitch count really grew and that’s why he had to come out early.”
Heading into the 2021 campaign, coaches and players raved about the endless possibilities in MSU’s starting rotation. MacLeod was set for a dominant encore to his stellar, albeit shortened, first year in the weekend rotation. Second-year sophomore Will Bednar and hard-throwing Canadian Eric Cerantola were also set to make up the Saturday and Sunday components of the staff.
But with MacLeod struggling Friday, Cerantola not making the trip to Arlington last week due to non-disciplinary reasons and Bednar now having been scratched from two starts due to soreness in his neck, the Bulldogs suddenly have a handful of question marks in a previously settled cycle.
Friday, of course, comes with the caveat that the season is just a week-plus old. The Bulldogs still sit at 3-2 with two top-10 victories on the year and have a full Southeastern Conference slate before them. MacLeod wasn’t himself Friday, but a one-off misfire is nothing the Bulldogs, at this point, can’t conquer.
“You’re not going to have your stuff every single night you start pitching, especially not in the SEC,” junior outfielder Tanner Allen said in reference to MacLeod. “But he’ll go about his weekly routine and get ready for next Friday night. I’m not worried about it one bit.”
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.
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