STARKVILLE — Friday was supposed to be Mississippi State’s Vatican-esque coronation. In place of the papal smoke was a foggy haze from the outfield grills in the Left Field Lounge, as if to signal baseball season could officially start after university officials allowed greater attendance at Dudy Noble Field this week in wake of Gov. Tate Reeves’ relaxation of COVID-19-related restrictions.
Instead, the Bulldogs (7-2) turned in an on-brand and erratic early inning performance accompanied by a mid-inning explosion to stay in tune with games of weeks past as MSU escaped Kent State (3-3) 8-3 before 2,923 fans.
In a season filled with slow starts, the Bulldogs added the latest chapter to their growing novel Friday. MSU ace Christian MacLeod was chased in just 1.2 innings as he turned in the latest dismal start for an MSU pitching staff that is starting to make a habit of such outings.
A season ago, MacLeod allowed just nine hits and struck out 35 in 21 innings pitched. Friday, that crispness disappeared, replaced with a nearly 1:1 ball to strike ratio and the shortest outing of the Huntsville, Alabama, native’s Bulldog career.
“Usually he’s really good with his command,” MSU head coach Chris Lemonis said of MacLeod. “Just kind of nibbled around the plate tonight.”
With MacLeod struggling to find the zone, the Bulldogs have seen their highly anticipated starting rotation gorged by mediocrity and inconsistency. In four outings a season ago, MacLeod averaged just over five innings per outing and a smidge under 85 pitches. Entering Friday, he was averaging 80 pitches and four innings per start this year.
No. 2 starter Eric Cerantola, who will get the ball Saturday, was similarly off kilter in his first outing of the year against Tulane last weekend, looking closer to the hard-throwing righty who couldn’t find the strike zone throughout his freshman year compared to the player scouts see as one of the most projectable arms in the 2021 MLB draft class.
“We’ve got to get better starts,” Lemonis said. “I said it to our team, it’s hard when you’re playing from behind all the time.”
For as confounding as MSU’s weekend rotation has been through three weeks, the Bulldogs have continued to strike gold out of the bullpen.
After MacLeod was yanked by a noticeably irritated Lemonis in less than two innings, sophomore Brandon Smith promptly slammed the door on Kent State’s upset bid. Riding his fastball up into the low 90s, Smith, who missed all of last season due to Tommy John surgery, looked the part of the dynamic starter he was his freshman year.
The Richland product finished his night with 4.1 innings of perfect ball, striking out five batters in the process for his longest outing since the 2019 campaign. Now with four appearances under his belt, Smith’s 0.57 ERA leads all Bulldog pitchers with three or more outings, and his 11.1 innings pitched are the most of anyone on the staff.
“When I first came in there, I just had a good feel for fastball away and fastball in,” Smith explained. “And that’s probably been the biggest part of my success so far, is being able to locate first pitch strikes.”
MSU also garnered some slight confidence in second-year freshman Will Bednar, who earned his first appearance of the year in relief of Smith after soreness in his neck forced him to be scratched from his first two scheduled starts. Painting 96 miles per hour on the center-field scoreboard radar gun, Bednar tossed a 1-2-3 seventh inning as the Bulldog staff retired 19-straight Golden Flashes batters and struck out 15 in all to close Friday’s contest.
Speaking with reporters postgame, Lemonis said it’s unclear if or when Bednar could rejoin the MSU weekend rotation. Having not thrown in two weeks, pitching coach Scott Foxhall is in the process of bulking up the Pennsylvania product’s load, but he likely wouldn’t project back into a starting role for a few weeks.
While the pitching staff and, more specifically, MacLeod did little to quell growing concern about the weekend rotation, MSU’s order added a similarly straining open to Friday’s affair.
Having stranded 65 runners this season ahead of Friday — an average of 8.1 per game — MSU left five runners on through four innings and were 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position to that point.
But as Friday’s self-induced trouble persisted, the Bulldogs bobbed when Kent State weaved. Tossing scheduled Saturday starter Collin Romel in relief of Golden Flashes starter Ryan Lane, Romel was tagged for six runs in the fifth inning sparked, in part, by a chopped ball through second base by junior right fielder Tanner Allen — who’s now recorded at least one RBI in each of his last six games.
Friday, the usually mellow Lemonis offered a glaring look at the burgeoning frustration over MSU’s start to games. Stepping onto the mound to remove MacLeod, he waved off the rest of the infield from a huddle and sent his ace to the dugout.
Postgame, Lemonis’ tone followed a less fiery but similarly somber tone.
“I know everybody says we win late,” he said. “We’re having a hard time getting started in games offensively and defensively and pitching-wise. We’ve got to get better.”