Yeah, about that. Take away two big swings, with a runner one some base, and Austin Sexton has sailed through his pre-conference outings. Not that those longballs, by first Arizona and then by San Diego, cost either Sexton or Mississippi State too dearly. The Diamond Dogs won both and Sexton got the decision in one.
Now Sexton will take a 2-0 record and 2.61 ERA into his fourth weekend, and his first SEC series of 2015. As of Thursday he again has drawn a Saturday assignment, with RHP Preston Brown (3-1, 1.93) booked to go Friday evening as weather permits. LHP Vance Tatum (2-0, 1.99) will work on Sunday, again as usual.
Either way or day, righthander Sexton is establishing himself as central to Mississippi State’s pitching plans. Right on schedule, too, in this sophomore season.
His Saturday start against San Diego certainly looked like someone getting ready for SEC season. Sexton threw 7.0 innings and a bit more in the eighth to get the win. He might have given up more walks than usual, four, but came back with five strikeouts and plenty of ground balls.
He was also touched for three hits, only one of which really mattered. That was the two-run shot in the second inning for a temporary Dog deficit. “Early on I struggled a little bit with my command, trying to get a little feeling for the ball. I just had a little trouble getting it down in the zone. I was able to adjust.”
Indeed he did, hanging five more zeroes on the top line. How Sexton adjusted spoke to why State is counting on him in league play. First, he did get his pitchers down in the zone better. Second, working with catcher Josh Lovelady, they avoided ‘pattern’ pitching that gives batters tips and trends.
“I don’t want to get caught in the pattern that the hitters are all saying OK, he’s throwing this this pitch and after a strike he does this. So me and Josh were adjusting all game and trying to keep them of balance.” Just like a SEC starter must, during just about every game at some point.
Oh, and shrugging-off that two-run shot was a cue to Sexton’s maturing. Though, “I hope that’s not going to happen every time! But luckily I was able to come back.”
A year ago, the then-freshmen likely could not have bounced back so smoothly. Sexton came to campus out of Sparkman High in Huntsville touted as a SEC starter, in time. It did take some time, too.
Sexton got in nine games as a rookie with three starts, just 22.2 innings, and did win a couple of non-conference decisions. That’s the standard process for young pitchers. Of course so is getting roughed-up by SEC swingers, and in his 3.1 league relief innings Sexton was touched for eight runs with just four hits and four walks.
Nobody worried though that given time and training Sexton’s stuff would get him in the rotation. The kid is coachable, after all.
“I think the difference is Coach T (Butch Thompson) has really, really, really put emphasis on attacking the hitters and using your sink, and allowing them to just get themselves out,” Sexton said. “When we’re doing that it’s working. And obviously Preston was able to go do that, I was able to do it. So just allowing the sink to work and letting hitters get themselves out works. That’s just it.”
Well, there is something more to it. A year in Mississippi State’s program has built Sexton up enough to stay strong into the middle innings and maybe longer. Yes, Sexton says, he has yet to face the acid test of SEC weekend after weekend after weekend. But he is confident he can hold up.
“That’s a credit to our strength and conditioning coach for building us up. But so far, so good. This little body is still hanging in there!” Yeah, if 6-2, 180 counts as ‘little’.
Coach John Cohen sees a kid coming up big. “No question, for whatever reason as he gets deeper in a game his stuff gets better. His breaking ball gets better, especially his slider becomes a much better pitch. Then again, you have to get to 40, 50 pitches deep.”
“But he’s really maturing. You know, when you have something for a righthanded hitter with a slider, and something for a lefthanded hitter with your changeup, that makes you able to get through a lineup a couple of times. And he’s been able to do that.”
SEC endurance is one upcoming test. So is control. In four non-conference starts Sexton has struck out 25 with just six walks and four of those in the last outing before adjusting. SEC batters have sharper eyes on the whole and SEC umpires…well, that’s always the wild card for any moundsman, any game.
So in Mississippi State’s case is offensive support, since even the best pitchers don’t put up runs and build leads to turn over to the bullpen. Ideally a pitcher just throws his own game and leaves the scoring up to the rest of the squad, but…
“Any time the batters can give you a little added boost to go back out there and get a lead too, you fill it up a little bit more,” Sexton said. “For whatever reason it is you just go out there and do that.”
Besides, until he corrects that curious quirk, the Bulldog batters will have to provide a couple of runs to offset the dinger. Sexton is good-humored about it all.
“That seems to be the thing. But we’ll get rid of that.”
Meanwhile, Mississippi State (15-4) is not taking a ton of momentum into SEC season. After a 13-0 start the Bulldogs have dropped four of the last six games. That includes a frustrating midweek split with Western Kentucky, when offensive issues that have dogged State in March cost dearly.
Cohen is not entirely surprised. Not with so many first-timers in the lineups and orders, as in first time as daily starters or even first time on a college ball field. Even when State began so hot, averaging nearly nine runs per win, a lot of the offense wasn’t coming off well-hit balls. Often not on contact at all, as poor opposing pitching played to this roster’s strengths in earning walks, running the bases, and forcing mistakes.
The MSU philosophy likes all the above of course. But conference pitching is rarely as generous and now Bulldog batters have to make things happen with the sticks much more often. Or at least with much better timing. All four of the losses were a single key hit from being wins. All of them.“Every little mistake on the mound is magnified when you can’t score or are struggling to score,” Cohen said.
So, “Until we start taking better swings especially with runners in scoring position we’re going to keep going through this,” Cohen said. “You just have to keep working on it and encouraging it. We’ll be better than this offensively.”
Alabama lists a rotation of senior lefty Taylor Guibeau (2-1, 2.67), junior righty Will Carter (1-1, 4.35), and soph RHP Geoffry Bramblett (3-1, 3.22). The Crimson Tide fortunes have fluctuated in recent years but in 2015 they have a calling card many peers don’t.
“They’re really good, and they’re old,” Cohen said. “They have a ton of older kids that are really good players. They’ve been really good on Friday nights on the mound so you just assume it’s going to be a close ball game and you have to find a way to eke out some runs in this ball park. Hopefully our kids compete at a higher level offensively.”
That ball park item is worth a note. When previous Alabama teams came they had to adjust from a relatively compact home field, and reachable fences, to Dudy Noble Field’s broader horizons. But this year with Alabama building an entirely-new stadium, they are playing home games in Hoover. Which is an even bigger yard than DNF. So no adjustment will be necessary.
Cohen can’t concern himself with that now. “Hopefully this weekend we have a chance to enter a different part of our season, and hopefully our kids will compete a little bit better offensively than we have the last couple of games.”