Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Junior Righthander Bidding for Opening Day Duty as Rotation Takes Spring Shape

Austin Sexton won’t treat it as some sort of statement. Just because he and Dakota Hudson took the first turn(s) as opening-scrimmage starters does not definitively mean they get the ball on opening day. “No, no, no. I just think everyone around us gets better when me and him are going at it.”

True enough. However, if everyone outside Dudy Noble Field wants to read more into how Mississippi State is cycling the scrimmage starts this month, well, why not?

What is clear, is that should these two ranking righthanded starters pitch to potential, they become the core of a stronger 2016 rotation. And as for which of the juniors gets the ball on February 19 at 4:28 or so?

Sexton is discreet at the suggestion. “I’m just excited for the season.”

He and we should be. If it’s too early to anoint Sexton for Opening Day duty, he will no doubt start one of that weekend’s games. And based on 2015, every other weekend as well. Sexton is the only returning rotation regular having started all 13 appearances and working 76.1 innings. He posted a 4-4 record and 3.77 era, which under last season’s struggling circumstances now looks outstanding.

It also gives Sexton much to build up for 2016. By ‘build upon’ we mean ‘add to his arsenal’. Which he has been busy with in cooperation with new Mississippi State pitching coach Wes Johnson. In three scrimmage innings last Friday, Sexton showed some fresh stuff.

“I felt good. I’ve kind of got a new feel for a curveball. And I’ve got a ‘spike’ too so it was good to get out there and throw that.”

Sexton did not dominate last Friday’s three scrimmage innings, he was just plain effective. Only OF Brent Rooker hit him, a leadoff single in the second turn; and he did issue a third inning walk which was erased on a caught-stealing. Sexton struck out the last two he faced as well, though he wasn’t really trying to shoot-down batters. He did have a respectable 61 strikeouts to 24 walks as a sophomore starter, by the way.

The twist, so to speak, to Sexton right now is after being a fastball/changeup guy in 2015 he’s expanding the repertoire now. And on his first time-out in preseason, “the curveball was working” he said.

“I’ve been working with Coach Johnson and today it was my best pitch. He introduced me to a new grip. I originally used a slider grip, now I throw kind of a ‘spike’ so it’s got a lot of more vertical depth, sharper. It worked out pretty well out there, I thought.”

Interesting stuff. Sexton already has respectable velocity of 90 or so on the fastball and the change has proven reliable getting ground ball outs. Sexton said he’s got a ‘cut’ changeup as well but did not need it in the first scrimmage.

“I mean, before I was a two-pitch pitcher last year, I feel like. So I developed that this summer, too. It’s kind of like a slider. But it just gives something else for a hitter to see, you can go into innings longer. It’s a big deal.”

Sexton certainly got his share of summer innings. Playing at Cotuit in the Cape Cod League he worked 39.2 frames in eight starts with a 3.77 era. The 2-4 record might not seem much but summer league ball doesn’t work like a real season. Of much more meaning was 37 strikeouts against just 11 walks, showing Sexton was finding the zone consistently.

“I had a wonderful time. It was long this summer, though! It went by slower but I had a wonderful time. The Cape Cod, you can’t take that for granted, ever. A bunch of good guys, and I got to play with one of my teammates, Daniel Brown who just lit it up this summer. So it was a lot of fun to watch.”

It was fun watching Sexton snapping his stuff a bit more briskly in the first scrimmage, too. He is not the same sort of ‘power’ pitcher as some on the staff. But the new pitching coach has a big name for maximizing velocity from all his arms, and this is the right roster to do it with.

True, all veteran Bulldog pitchers enjoyed their years with Butch Thompson. But they are glad to see him get his head coaching opportunity at last, at Auburn. And they are delighted with Johnson and the literal change of pace he’s brought.

“Coach Johnson is just a completely different coach,” Sexton said. “Coach Johnson is a little more right on top of you, helping you through every step. Coach T is more kind of let you figure it out and let’s talk about it. But I like what Coach Johnson is doing, it’s different and that’s good. He’s a big power guy. But he’s a great person and an even better coach.”

There’s another 2016 difference for Bulldog pitchers. With Gavin Collins working at third base, there are some fresh faces behind the mask and plate along with returning catcher Josh Lovelady. Sexton is loyal to the veteran and likes what juco Jack Kruger has brought to the position, calling both of them “phenomenal” so far.

But if they are phenomenal, what is touted freshman Elih Marrero? Watching the kid gun down base thieves on the first scrimmage was, well “Elih today, I mean he was unreal,” Sexton said. “I mean, he saved me.

“But that just compliments the coaching staff, what they did for us in the recruiting class.” By which veteran Sexton means all the newcomers of all classes brought in. Even though State could theoretically re-assemble a lineup with six of the eight position starters the same as in ’15, the new Dogs are already creating serious preseason competition at every outfield and infield spot as well as catcher.

“I’m excited, I really am,” said Sexton. “The makeup of this team is what has me really excited. It’s a close group, it’s a lot of guys that really want to win. And we have the makeup, we have the guys that went out this summer and performed. I think we won some award, I heard, for best summer club. So everyone went out there and did their thing, and we’ve got one goal in mind. That’s to get back to Omaha.”

The Omaha trail begins February 19 at 4:30. So, will Sexton have the ball in his right hand at that point? Or will Hudson, or some other State starter? Sexton is fine letting it all work out in the next two weeks.

“You know, I think it’s just a competitive thing. Me and Dakota both love to win, and we love to go out there and do our best. When we pitch against each other it really brings out the best in us, and I think that brings out the best in everyone around us. So it’s more of a team-building I guess you could say.”

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