(Austin Sexton) Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Game-Two Starter Giving First-Class Results as Bulldogs Chase Championships

Know how to tell Austin Sexton has completed transition to a lead Dog? This. After punching out a crucial SEC victory, instead of enjoying the success he got right to critiquing his performance.

Instead of smiling about eight strikeouts, Sexton groused about a changeup that wasn’t working well and the one slider he wished had slid sharper. Oh, and not executing a cover-play correctly.

Yep, it was a terrible afternoon at Auburn. Because all Sexton did was win another SEC start. Not that he took any credit.

“The defense played well behind me, and the hitters knocked out 21 hits.”

Funny thing though. When Austin Sexton is on the hill these days, Mississippi State’s entire team seems to take care of business. Which just happens to be the junior righthander’s own attitude, actually.

“I just go out every week and do what I do. Change speeds, mix locations, try to keep them off-balance.”

It works. Sexton goes into this last week of the regular season 6-2 with a 3.69 era, good numbers on their own but not the whole story. The key to Sexton success is not making trouble for himself or his defense.

I.E., don’t give away bases. Sexton doesn’t. He issues walks about as often as SEC sportswriters pays for press box Cokes. At the same time Sexton sends batters back to their dugout consistently.

For the season so far Sexton has tossed 78.0 total innings with 78 strikeouts. That’s efficiency. Or look at his last seven starts, where Sexton has struck out 35 against only six walks. In the last two outings, wins against Missouri and Auburn, he fanned eight Tigers both games with a single free base each start.

In fact, Sexton hasn’t walked more than one batter since April 9. Meaning, to reach against this game-two starter, requires hitting the ball. Easier said than done against a Dog who is all-business.

“Just fill it up and get strike-one,” said Sexton.

Now putting pitches in the strike zone has its risks. Hitters expect to see something in the swing zone, obviously. Some of those contacts are going to get through, resulting in a few more runs allowed than the norm for a top-tier SEC starter.

Just don’t doubt that Sexton is every bit as vital to Mississippi State success as game-one starter Dakota Hudson. If his classmate is regarded as the ‘ace’ well, Sexton is a strong trump card in his own right. Plus, with his repertoire Sexton is a true ‘changeup’ from fastball/slider/cutter guy Hudson.

“He pushes me, obviously the way he’s been pitching lately pushes me,” Sexton said. “It makes every pitcher want to go out there and prove what they’ve got.”

What Sexton has got is a sneaky-quick fastball that can touch 91 on some stadium guns, and is consistently 88-89. The slider works well after this, but more so because every SEC hitter walks up worried about the changeup. Maybe the best example was how the day after knocking out lots of base hits off Hudson, the LSU lineup was left flailing at Sexton’s stuff. His changeup was magic that evening.

Also, “Sometimes my changeup just naturally cuts. Kind of throwing a second slider almost. At the last second it’s just falling off and it helped me out a lot.”

But then there’s those days the change isn’t changing. Sexton can scuffle through on spotted fastballs and slider. And fortunately first-year pitching coach Wes Johnson has been able to develop a sort-of curveball for occasional use.

The larger point is Sexton has more than mere options in his repertoire. He has the confidence now to come at SEC swingers with what works that day and not force things.

“It’s a game of adjustments,” Sexton said.

This complete ball club has made a most remarkable adjustment. Coming off an utterly frustrating 2015, the Diamond Dogs have transformed themselves from cellar-dwellers to the verge of a championship squad. They go into the schedule-ending series playing for the conference crown, and if Mississippi State can’t win it outright on their own neither do they need much outside aid.

And here, too, one can see just how great a transformation has taken place. Sexton wasn’t the only Dog leaving Plainsman Park (after a sweep, mind) a bit dissatisfied that they had not played perfectly. That’s OK, though.

Good enough, has been good enough to push the Bulldogs thissssss close to the SEC championship and a NCAA national seeding. Nor do the pitchers really feel pressure to be perfect, honestly.

“The way this team has been scoring and hitting, it’s phenomenal.”

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