Sophomore Lefthander Draws Starting Duty for 2017 Season

The real season is still days away and here Konnor Pilkington has a game cap already sweat-streaked. A big gamy, if you will.

But wait. “This is like my fourth hat, now!” Pilkington explains. “It shows true grit, I guess.”

Well, that and a lot more. Such as how hard this sophomore southpaw has worked at his craft in preseason, preparing to begin 2017 this weekend. Which in Pilkington’s case is literally begin. When Mississippi State lines up for Texas Tech and Friday’s 4:00 opener, he will be on the hill awaiting the play-ball call.

Surprise? Not at all. Practically from the moment Mississippi State’s 2016 team finished and all draft damage had been done, Diamond Dog fans began booking Pilkington for the first Friday of ’17. Naturally. He is the only real returning starting pitcher on this staff, after all.

Pilkington opened 11 games as a freshman out of 14 appearances, going 3-1 with a 2.08 ERA which was second-best on the entire staff. Even his new head coach, who only saw Pilkington in-person briefly last fall on a Sunday at Baton Rouge, was giving him the opening-nod as far back as November.

Now it’s official. Just as Pilkington and everyone figured all along.

“Inevitably, yeah. Being Friday night guy, yeah, I pretty much knew.”

So did all observing or following the three scrimmage weekends just completed. It was #48 on the hill each Friday, as clear a setting-up signal as could be asked. At the same time, inevitable or otherwise, Pilkington pitched intrasquads as if he had to win a roster spot before a rotation role.

Hence, making managers keep going to the hat rack for him for the last year-and-half.

“This preseason we really got after it, all the sweat, all the tears, all the blood,” Pilkington said. “It’s all going to pay off this season, I hope.”

For him and for the whole staff, he means. Just because he has a well-defined job at the moment, does not change facts that a rotation is still very much in the making and all sorts of relief roles remain to be tested by real competition. Coach Andy Cannizaro and pitching coach Gary Henderson will likely use these coming weeks as live examinations and evaluations ahead of SEC season.

At the same time…winning opening weekend against Texas Tech and Western Illinois would get the pre-league schedule off to a flying start. Which puts the pressure to start strong on, yes, Pilkington against the Red Raiders.

“They’re ranked high and everything but that doesn’t mean anything to me. I’m going to go out there and shove and give it everything I’ve got.”

What Pilkington has got is a strong left arm with mid-90s potential and a fastball coming from a high plane. Of course he cannot just heave heat every inning, and Cannizaro makes clear his starters must provide five, hopefully six quality innings.

As a freshman Pilkington averaged a bit over three frames. So building up second-year endurance is one obvious goal. But Henderson has given another key to success. “Controlling the body,” is how Pilkington describes it.

“When you can the speed is going to come. When you can put it on one side of the plate or bounce a curveball in the dirt, or putting the changeup right where you want any count. That’s what he preaches the most.”

First-year mound mentor Henderson will do his preaching in the dugout. Between the lines it will fall to whoever is receiving Pilkington’s pitches. Cannizaro already intends to use all three regular backstops, well, regularly. Only the weekend will reveal what the order is for returning alternate catcher Elih Marrero; injury redshirt Josh Lovelady; and true freshman Dustin Skelton.

Pilkington isn’t picky. All, he said, are “Awesome.”

“Dustin Skelton is a good catcher. I love having Lovelady behind the plate. And Elih you know is always going to give you his best effort.”

So will Mississippi State season-starting starter. Whatever happens this first weekend, Pilkington doesn’t plan on getting tooooo comfortable. “I’m always going to work harder than the guy next to me.” Which likely means between now and Friday, somebody might need another fresh cap?

Because the approach of opening day has Pilkington practically in a, yes, sweat.

“I’m ready. I know everybody else is ready, but I’m ready.”

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