Soph Southpaw Takes Mound Friday at Arkansas

The day was great for Bulldog baseball. The game…that could have been a bit better for Konnor Pilkington personally. “It didn’t go as I wanted to.”

But sharing in a SEC Championship celebration after Mississippi State’s victory, clinching the 2016 title outright, did ease most sting for game-starter Pilkington. Who lasted 2.1 innings for the record, leaving the bullpen to calm Arkansas bats while the Bulldog offense stormed back for a 9-4 final.

Most of a year and a new season later, Pilkington gets a second start against a Razorback team. On Friday this time, as the sophomore will throw the first SEC pitch for State in 2017.

“It’s a SEC Friday start for me,” Pilkington said. “And it’s a big game, a big weekend.”

Yes indeed. Championships aren’t won the first league weekend, much less first game. But what happens Friday in Fayetteville can certainly set Mississippi State’s tone. Which puts the pressure on Pilkington, apparently.

Not, he said, that preparing for his first ‘ace’ action means changing much of his approach from the past four Fridays.

“Stay in the routine. Go in there with the same mindset.”

Coach Andy Cannizaro’s choice of Pilkington (2-2, 1.73) to open every weekend so far has been affirmed. The starter did his part, for the most part, even in losses to ranked Texas Tech and then at Oregon. The latter was a 1-0 final settled on a single swing and solo homer by the home team.

Pilkington handled the early setbacks just fine. Last Friday saw him mow down South Alabama with 13 strikeouts over 7.2 innings and a four-hit shutout. “Every outing like that is going to make a little more confidence,” Pilkington said.

Confidence in his fastball, location, and mixing speeds a bit. So Pilkington doesn’t plan any surprises for the first SEC outing, though he admits to having experimented with some additions of late.

“I mean, for the most part I’m sticking to what works.” With the caveat, he wants to get one other pitch working. Pilkington got through South Alabama without really trying the changeup. This could be helpful moving forward.

“Of course, a changeup is a game-changer with a pitcher. Being able to throw it in any count is huge for a pitcher. It creates ground-outs and that’s what we want.”

Which means despite throwing up 13 Ks the last time out Pilkington won’t be looking to just shoot down Razorback swingers. Location, staying low, not trying to over-throw; that’s his approach.

Oh. And eating up innings. Any SEC starters wants this already. In Mississippi State’s case an extensive start is increasingly urgent, all the more so on Fridays. Ditto for righthander Peyton Plumlee come his Saturday start.

Because as Cannizaro has said, success likely hinges on the transition from starters to a confident closing corps. Middle and long relief has been a problem for weeks. The usual suspects have had struggles, or injuries, or both.

The simplest fix of course is Pilkington going near-enough the distance and handing the ball to a Riley Self, Graham Ashcraft, Spencer Price. Simple, sure. Likely? Mmmmmm…

Pilkington can’t think about such things once the game is underway. “I never know if three innings, one inning, seven or eight. I just go out there and give everything I’ve got every time I pitch.” But, he adds, “You’ve got to rely on them, you’re not going to throw nine-inning shutouts every time.”

Shutting out an Arkansas order that likes the longball is not a logical approach either. Minimizing opportunities, is. For whoever takes the mound this weekend. And next weekend, and the next, and…

Because this pitching staff is not a finished product per Pilkington.

“It starts in practice, working on where you want to put a ball every time. I just feel we have some guys that really can help our team. Once they figure it out I think we’ll be rolling as a pitching staff.”

A staff and a squad rolling into northwest Arkansas this Thursday for a practice ahead of opening SEC weekend. It has been a long time since the 2016 Bulldogs celebrated their championship with an unwilling Arkansas audience. Now the twist of SEC scheduling has the same programs opening the ’17 slate.

Same programs, not same teams.

“We’re going to go in there and we have to compete,” Pilkington said. “We have to hit, have to pitch the ball. And go in there with confidence and expect to get three wins.”

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