Twice already this SEC season Pilkington has gone two weeks as the Friday starter; the next week toeing the rubber on Thursday. Wait, it’s not over either. There are two more Thursday starts in store for Pilkington around the ‘routine’ script.
This made-for-TV scheduling surely scrambles things for an ace, Pilkington agrees. “You know, on Thursday-Friday(-Saturday) you don’t get that extra day. But going to a Friday-Saturday-Sunday weekend you get the extra day. It really helps your body recoup. So I’m looking forward to it.”
For the moment and fortunately, this is one of those move-back weeks for Pilkington and the Diamond Dogs. It also is a very, very big weekend for Mississippi State, Auburn, and the whole SEC. A first-place Bulldog (29-14, 13-5) team hosts the Tigers (30-13, 12-6) which is part of a three-club pack right on State’s standings heels.
So the lead league is at stake, SEC Tournament seeding and NCAA Regional hosting points are to be scored. And it will be Pilkington holding the ball just after 6:30 Friday (this time) with the pressures of all those implications.
Or, will he?
“It’s just going to be another game, another team,” Pilkington said. “Auburn is ranked up and everything but we’re taking it game by game, weekend by weekend. I think we’ve proved that.”
Mississippi State has done that well. Since being swept on opening weekend by Arkansas (12-6 also) the Bulldogs have won every weekend, three of them by sweeps. That includes taking three from Alabama and if the cellar-dwellers did push MSU to the limit each time the wins kept coming.
Now it’s an opponent from the other end of the league ladder coming to town. Pilkington said the MSU mindset won’t shift a bit, standings or rankings or whatever.
“We told ourselves if we go out there and compete I don’t care who it is. We’re going to go out there and compete with them.”
The competition starts when Pilkington throws the first pitch. A strike he naturally intends, and for this sophomore season he’s been good at that. Pilkington brings a 4-3 record into this 11th start of the season, with 77 strikeouts in 62.2 innings. Oh, and just 24 walks.
Pilkington also has won his last two SEC starts after three no-decisions. That would seem statistically to be getting stronger. He grades himself lots harder on the past two outings.
“To me, average,” Pilkington said. “I try to push myself more than people think I do.” Meaning, Pilkington sets the standards higher than innings and fannings and other numbers. The ‘average’ reflects giving up a few more hits to South Carolina and Alabama than he likes. Or an April increase in walks issued.
“I want to do my best every time and I’m going to give my full effort,” he said. “But if it’s not what I want outcome-wise I’m not going to sit there and be in self-pity and pout. I’m going to come back strong and look for the next start and go from there.”
Coach Andy Cannizaro is clear what he wants from his ace: a solid start. Even if Pilkington can’t go six or seven, if the starter will make his innings count and keep the Bulldogs in contention, that is a Friday’s—or Thursday’s—work done well.
Pilkington himself thinks this idea of a long starting stint is not as important as most believe. It would be great, sure. But not necessary now, or so Pilkington believes with his faith in the bullpen Bulldogs.
“If I go, let’s say four innings. I know I’ve got Riley (Self) for three innings, there’s your seven. Then you get Trey Jolly and Jacob Barton for an inning. Then you have Spencer Price on the back end. I know guys are going to back me up and they know I’m going to give my full effort.”
Since this has been working in game-ones for most of the last five weeks, who is to argue? Also the rotation which was so unsettled a month ago has suddenly assumed something more normal. First baseman-turned-fulltime pitcher Cole Gordon has taken game-two for himself. Now a healthy Jacob Billingsley has worked into the third game slot.
Though a true sophomore and first-year starter himself, Pilkington has helped Gordon make the transition to a surprise SEC starter. Not so much technically or even tactically. Just, attitudinally.
“He gets frustrated a little bit, we all do. If he gives up a couple of hits or walks a guy, he comes in I’m going to sit him down, it’s alright, you’ve still got a couple of innings, get the next guy. We need guys that can go the mileage and with him being able to take game-two, it’s a huge deal.”
For a Bulldog roster ravaged by injuries, the pitching staff in particular, and even before that trying to restock from record draft calls on the 2016 SEC Champions, it is a huge deal to lead the conference race after six weekends. For that matter had anyone forecast in February this Auburn-Mississippi State series would be for a league lead…well, nobody did.
Now it is. This also has become a matchup of two skippers who must be front-runners for SEC Coach of the Year. Well, them and another former Mississippi State assistant as Nick Mingione’s first Kentucky team is also 12-6 this week.
The man Mingione’s office adjoined for years, Butch Thompson, is in his second season with the Tigers and turning a too-long-dormant program around entirely. A seven-year aide to John Cohen, and familiar already to Cannizaro, Thompson recruited much of this Bulldog roster.
Also, “He coached me for a semester,” Pilkington said. “I love Butch.” Or he does until pre-game and those last warm-up tosses before attacking an aggressive Auburn order.
“They swing. And they don’t swing at bad pitches,” Pilkington said. “Just an all-around good ball club. Coach Thompson has really brought that program around since last year. They’re going to be coming in here looking to win two out of three, and we’re looking to do the same.”
Those three may have to be played in two. Days, that is. Sunday’s forecast is dubious at best, and State has already accelerated one series for a weather threat. Whether or not there is a rescheduled Saturday twinbill should be settled and announced Friday.
Either way, Pilkington knows when he’ll take his turn. He even believes the real beneficiaries of a normal weekend after the last one is his relief team.
“Them getting a couple of days to work on their stuff and their arms heal a little more for this weekend is really going to help them.”