Because their starter was feeling good, Mississippi State’s season extends at least another game on this day of non-rest at the Hattiesburg Regional. Pilkington’s seven-plus innings set up a Bulldog victory that reliever Riley Self finished off by a 5-4 score over Illinois-Chicago.
Mississippi State (37-25) staved off elimination and will face the loser of the ongoing South Alabama-Southern Mississippi game. Weather permitting the Bulldogs are back on Denson Field sometime around 6:00 in another elimination game. Illinois-Chicago leaves 39-17.
If this was to be Pilkington’s last performance of the sophomore season, he made it count. The ace lefty had a one-run, one-hit outing through seven complete turns and a 5-1 lead as well. Only a bottom-of-eighth surge finished his day, and even then Pilkington exited positioned for the winning decision.
“Konnor was outstanding today,” Coach Andy Cannizaro said.
Being well-rested clearly helped as Pilkington still had some snap on his 113th and final pitch. Though, he said, it was much more than velocity working today. “You’ve got a gameplan, you go out there and execute pitches.”
That plan was staying down in the zone, moving the fastball both in and out, a curveball that was going where Pilkington wanted to. Oh, “And my fastball was 90, 92 today.” Oh, yeah, that. The heater was key against Flames batters unable to pick up the breakers and movers.
Pilkington (8-5) struck out nine against just two walks and four hits. His main challenge came in the bottom of the third, with a 1-0 lead, as home-team UIC made their best run at him. A leadoff single by Brandon Gibis and plunking of the #9 batter got some trouble brewing. Pilkington was glad to allow just a sacrifice fly as with bases loaded and one out Cody Bohanek sent one deep to leftfield.
The drive fortunately died on the track and in Elijah MacNamee’s glove for only a sacrifice fly. It was the first of 14-straight outs as Pilkington just dominated for the next four scoreless frames.
UIC starter Reid Birlingmair wasn’t a slouch himself, changing speeds and spots just enough on his fastball to strand a pair of Dogs in the first inning and go through two turns scoreless.
“He had a few pitches he was throwing for strikes,” MacNamee said. “He had to changeups going both ways.” Using the change too much did allow State to start picking it up, though.
Like, when the order came around a second time. 2B Hunter Stovall singled with one out, and was stealing. A high throw and last-instant adjustment on the slide evaded a tag, so Stovall was in position to score as SS Ryan Gridley singled past the Flame third baseman.
After Pilkington stranded a pair to hold the 1-1 tie, his offense took charge. Maybe a rain shower’s arrival helped take some edge off Birlingmair’s pitching, because after one out RF Hunter Vansau lined a double to leftfield. MacNamee followed with a RBI-single to break the tie and C Josh Lovelady reached by walking.
Batting #9 and a designated hitter for the first time since early April, Cole Gordon had struck out his first chance. This time he lifted one very high that, with a bit more breeze, would have cleared centerfield. Instead it came down off the wall. MacNamee was able to score from second though Lovelady had to wait on the ball to fall and only made second on a very long Gordon single.
With the rain increasing the umpires kept things going. 1B Brent Rooker took advantage with a two-out double scoring Lovelady for the 4-1 lead.
Birlingmair continued into the Bulldog fifth, allowing a one-out single and steal by CF Jake Mangum. Righty Noah Masa was called in with two outs, only to have MacNamee beat him with a double and RBI for the 5-1 lead. It would be enough, barely.
Though as Pilkington rolled through in-order innings four runs looked like plenty. It wasn’t just him, the ace said. The gloves backed him up. “Stovall made two tremendous plays (bottom sixth). Love being behind the dish for me, it really helped the defense.”
The bats just didn’t extend the lead as UIC’s closer Alex Padilla, fourth hurler of their day, entered in the seventh to roll a double-play with bases loaded. He also finished the game out despite three-straight singles in the State ninth.
Pilkington just kept rolling through seven. “I was really fresh, I was able to keep my fastball at the same speed.” But in the eighth it was Gibis, the only Flame to hit him up to then, starting a rally with his single. A double meant two on for the top of UIC’s order, and after spoiling a series of Pilkington strikes Mikey McDonald singled in the pair.
RHP Spencer Price took over to roll one out before giving up a base hit for Flames on corners. And, a quick hook as Self took over. A slow roller couldn’t be gloved by charging 3B Cody Brown, giving up a run and cutting the lead to 5-4. Self was able to survive with a short fly and full-count called strikeout of Ricardo Ramirez.
The fun wasn’t over though. With no other arm warming Self had to finish despite a one-out single and consecutive walks. A hit would have likely won the game and ended State’s season. Self didn’t allow it, striking out David Cronin looking before a bouncer to the left side Gridley fielded for a force at third base.
Self got his seventh save of the season on 1.2 innings with two hits, two walks, two strikeouts, and no runs on his line. Birlingmair (7-5) took the loss on 4.2 turns with eight of State’s 14 hits, all five runs on two walks with seven strikeouts.
“A tremendous team effort,” Cannizaro said. “We beat an outstanding UIC team that has been playing really well.” The ending was all the more painful for the Flames as Friday they had blown a 6-1 lead and lost 8-7 to host Southern Mississippi.
“I’m proud of our guys for competing a full nine innings, and not letting the other team beat us today,” Cannizaro said. “A terrific win.”
NOTEBOOK: The batting numbers showed it ought have been an easier win for State, with 14 base hits against seven. Five Dogs had multiple hits, three by Mangum as for the first time this season he was swinging in the fifth slot. Ahead of him Rooker, Gridley, and Brown all had two hits, as did MacNamee in seventh slot.
Cannizaro had shuffled his order otherwise. Gridley was moved from leadoff back to his former #3 slot for one; and after a promotion to mid-order at the end of the regular season Stovall found himself atop the order for his first time ever.
“The idea was take a look at the last thirty at-bats of all our guys,” Cannizaro said. “Stovie has been going really good getting on base, drawing walks. Gridley has been stinging it. It was doing something a little different to kick-start the offense.”
The coach was also pleased how Mangum, a leadoff batter most of the sophomore season before switching spots with Gridley, came through in middle-order with a 3-of-5 day. “It’s good to see him going again.”
The other switch was personnel. Saturday pitcher Cole Gordon found himself back in a batting role, as the DH and in the #9 slot. Gordon had not started as a DH since February 19; and had only pinch-batted in his last four games…in a period from April 16 to May 26.
Yet with the season on the line, there he was back in a starting swinging role. “His BPs have been going really well,” Cannizaro said. Gordon rewarded his coach with that fourth-inning single and RBI.
WAITING ON WORD: State was to return to Taylor Park sometime late-afternoon as the winners bracket battle between #1 seed Southern Mississippi and #3 South Alabama nears conclusion. Before then Cannizaro hopes to pick a starter for either opponent.
He does know the two options, as does everyone else. Either Jacob Billingsley (1-3, 5.15) or Denver McQuary (2-3, 4.78), both righthanders, will have the ball in the do-or-done game. For what it is worth, neither of these threw a pitch in any of State’s regular season games with South Alabama. McQuary did throw 2.0 innings against Southern Mississippi, in Pearl.
Cannizaro was not optimistic RHP Riley Self will be able to return for a second Sunday stint after throwing 40 pitches to save the UIC game.