Konnor Pilkington showed exactly why he’s Mississippi State’s ace Sunday. Two days after MSU’s starter didn’t make it through three innings, the southpaw turned in what first-year coach Andy Cannizaro called his best performance of the season.
Facing a win-or-go-home elimination game against Illinois-Chicago in the Hattiesburg Regional, Pilkington allowed MSU to escape with a 5-4 win while also keeping its bullpen somewhat intact.
The win sent MSU to the late game Sunday against the loser of South Alabama and host Southern Miss for the second elimination game of the season.
“With our season on the line for him to go out there and perform like he did, that’s what you’re looking for,” Cannizaro said. “You’re looking for big-time players to perform big on the big stage. That’s exactly what he did. You want somebody to go out there where the moment’s not going to be too big for them.”
Thanks to MSU starting Cole Gordon in the opener against South Alabama and Saturday’s slate being washed out, the former East Central ace said he felt fresh throwing on 10 days worth of rest.
The extra time off showed. Pilkington was efficient for much of his 16th start of the season, keeping his pitch count down. He didn’t allow a hit until the third inning and retired 14 straight at one point, finishing with nine strikeouts against against four hits and two walks.
“He was able to keep them off balance and run that fastball north of 90 miles an hour in on their hands,” Cannizaro said of Pilkington, who hit 93 on the stadium’s radar several times. “He really kept a good offensive team off balance today.”
Looking to keep his bullpen fresh for Sunday night’s second elimination game, and with MSU (37-25) holding a comfortable 5-1 lead, Cannizaro let Pilkington face the first three batters of the eighth.
After a single, double and two-run single on Pilkington’s 113th pitch, Cannizaro brought in Spencer Price. Following a groundout and single, Cannizaro quickly brought in Riley Self.
The freshman surrendered an RBI single but induced a fly ball to center field and struck out the next batter to end the damage.
Things got hairy once again for MSU in the ninth as UIC (38-17) loaded the bases with one out, but Self retired the final two batters of the game on a strikeout looking and a groundball to short.
Sparking the offense
With his RBI-double in the fourth, which gave MSU a 4-1 lead, Brent Rooker became the first SEC player to ever hit 20 homers, 30 doubles and 75 RBIs in a single season. Clemson’s Khalil Greene was the last NCAA player to achieve the same feat, back in 2002.
“That’s pretty big time, man,” Cannizaro said.
Rooker stayed in his typical second spot in the order, but Cannizaro opted to shuffle the guys around him, moving Hunter Stovall to the leadoff spot, with Ryan Gridley, Cody Brown and Jake Mangum after Rooker. The lineup juggling paid off as each player reached base at least once. The five players combined for 10 hits and two walks.
Gridley started the scoring in the third with a single to left, scoring Stovall. UIC’s Cody Bohanek tied the game in the bottom of the inning with a sacrifice fly, but MSU immediately responded in the fourth with three runs. Elijah MacNamee singled in Hunter Vansau. After a walk, Gordon singled off the center field wall, scoring MacNamee and extending MSU’s lead to 3-1.
MacNamee’s RBI-double in the fifth ended up being the difference maker.
Brown once again started at third for MSU. The former Biloxi Indian finished 2-for-4 with a walk. Mangum and UIC’s Brandon Gibis led all players with three hits. Rooker, Gridley and MacNamee all had three hits.
UIC’s Reid Birlingmair took the loss, allowing all five runs in 4 2/3 innings.