Mississippi State

All eyes will be on this Mississippi State ace Friday at Southern Miss

Mississippi State left-hander Konnor Pilkington has a chance to make a leap in the MLB Draft with a strong junior season.
Mississippi State left-hander Konnor Pilkington has a chance to make a leap in the MLB Draft with a strong junior season. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com file

With Major League scouts set to watch his every move in 2018, Konnor Pilkington will face his greatest test yet this season.

The Mississippi State left-hander will be eligible for the MLB Draft following the 2018 season, and he’s considered one of the best pitching prospects in all of college baseball. Rated as the 23rd-best prospect for this June’s draft by MLB.com, Pilkington has a chance to climb well into the first round with another strong showing this year.

If past performance is any indication, the junior is more than up to the task.

The 6-foot-3, 230-pounder has shown a steady progression with each season since taking the mound as a freshman in 2012 at East Central High School in Hurley. After often proving unhittable during his junior and senior years of high school, Pilkington made a smooth transition to the college game in 2016. He had a 3-1 record and a 2.08 ERA in 43 innings as a freshman.

In 2017, Pilkington settled in nicely as the Friday night ace for Mississippi State. He finished 8-5 with a 3.08 ERA in 17 starts, striking out 111 batters in 108 innings.

His performance in Starkville was good enough to draw an invitation to join USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team this past summer. He performed well against international competition with a 2.65 ERA.

“It was a good opportunity, being able to play with all the best collegiate players in the nation and being able to compete internationally like that,” Pilkington said. “It was a great experience.”

A new option

His time with the USA squad in Carey, North Carolina, allowed the 20-year-old to work on a change-up that should make him even more effective as the MSU ace.

“I haven’t thrown it much, but I plan to throw it more this season,” Pilkington said. “I developed it a little more over the summer. I’m hoping to be able to throw it in more counts and more often in games.”

Pilkington hasn’t had to rely much on off-speed pitches, thanks to a fastball that features wicked movement. His fastball topped out at 97 miles per hour last season during a game at LSU. Throughout preparations for Friday’s season opener at Southern Miss, his fastball has hovered around 93.

“I still rely on movement and location,” Pilkington said. “I’d much rather rely on those two aspects than velocity. Velocity only gets you so far.”

MSU head coach Andy Cannizaro likes what he has seen out of Pilkington.

“He is better this year than he was a year ago,” Cannizaro said last week. “The secondary stuff is better. His breaking ball, his change-up, his fastball command. He is a guy who has continued to get better and better with each and every bullpen he has thrown with (pitching coach Gary Henderson).”

When Pilkington takes the mound Friday night in Hattiesburg, he will face a USM lineup that’s loaded with potent left-handed bats. There’s a good chance USM will have at least five players swinging from the left side of the plate in the starting lineup.

When you consider that USM had more success against right-handed pitching last year, Pilkington should have the edge.

MSU is likely to throw another left-hander against USM this weekend in 6-foot-4 sophomore Ethan Small, who sat out last year following Tommy John surgery.

“He is another 6-4 lefty with a mid-90’s fast ball, nice breaking ball, feel for change-up, has refined his mechanics and arm action to where he has become a strike thrower,” Cannizaro said. “We have a lot of confidence in Ethan.”

MSU’s biggest issue in 2017 was the lack of pitching depth, but Pilkington is confident that won’t be a problem this year.

“We’ve got so much pitching this year,” he said. “We’ve got so many guys that can come in, step up and do their part.”

A shot at at the Eagles

Pilkington missed out on a chance to pitch against USM last year in the Hattiesburg Regional after South Alabama beat the Bulldogs 6-3 in the opener. He instead pitched the next game against Illinois-Chicago in a 5-4 victory, helping spark a four-game winning streak to take the regional.

Pilkington, who picked MSU over USM out of high school, is anxious to face the Golden Eagles.

“I’ll have a lot of family there,” he said. “Being able to pitch that close to home is great. It’s really going to be a good atmosphere and I know a lot of Southern Miss players from going down there last year in the regional. There’s going to be a lot of tension. It’s going to be a fun weekend.”

With Pilkington, MSU junior outfielder Jake Mangum and USM sophomore outfielder/pitcher Matt Wallner all seeing action this weekend, there will be a slew of MLB scouts on hand.

Pilkington realizes that they will be watching him, but that’s not a great concern of his.

“It’s a process,” he said. “I try not to think about it too much. We’ll start off with game No. 1 against Southern Miss in Hattiesburg. It’s just one day at a time. I try not to get too wound up about it.”

Patrick Magee: 228-896-2333, @Patrick_Magee

Game plan

Who: Mississippi State vs. Southern Miss

When: 4 p.m. Friday, 1 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday

Where: Pete Taylor Park, Hattiesburg

Radio: WPMO-AM 1580