We wrote in this space late last week about how well sophomore pitcher Austin Sexton has been doing for Mississippi State’s baseball team, then he went out Saturday and threw a complete game, nine innings of dominance to give him an unblemished 3-0 record.
Sexton now leads all MSU starters with a 2.12 ERA and is holding opposing batters to a .181 batting average in his five starts. Through his 29.2 innings pitched, he’s got 32 strikeouts and has only given up 19 hits in 105 batters faced, just seven runs total. The young [and rising] star has cemented himself in the weekend rotation, but if he’s being completely honest, as he was after Saturday night’s win, none of this was really supposed to happen.
Asked if he felt in the offseason and preseason that a year like this was coming, Sexton smiled and admitted, “No, not really.”
Not that he expected to be bad, of course, but he then launched into the explanation of what happened and why things changed. Turns out, it had almost nothing to do with the preseason. The key for Sexton is a bullpen session with pitching coach Butch Thompson days after the first weekend of games, when Sexton only made it two innings into his first start before being pulled.
“Coach Thompson is one of the best coaches in America regarding pitching and I can’t say enough about what he’s done,” Sexton told reporters. “Originally, all I threw was four seam [pitches] … The first start, I threw two innings that game, and the next bullpen we had, he said, ‘Let’s switch it up and go to a two seam.’ And that’s made, obviously, the biggest difference for me. I can’t thank him enough. It’s been amazing.”
In the two innings before that bullpen session: two hits, one run and one walk allowed.
In the 20 innings after the switch to a two-seam grip: 30 strikeouts, three wins and the Saturday spot in the rotation secured.
Head coach John Cohen has seen the difference, as well, in preseason Sexton and in-season Sexton. MSU’s skipper said most players are either 10 percent better or 10 percent worse than practice once they get on the mound in a game. Sexton, however, “is probably significantly better than 10 percent better,” Cohen said.
“His change-up, his ability to throw the fastball to the glove side is just huge,” Cohen continued. “The thing about Austin, too, that I admire, is he just keeps getting better. He gets better as the game goes along. He doesn’t hit that wall that a lot of starters do.”
In a part of the season during which MSU has had some struggles out of the bullpen, a starter going the whole way is huge for State. Sexton is also a perfect example of what the relievers need to do, according to Cohen.
To hear the coaches and players say it, the best thing a pitcher can do at Dudy Noble Field is throw strikes, force swings and contact, and don’t walk anyone.
“That’s what Austin did,” Cohen said. “It was just a clinic in, ‘I’m gonna make you put balls in play and I think we have one of the best defenses in the country. I’m gonna let three runners in the outfield run to the baseball. I’m gonna let my catcher stop the ball for me. I’m gonna let my infielders make plays.’”
Cohen continued, ”Austin just absolutely went out there and did what we needed him to do … We needed a strike-thrower and that’s what we got.”
Sexton’s ability and stability has helped create something MSU hasn’t had in a few years: a consistent starting rotation. Between Sexton, senior Preston Brown and sophomore Vance Tatum, State’s current weekend starters have an 8-1 record, a combined ERA under 2.50 and 97 total strikeouts. They’ve face over 300 batters and only given up 64 hits.
All indications are that Sexton ought to be a Saturday staple for the foreseeable future, and that’s just fine with his team.
“It’s really fun to watch and it’s fun to play defense behind,” outfielder Jake Vickerson said. “With him, you know you’re always gonna get a competitor.”