Inside the Dugout: Small looms large in MSU starting rotation

Ethan Small

Staff Writer

Opening Day at Dudy Noble Field is nearly here.

On Friday Mississippi State begins the 2019 baseball season with a 4 p.m. game against Youngstown State. That’s when new head coach Chris Lemonis and the Bulldogs begin their trek to try and return to Omaha, Nebraska, and the College World Series for what would be the 11th time in program history.

The Starkville Daily News is taking a look at different components of the 2019 Diamond Dogs leading into the new year of baseball. Last week, the MSU bullpen was the focus. Today, the Inside the Dugout series looks at the three players likely to be in State’s weekend pitching rotation.

Ethan Small

Small is the lone pitcher that Lemonis has confirmed will indeed be in Mississippi State’s weekend rotation. During MSU’s preseason media day two weeks ago, Lemonis wasn’t committed to the final two slots, but he had no hesitation in selecting Small the Opening Day starter.

“Friday night is Ethan Small,” Lemonis said. “He’s done it. He’s been there. He’s been one of our best all year. He is the leader of our pitching staff, so I feel confident about him there.”

It’s little surprise that Small is the unquestioned ace of Mississippi State’s staff. It’s a spot he essentially took over at the end of last season as he earned Game 1 starts for Mississippi State in both the Nashville Super Regional against Vanderbilt and in the College World Series.

Small finished 2018 with an impressive 3.20 earned run average and opponents hit only.239 against him. He struck out 122 batters to become one of only 22 MSU pitchers in history to own a season with 100 or more punch outs.

He’ll be on the bump this Friday as he begins his quest to perhaps top what was a breakout 2018.

“Really it’s just continuing where I left off last year,” Small said. “It’s not changing anything drastically, just fine-tuning things to make it better.”

J.T. Ginn

While Lemonis has gone no further than labeling the freshman Ginn a candidate for a weekend rotation spot, Ginn’s teammates seem a bit more convinced. MSU left fielder Rowdey Jordan was asked at the team’s media day if he thought Ginn would be a weekend starter. Jordan had no hesitation.

“He will be,” Jordan said. “He’s good enough and it’s just going to be exciting.”

Not many freshmen earn a stamp of approval like that so quickly, but then again, Ginn isn’t your ordinary freshman. Ginn was a first-round draft choice in this past summer’s Major League Baseball Draft as the Los Angeles Dodgers took him with the 30th overall pick. The Dodgers reportedly offered Ginn $2.4 million to begin his professional career. However Ginn turned it down to become a Bulldog.

“Everybody’s dream is to play in the major leagues obviously, but I’ve been committed here for a while and it was one of my dreams growing up (to play for MSU),” Ginn said. “Watching Mississippi State on TV and being a Mississippi kid, it’s like a dream come true to get out here and actually get to do it.”

Ginn is likely to be a multi-position guy for the Bulldogs as he could play some in the infield or as a designated hitter as well, but it appears his biggest contributions will indeed come as a weekend starter. If that’s the case, Ginn is more than ready for the opportunity.

“That’s what I came here for,” Ginn said. “I want to be able to get out there and pitch on the weekends and give my team the best chance to win.”

Ginn brings a ton of promise to the mound with him at Dudy Noble Field. He’s a hard thrower that has, in the past, been clocked in the high 90s to go along with impressive breaking pitches.
Small, like Jordan, believes special things are ahead for Ginn.

“He’s definitely physically mature,” Small said of Ginn. “Of course there is always a learning curve with freshmen – always is, but he’s far, far ahead of probably me when I was a freshman and everybody else too. You see that and it’s like, ‘What’s he going to be (in the future) and what can he be this year if he really takes advantage of this opportunity?’ I’m excited to see what he does.”

Keegan James

Like with Ginn, Lemonis hasn’t committed to James in a weekend rotation spot, but multiple Mississippi State players at the team’s media day seemed convinced James was in.

James, a junior, posted a solid season for the Bulldogs in relief last season and looks poised to capitalize and build on his success. He’s not taking it for granted that he’s won a weekend job though, no matter how many votes of confidence he gets from teammates.

“I’ve worked my whole life for it,” James said of possibly starting on weekends. “My ultimate goal was to be a weekend guy at a premier college and hopefully be able to be a starter in the big leagues at some point. It’s really neat, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

James had a 4.34 ERA out of the bullpen for MSU last year. He struck out nearly a batter an inning with 45 punch outs over 47.2 frames.

As he prepares for what’s likely to be the biggest role of his Bulldog career now, James says he’s been refining his curveball command.

“We’ve been tinkering with some grips and we’ve found a consistent grip and consistent arm speed,” James said. “Now, it’s just putting it in the zone whenever I need to.”

If James can locate his breaking ball and combine that with command of his low-to-mid 90s fastball, he likely won’t just be in MSU’s weekend rotation – he’ll thrive in it.

Count Small among those that think James is ready for a big year.

“He’s got it,” Small said of James. “It’s just the feel and the fine-tuning things and I think he’s working on that.”

Joel Coleman is the Mississippi State beat writer for The Starkville Daily News. The opinions in Inside the Dugout are Coleman's and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SDN or its staff.