Image credit: Mississippi State lefthander Ethan Small (Kelly Donoho, Mississippi State Athletics)
STARKVILLE, Miss. — A year ago, lefthander Ethan Small quietly became Mississippi State’s best pitcher as the Bulldogs made a Cinderella run to the College World Series. Lefthander Konnor Pilkington had been Mississippi State’s Opening Day starter and was the bigger prospect—he was drafted in the third round by the White Sox, while Small, his classmate, went in the 26th round in the 2018 draft.
But by the time they got to Omaha, Small had emerged as the Bulldogs’ most consistent starter. He got the ball in their first game at the CWS and threw seven scoreless innings as Mississippi State beat Washington, 1-0.
Small got beat in his second start in Omaha, an elimination game against Oregon State. But he was coming back to school for his redshirt junior season as the unquestioned leader of the Mississippi State staff, looking to lead the Bulldogs back to Omaha.
Small started on Opening Day in 2019 against Youngstown State, striking out 11 in five innings, setting the tone for the rest of his season. The lefthander went on to dominate as Mississippi State’s ace. He won SEC pitcher of the year honors and put himself on an All-America track. On Monday, Small was drafted 28th overall by the Brewers, showing just how far he has come in the last year.
But Small isn’t done yet. He and the Bulldogs are still trying to get back to the CWS and chasing the national title that has thus far eluded the program. And after his performance Saturday against Stanford in the Starkville Super Regional Opener—his final game at Dudy Noble Field—Mississippi State is a game away from a return to Omaha.
Behind another strong start from Small, Mississippi State defeated Stanford, 6-2, to take Game 1 of the best-of-three series. The lefthander held the Cardinal to one run (unearned) on five hits and two walks in six innings and struck out eight batters. Small improved to 10-2, 1.76 and took over as the nation’s strikeout leader, finishing the night with 168 strikeouts in 102 innings this season.
And Small did it without being at his best.
“My biggest challenge tonight was fighting myself, especially early,” Small said. “Tonight, I was kind of fighting myself. The biggest thing was going off the changeup and kind of working those two pitches together.”
Small opened his start against Stanford by striking out Kyle Stowers, the 71st overall pick of the draft, before running into first inning trouble. A single, error and walk loaded the bases for powerful Andrew Daschbach, and the big righthanded hitter put a charge into the ball, driving it to the wall in center field. But Mississippi State’s Jake Mangum was able to track down the ball, robbing the would-be grand slam at the wall. It resulted in a sacrifice fly, but Small escaped further trouble by getting a groundout to end the inning.
From then on, Small largely avoided trouble. Stanford only got two more runners into scoring position against Small and neither advanced past second base. They were flummoxed by Small’s low-90s fastball and changeup, and his ability to mess with hitters’ timing by varying the speed of his delivery.
It didn’t come easy for Small, but he fought through it for a quality start—the mark of an ace.
“I just think in that atmosphere, that environment, a really good team in the other dugout, to get a quality start from your starting pitcher is huge,” coach Chris Lemonis said. “The first inning got a little crazy. Jake Mangum makes a great catch, but Ethan just keeps pounding the zone. Then, he settled in and had a really good day.”
Small has been doing that all year. Oftentimes, he simply dominates, but when he has to grind out results, he has proven that he can do that as well.
Catcher Dustin Skelton said Small’s fastball command was the key to his success Saturday, as it has been all year as Mississippi State’s Friday starter.
“He’s just a bulldog when it comes to those Friday night starts,” Skelton said. “Whenever he gets his chance to throw its absolutely unbelievable.”
Small is authoring one of the best years ever for a Mississippi State pitcher. His 168 strikeouts rank second on the Bulldogs’ single-season list, and if they make it to Omaha, he’ll have a good chance to break the record of 174 that Eric Dubose has held since 1996. He is only the second Bulldog to be named SEC pitcher of the year in the award’s 17-year history, joining Chris Stratton (2012).
There’s no doubt that Small has left his mark on the Mississippi State program already, though he and his teammates hope to become true legends by becoming the first group to bring the national championship back to Starkville.
But on Saturday, in what was surely Small’s last start at Dudy Noble Field, Lemonis said he would have liked to have removed the lefthander in the middle of an inning, giving the crowd one last chance to recognize him. The game situation didn’t allow for that to happen, but because of where Small’s pitch count was going into the sixth inning, he figured it would be his last and when he walked off the mound afterward, he tried to soak the cheers up one last time.
“I don’t know that I had ideas in my head and just looked up at the crowd my last time coming off,” he said. “Just really special. And I don’t think it’s really sank in that it’s my last time doing it. I’ve been here so long and pitched here so many times in front of that crowd in that atmosphere that it just doesn’t feel real that its over.”
Lemonis has only had the opportunity to coach Small for one year since he was hired last summer to take over the program. But it hasn’t taken Lemonis long to realize how special Small is.
“He’s just such a competitor,” Lemonis said. “It’s so fun to coach him on and off the field. What he’s done for this ball club and this program is huge.
“I’ve said it about Jake, but it’s true about Ethan and a lot of the guys, I wish I could coach them a lot longer, but I’ll take one year with those guys. They’re very special players.”