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An Ace At Last for Mississippi State

Pitcher Khal Stephen (MSU Athletics Photo)

By Colton Watson

Baseball is an unpredictable game, especially at the collegiate level.

In our effort as fans to understand and predict what happens between the foul lines, many clichés and mantras have arisen to help explain kooky box scores and unexpected results that crop up every week.

You’ve certainly heard such turns of phrase before: “that’s baseball”; “they hit a lot of balls right at people”; “they ran into a good arm”; “everybody has an ace.” Some of these are more true or applicable than others.

“That’s baseball” is a perfect potion of truth and ambiguity to serve as a satisfactory reason for head-scratching losses or unforeseen wins. Other baseball-isms, like “everybody has an ace,” don't quite have the same veracity. 

An ace pitcher is one whom a coach feels gives his team a chance to beat anybody that may sit in the other dugout. Ace pitchers are usually seen on Friday nights or opening games of weekend series in college baseball, and a quick flip around ESPN's affiliated networks on such an evening is like a glimpse into MLB All-Star weekend five years into the future.

Stars with pro baseball futures like Paul Skenes, Chase Burns, and Hagen Smith have earned the moniker in recent years. While it’s true every college baseball team must have a pitcher who, perhaps by default, is the best on their staff—it could not be further from the truth that every college baseball team has an ace starting pitcher.

Mississippi State has been a team without an ace pitcher for two years now. While they certainly had the makings of as fine an ace as you could find in 2022, when Landon Sims moved from his closing role the previous season into the starting rotation, his injury less than four weeks into the season left State floundering on the mound for much of the remaining season.

In 2023, a revolving door of starting pitchers hampered by injury and underperforming meant that no identifiable ace would emerge for the Bulldogs once again.

Head coach Chris Lemonis and his staff know the value of a reliable weekend starter, and they heavily pursued big-time pitching options in the transfer portal each of the last two off-seasons. But finishing second for stars like Paul Skenes two years ago, and Mason Molina last year, left little room for optimism about State’s starting pitching situation heading into both 2023 and 2024.

It was a real gut punch for State fans when the long-running pursuit of Alabama transfer pitcher Luke Holman ended with him at LSU, as State couldn’t convince Holman to make the 90-mile move westward to Starkville at the end of last summer.

(MSU Athletics Photo)

One transfer portal win for Mississippi State flew under the radar, when State picked up former Purdue starter Khal Stephen. Khal (pronounced like Cal) started 14 games for Purdue in 2023, almost exclusively on Friday nights. But ace isn’t exactly how you’d describe his role on a middle-of-the-pack Big 10 team.

Stephen had staying power, lasting at least 5.0 innings in 11 of 14 starts, but in only half of his starts did he surrender two or fewer runs. His season ERA was 5.41, a respectable but not flashy number. Mississippi State fans were pleased but not impressed when he made the move last summer, and many thought Holman’s signing would leave Stephen either fighting for a Sunday starter role or becoming a middle reliever.

But much like Holman’s plans didn’t align with those of the maroon and white faithful, Khal had other ideas about what he would become as a Mississippi State Bulldog. Opening up the season in 2024, Stephen was the Saturday starter behind Swiss army knife and flame thrower Nate Dohm in Mississippi State’s rotation.

MSU teammates Khal Stephen (fourth from right, second row) and Nate Dohm (far right, second row)

also played together for Team Indiana (photo courtesy of Steve Dohm)

In his first game, although a no-decision, Stephen dazzled on a chilly day in Dudy Noble field by allowing 1 run on 3 hits in 7.0 innings. The next week however, he struggled to land his breaking ball and only lasted 2 1/3 innings after giving up 7 runs.

Two more run-free starts followed before a rough game versus LSU, and fans wondered if Stephen was just a streaky player, or perhaps not a Southeastern Conference-level starter. His early inconsistency, combined with the absence of Nate Dohm after the first four weeks of the season due to injury, left plenty of room for trepidation for those counting on the Mississippi State pitching staff for their ability to feel joy on the weekend. Today, fortunately, many of those doubts have now been silenced.

If an ace pilot needs five air kills to become an ace, then perhaps a pitcher needs five consecutive quality starts before the word “ace” gets tossed around. Quality is a far from an adequate term to describe what Stephen has done the last five weeks—sparkling, dominant, or phenomenal are more apropos.

All five of Stephen’s last five starts have come against SEC competition. All five of those last five starts have resulted in 2 or fewer runs. And, all five of his last five starts have had five or more strikeouts and three or fewer walks.

In Stephen’s last four starts, he has pitched the opening game of the weekend series. His ERA is down to 2.50 from nearly 8.00 early season, but it's even better in SEC play at 1.98, an indication of hitting stride at league time.

His ERA is second in the conference amongst weekend starters, behind only future first rounder Smith, and third overall. He’s also second in the SEC in innings pitched with 36 1/3 (behind Vanderbilt’s Carter Holton with 36 2/3) and tied for second in record at 4-1. While not known for his strikeouts at Purdue, he’s tied for fourth in SEC play in Ks with 41.

Stephen is fifth in the league in opponent batting average at .201. And like fine wine, he’s only getting better as the season continues on: at Texas A&M—6.2 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 5 K; at Florida—6.0 IP, 2 H, 2 ER, 8 K; vs Georgia—6.2 IP, 5 H, 0 ER, 7 K; at Ole Miss—8.0 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 9 K;

vs Auburn—7.0 IP, 6 H, 0 ER, 11 K.

(College Baseball Central image)

While it looked early on like the inconsistency of Stephen’s Purdue days followed him south to Starkville, State Pitching Coach Justin Parker and Head Coach Lemonis deserve their flowers for not only bringing in a guy who could be a key contributor, but developing his talent to be more than just a serviceable arm for the Bulldog staff.

Stephen only once had back-to-back weeks of outings with two or fewer runs in Big Ten play last year (and only twice on the whole season). Against much stiffer competition, he’s put up five stellar outings in a row and eight overall including non-conference weekends.

There’s still four weekends left before the SEC tournament. With still plenty to prove for both Stephen and Mississippi State, they must remain hungry rather than satisfied with their position in the SEC and the college baseball field at large.  But Stephen’s might on the mound is likely propelling State to a postseason berth, something they missed out on in each of the last two seasons. While it isn’t true that every college baseball team has an ace, its undeniable that few squads make it very far without one.

Oh, and Luke Holman’s SEC numbers? At this time, a 4.94 ERA, a 2-3 record, .231 opponent batting average, and a loss to Mississippi State the day before Stephen’s last iffy start. Sometimes, what you wish for ain’t as good as what you got.


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