Jacob Billingsley pitches against Vanderbilt in the deciding game of the Nashville Super Regional.

OMAHA – On paper, it appears a mismatch: Mississippi State fifth-year senior pitcher Jacob Billingsley against a fearsome, power-packed Oregon State lineup that includes three first round choices in the recent Major League draft.

Billingsley, a walk-on five years ago out of Magnolia Heights School in Senatobia, will face an Oregon State lineup that includes three of the draft’s top 37 picks and six who were taken in the first 10 rounds. Billingsley, you should know, was picked in the 32nd round by the Houston Astros, the 972nd player chosen.

Rick Cleveland

Here’s what the numbers say on paper: Billingsley, who will turn 24 next month, has a 4.92 earned run average, having given up 76 hits in 71.1 innings. Opponents hit a healthy .270 against him. None of those numbers are going to strike fear into the hearts and minds of the Beavers, who hit .322 as a team with 64 home runs in 63 games.

Now then here’s the good news where Mississippi State is concerned: Ameritrade Park, home of the College World Series is not made of paper. It’s a beautiful stadium with well-groomed Kentucky bluegrass turf. More glad tidings for State: Friday’s scheduled 2 p.m. game is a huge one, and Billingsley has a habit of being at his best when it matters most.

Mississippi State interim head coach Gary Henderson watches during College World Series practice Friday, June 15, 2018, in Omaha, Neb.

“I don’t know why but certain kids rise to the moment,” is the way Mississippi State coach Gary Henderson put it. “He has pitched well in big games. That’s why I have confidence in him, the team has confidence in him and hopefully he’ll go out and have another big performance for us tomorrow.”

Over the last two post-seasons, Billingsley has started three games with State’s season on the line. In other words, if he loses any of the three, State’s season is over. State has won all three, none bigger than the masterpiece he threw against Southern Miss last June in a NCAA Regional at Hattiesburg. Remember?

Southern Miss, already with 50 victories, was undefeated in the Regional. State lost its first game, had to advance through the losers’ bracket and was thin on pitching when the Bulldogs faced the Golden Eagles. The Dogs desperately needed several innings from Billingsley. They got a lot more than that. Indeed, they got a complete game, 8-1 victory, saving the State staff for an 8-6 championship win.

Yes, Henderson said, it was Billingsley’s best game to date. “It would be the best game for a whole lot of pitchers,” Henderson said. “It was a pivotal moment for JB and for our team.”

This spring, Billingsley got the start against Samford in the Tallahassee Regional in a do-or-die game. Billingsley did, picking up the win and going seven innings in the process. He got the start in the deciding Game 3 against Vanderbilt in the Super Regional. He allowed two runs in three innings – not his best performance – but, again, State got the win.

“Every time I go out, I’m trying to give it my best,” Billingsley said Thursday after State’s short practice at Creighton University’s ballpark. “But games like this one are where younger guys might get sped up and caught up in the moment. You just have to treat it like it’s just another game – like a midweek game or an SEC game.”

That has to be hard to do if you take a glance at Oregon State’s stat sheet. The Beavers’ slugging percentage is a ridiculously good .495. By comparison, State’s is .409. Oregon State is located in Corvallis, roughly 2,500 miles from Starkville, but even the Bulldogs noticed them from nearly a continent away.

“You’ve seen it all year,” Billingsley said. “They can really swing it. . . . But coming from the SEC, we face that kind of lineup all the time so we won’t change anything about our approach.”

The Beavers are hot. After losing their CWS opener, they have scored 25 runs in back-to-back victories. Oregon State pounded out 13 hits, four doubles and three home runs in an 11-6 victory over North Carolina in a Wednesday night elimination game. Monday night, they raked for 16 hits in a 14-5 trouncing of Washington.

Billingsley’s job is to give the Bulldogs some solid innings and then hand it over to a bullpen that has been exceedingly good in the post-season. Win Friday and the Bulldogs advance to CWS championship series beginning Monday night. If they lose, they have to turn around and play Oregon State again Saturday.

Said Billingsley, “I’ve been waiting on this moment and dreaming about it since I was a kid. . . . I am super excited.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.