Southern University junior righthanded pitcher Eli Finney has already had the season of his life. Whatever happens in Starkville and beyond is just gravy.
As the staff's ace, Finney has a good chance of being Southern’s starting pitcher when the Jaguars meet Mississippi State in the first game of the Starkville NCAA regional Friday at noon. But he might also get whatever Game 2 starting assignment the Jaguars find themselves in at Dudy Noble Field.
Coach Kerrick Jackson said he will look at matchups in deciding which of his pitchers takes the mound first. When Finney pitches makes no difference to the curly haired righthander from Okeechobee, Fla., who played a big role in the Jaguars landing their first NCAA tournament berth in 10 years.
“I came from (Indian River Community College) in Florida and we never had that great a year, so coming here and being a 30-win club has been amazing,” Finney said. “This group of guys is fun to play with. My favorite year of baseball in my life. We just go out there and compete and good things happen.”
Finney is the best bet for that.
He provided the seminal moment for Southern’s bounce back season when he shackled No. 9 LSU for a 7-2 victory April 9. He allowed one run and one hit in seven innings to start a streak of six consecutive victories. Southern was already having a good year but won 15 of 23 from that point.
“I think our team believed we had the season going from the start but beating LSU definitely helped our confidence and we started rolling from there,” Finney said. “It’s going to be fun whether I throw Friday or Saturday. I’m ready to pitch. It’s going to be a great environment.”
Finney finished strong after moving from midweek starter into the weekend rotation. He’s 6-2 with a 4.45 earned run average and 49 strikeouts in 64 2/3 innings with 23 walks. He won two games in the SWAC tournament, including 8 1/3 shutout innings in the championship game when he allowed three Alabama State hits with two walks and six strikeouts.
Jackson said although Finney doesn’t throw hard, he can throw any pitch in any count and his ability to change speeds keeps hitters off balance.
“His command is off the charts and his ability to change speeds is huge,” Jackson said. “He can beat anybody in the country. Sometimes he gets a little excited and wants to show some (velocity) and that’s not him. If we keep him in the competitive mindset like he was against LSU and in the tournament, we’ll give ourselves a good chance.”
“He’s a quiet kid; you wouldn’t know he was there. But he works hard and wants to learn and get better. He has the aptitude to make adjustments.”
His teammates know first hand.
Javeyan Williams, who batted .388, said he was two for 11 with eight strikeouts against Finney in fall practice.
“I know what the other teams are going through when they face him,” Williams said. “I’m happy to have him on my team. He’s a great competitor.”
Finney wasn’t highly recruited. He had “five or six” offers from Division II schools but Southern was the only Division I school interested. Jackson having a pitching background made the choice easier.
“He was the most convincing coach I talked to,” Finney said. “Him and (pitching) coach (Christopher) Crenshaw helped me with different mechanics and things. I’m glad I came.
“Growing up I always would watch the NCAA baseball tournament with my dad. Now it’s the full experience. It’s a pretty good feeling.”