By Brett Hudson
STARKVILLE — The Gilbert family had been through this before, but this was different. This is Marshall’s senior season — there is no next year to serve as a foundation of hope.
Marshall’s junior season as a Bulldog, his first in from John A. Logan College in Carterville, Illinois, was an up-and-down ride. Six weeks of infrequent playing time at the beginning became consistent as March turned to April, starting 12 of the 16 games that month. That season ended with just one postseason start for Gilbert, four postseason at-bats as fellow catcher Dustin Skelton enjoyed the best month of his baseball life on a run to Omaha.
That trend continued in 2019: Skelton hit safely in nine of his first 10 SEC games while Gilbert had just six starts in the team’s first 31 games. Marshall’s parents, Phil and Denise, went through an all too familiar routine: check the lineup for Marshall’s name and be disappointed to not find it. By then, Marshall had solidified his approach and was teaching it to his parents — the same approach that has him starting every day as Mississippi State enters the SEC Tournament in Hoover this week.
“I’ll be very honest with you regarding the maturity: Marshall has helped us, Phil and I,” Denise Gilbert said. “When you’re back home, you’re watching and hoping and you look at the lineup everyday and he’s not in it, you wonder if he’s ever going to get a shot. He is the one that says, ‘I’m just going to keep balling. I don’t have a choice.’”
“He’s helped us deal with it and I can’t tell you how grateful we are that he found a way to get on the field.”
As Marshall Gilbert put it: “When you don’t play a lot the confidence can kind of go up and down, and I needed to mature in that aspect and realize you can’t ride that rollercoaster, you can’t play that way. You have to stick it out for the long haul.”
That long haul has seen him start all of MSU’s last 11 games, raising his batting average from .286 to .330 in that time, and doing it all at a new position. That long haul has been exactly what he wanted out of junior college: come to the school at the top of his list, Mississippi State, for all its history of winning in the nation’s conference, and find a way to contribute to that winning.
“Once I found something, it resonated with me that this is what it takes to do something for the team,” Marshall Gilbert said. “I don’t like disappointing my teammates in any way. I looked at it as, ‘This is what’s going to make my teammates happy with me.’”
What Marshall Gilbert needed to make his teammates happy was a swing change and a black eye.
* * *
Marshall Gilbert has hit well for most of the season, having spent just 11 games with a season batting average below .300, but he still hit a slump: 15 at-bats from March 19 to April 7 with just two hits (.133), two of his three starts in that time being hitless.
Like many recent MSU hitting turnaround stories, this one starts with assistant coach Jake Gautreau.
“Coach Gautreau and I had some miscommunication on talking about some things, then all of a sudden we got on the same page with some stuff and it just started rolling,” Gilbert said.
“I was lifting a lot of balls, honestly. I was getting under a lot of balls and not giving myself the opportunity to drive a baseball. Then I turned into overexaggerating getting on top, letting my legs work and not trying to do too much with my upper half. That’s where Gautreau and I worked on our two-strike approach, which is what we’re most known for, that’s absolutely battling and getting every single pitch. That’s where we built the foundation for my swing and where it is now.”
Gilbert thinks all of that came together around the time MSU hosted Alabama for Super Bulldog Weekend in mid-April — when Gilbert went 3-for-9 on the weekend with two RBI, hitting a home run in both games he played. That’s also when Gilbert officially became a third baseman — and took the lumps that come with learning a new position midseason.
He was taking his first round of in-and-out, the pregame fielding routine, at third base when a grounder got the best of him. It popped up and hit him in the eye.
“I don’t know if something legitimately clicked in my brain, but right around that time is when it started clicking,” Gilbert said. “I wore the black eye for a week and went from there.”
Since that day, Gilbert is 19-for-54 (.352) with a .435 on-base percentage and slugging .630. Four of his five home runs have come since taking that ball to the eye.
Since the adjustment, Gilbert has been consistently hitting the ball hard as much as any Bulldog. The chart below shows Gilbert at the top of the team’s barrel percentage leaderboard, which is the amount of balls a player puts in play with at least an exit velocity of 98 miles per hour between launch angles of 10 and 35 degrees. The idea behind a barrel is a hard-hit ball in a sweet spot to most likely be a hit and have high potential for power, be it a double in the gap or a home run over the wall; Gilbert is doing at a higher percentage than any other Bulldog.
He’s doing it all from a position of need in the field.
* * *
This all started out of boredom.
MSU was in Gainesville for its series at Florida; Gilbert, being a catcher that wasn’t in that day’s lineup, was in the outfield during batting practice, shagging balls, and got the feeling that he wasn’t really doing anything. So he and relief pitcher Riley Self decided to go to shortstop and goof around; Gilbert ended up making a few smooth plays.
Future BP sessions would see him do the same at third base and the coaching staff encouraged him to pick the brain of then-third baseman Justin Foscue about the position. It wasn’t long after that Foscue moved to second base, opening a hole at third.
When the opportunity presented itself, Gilbert was determined to take it. Jake Mangum — Gilbert’s roommate — once heard Marshall tell him he was going to the park early to take grounders at third.
Mangum’s reaction: “Wait, you play third?”
Clearly this was not an anticipated move — by anyone. Official rosters are quite liberal with their positional listings: Rowdey Jordan has never played infield at MSU and Tanner Allen has all of two outfield starts in his Bulldog career, yet both still have the infield/outfield designation. Gilbert is listed as a catcher and catcher only.
Yes, Gilbert got some work at first base in the fall, but catching remains his primary discipline. Both Marshall and Denise admit they can feel and see, respectively, the instinct to get on the ground and block baseballs as opposed to scooping them with a glove.
It’s a different way of life for them all. Denise Gilbert had seen her son catch so much, she was no longer nervous when he was behind the plate. She knew he was in control, she knew he was in his element. Marshall says he’s comfortable at the new position, but that doesn’t mean it’s comfortable for Denise yet.
“Part of it is awesome because it’s challenging him to do something new, it’s out of his comfort zone,” she said. “It’s going to help him in baseball or in life, for sure.”
It’s not the easiest way to go about playing time, but apparently nothing is for Gilberts playing baseball. While Marshall has battled for every start and every at-bat as a Bulldog, his younger brother Garrett is a sophomore catcher at Creighton battling for playing time — against another sophomore catcher.
The Gilbert way is apparently never the easy way, but in Marshall’s case, that’s perfectly OK. There’s an unexpected silver lining in all of this.
“For me to his smile, it’s wonderful as a mother because you don’t see their face when they play catcher,” Denise Gilbert said. “You see their face when they play third base and it’s wonderful. It’s a new perspective and I like it.”