From the day he joined the Coastal Carolina baseball program as a heralded recruit who had turned down a $600,000 offer from the Los Angeles Dodgers, the expectations have been sky high for freshman right-hander Jason Bilous.
And on the biggest stage he’s seen all season, he reminded everybody Saturday of that immense potential the Chanticleers and so many others see in him.
Bilous allowed only two hits and a hit batsman while striking out five over 5 1/3 scoreless innings in the Big South championship game, leading Coastal Carolina to a 1-0 win over rival Liberty at Lexington County Baseball Stadium and the program’s first conference tournament title since 2012.
“Jason Bilous grew up tonight,” Chants coach Gary Gilmore said. “Man alive, we’ve seen a flash here and there, but that kid was incredible.”
Bilous, a 29th-round draft pick of the Dodgers last year who chose to head to college instead, was eased into action this year after missing his senior high school season in Delaware due to Tommy John surgery. He’s battled inconsistency and came into this game with a 2-1 record and 4.59 earned-run average over 33 1/3 innings. He had flashed his potential with 37 strikeouts, but that also came with 28 walks as he struggled with his command for much of the spring.
Not Saturday, though.
He’s been so methodical, you could see it, everything working inside his mind, and today it was like, ‘Hey man, I’m on this stage – let’s roll.’ I mean, he was outstanding. Honestly, that’s some of the best stuff on our team when he does that right there.
CCU baseball coach Gary Gilmore
Bilous did not allow a base-runner through the first four innings and at one point struck out five straight batters.
“I’ve been trying to find myself ever since I came back from the surgery, and I’m getting close,” he said.
He had been coming on strong leading up to this performance, but nothing like what he showed Saturday.
After not throwing more than 3 1/3 innings in any of his first five starts (or his six relief outings), he had gone five scoreless innings in a win at Charleston Southern on May 15 (allowing four hits and five walks) and five innings in a win over Campbell on May 21 (allowing three runs on four hits and four walks).
With the Chants playing their fourth game of the week and the coaches not wanting to rush junior right-hander Alex Cunningham back into action after he started Tuesday, they discussed their options and pitching coach Drew Thomas encouraged Gilmore to give Bilous the ball against Liberty.
“Coach Thomas was adamant about it, my assistants were adamant about it. I was a hair not completely sold,” Gilmore said. “But I had [reliever Mike] Morrison down in the bullpen from pitch one and after the first hitter I went, ‘Huh, if he’s going to do that, he’s going to get through a few innings for us.’ And just the more it went, the more it went, the key for him was not being in the stretch very much. He was in the windup and it was the best pace I’ve seen [from] him.
“He’s been so methodical, you could see it, everything working inside his mind, and today it was like, ‘Hey man, I’m on this stage – let’s roll.’ I mean, he was outstanding. Honestly, that’s some of the best stuff on our team when he does that right there.”
Said Thomas: “He’s been so close. ... His stuff in the bullpen, he’s just really getting it. It’s been a long road for him, but I just thought he was there and I was glad he did it. I was so proud of him. ... It’s huge, huge, huge for him. He’s been there in the state championship game up there in Delaware and kind of felt some of those things come back to him. You could see his confidence growing and growing.”
Bilous said he appreciated the opportunity to pitch in the biggest game to date this season, but he tried not to think of it in those terms.
“I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to pitch the championship game. It meant everything to me. And to do as good as we did, it was just fantastic,” he said. “I just went out there as it was any other game, just stayed level-headed and competed.”