MSU wins with an unusual pitch
OMAHA, Neb. -- From the moment Mississippi State huddled in the corner of its first-base dugout on Monday before first pitch and engaged in some form of ceremonial chant, then tossed one Bulldog out to the nearby warning track, it was clear these guys go about business just a bit differently.
Mississippi State played like far from the best team this season in a Southeastern Conference controlled by Vanderbilt and LSU. But here stands this ragtag bunch of Bulldogs with three days to rest and two tries to win one game for a berth next week in the best-of-three finals at the College World Series.
MSU doesn't win like any other team at the CWS. But the Bulldogs do win, collecting No. 50 on Monday in 68 games, a 5-4 nail-biter over Indiana at TD Ameritrade Park.
It's not the crazy antics of the "Bench Mob," swinging from the roof of the dugout, that make this group so unique. It's that rock-solid bullpen, in possession of 33 victories after another at the CWS on the strength of 6 2/3 innings of pristine relief from Chad Girodo and Jonathan Holder.
"No team can plan for them," Mississippi State pitching coach Butch Thompson said. "And once that started working, it was kind of hard to change it."
The Bulldogs use senior Kendall Graveman like a typical starter. After that, it's anything but typical. Sophomore Trevor Fitts got his third postseason start on Monday -- but just his fifth of the year.
Fitts made it 2 1/3 innings. Problem? Not for the Bulldogs.
"We have one of the best staffs in America," Fitts said, "so what am I supposed to say? I'm supposed to stay in the game?"
Girodo, the senior left-hander, baffled Indiana with a diet of nasty sliders until the ninth. A recent ninth-round draft pick of the Blue Jays, Girodo struck out 10 in 6 1/3 innings. When he ran into trouble, surrendering shots to Kyle Schwarber and Sam Travis kept in play only by the cavernous depths of this three-year-old stadium, MSU went to Holder.
The All-America closer collected his 20th save on a grounder back to the mound. First baseman Wes Rea saved Holder, digging his throw out of the dirt as the would-be tying run crossed home plate.
It was unorthodox. It was gut-wrenching. But that's Mississippi State.
"That's kind of been our deal this year," Rea said. "Our bullpen has just dealt."
Mississippi State relievers are 33-5 with 23 saves and 328 strikeouts in 320 2/3 innings, accounting for 52 percent of the staff's workload this year.
Thompson, in his fifth year on staff in Starkville after stints at Auburn and Georgia, got a few funny looks this spring for his management of the pitching staff.
He stuck with what works, though. Sophomore Ross Mitchell endured a pounding in his move to the rotation last offseason in Alaska's summer collegiate league. So Thompson left him in the bullpen. The result? Mitchell improved to 13-0 after winning the Bulldogs' CWS opener on Saturday over Oregon State.
With Holder and Girodo and Mitchell out there, not to mention Myles Gentry and a deep stable of others, who needs starting pitchers?
Fitts, in fact, learned he would take the mound about 90 minutes before Monday's game.
"I just kind of view like I'm coming in for long relief to start the game," Fitts said. "I just try to pass it on to the next guy. We just have tremendous trust in everybody who's coming out behind us."
Thompson said he feels no vindication for proving wrong the doubters who believed the Bulldogs couldn't ride this bullpen deep into the postseason.
Last year, upstart Arizona won it all in Omaha on the arms of its stellar starting trio.
This MSU relief corps looks just as strong -- and probably more versatile. There exists no perfect formula, Thompson said, to pitching success. He just goes with what works.
For Friday's rematch against Oregon State or Indiana, Thompson said, the Bulldogs may wait to decide on a starter until an hour before the game.
"We feel like whoever is on the mound at that time is our No. 1 pitcher," the coach said. "We do have a standard as a staff, and I think some of our team unity is built because of little things we do on the mound."