May 4, 2013 10:35:43 PM
STARKVILLE - Mississippi State University baseball coach John Cohen was forced to rely on less than completely healthy players to achieve a sweep of the University of Alabama at Dudy Noble Field Saturday.
Junior second baseman and cleanup hitter Brett Pirtle was disoriented and sick all week, senior catcher Mitch Slauter has been rehabbing a broken hand for nearly a month and Ben Bracewell has battled through multiple elbow procedures over two years and suffered a severely sprained ankle Saturday. All three of those upperclassmen contributed to the pair of victories over the Crimson Tide.
"We sure did have to manufacture some things and use our roster," Cohen said with a sheepish smile.
With the 10-6 and 5-4 wins, No. 22 MSU (35-13, 12-11 in Southeastern Conference) leapfrogged Alabama, the University of Mississippi and the University of Florida in the league standings for fifth place in the SEC. The doubleheader against the Crimson Tide was created because of nonstop rain that came through the Starkville area Friday forcing a postponement.
"Yesterday was such a difficult decision from my standpoint because it's just so hard to win a doubleheader in the Southeastern Conference," Cohen said. "I'm just really proud of my kids ability to battle through everything they had to deal with today."
Pirtle, who is hitting .354 in conference play in the cleanup spot, has been battling flu-like symptoms for the past few days and was a game-time decision to play Saturday afternoon. The junior college transfer was treated by team physician Dr. Bob Collins hours before the first pitch. Pirtle was even seen wearing a motion sickness patch behind his left ear to help relive the constant dizzy spells.
"I just wanted to try and play but it was really difficult focusing on the ball with the dizziness," Pirtle said. "They gave me this patch and it's supposed to work after 45 minutes for like three or four hours. Honestly it just started kicking in at that last at-bat."
Despite being unsure if he'd even be able to play at all, Pirtle finished the the first game with a single and two runs scored to extend his on-base streak to 21 games. Pirtle's two-out walk in the second inning started a seven-run frame for the Bulldogs on Alabama starting pitcher Spencer Turnbull, which catapulted MSU to a 10-6 victory.
MSU batted around in that second inning on Turnbull, who is a graduate of Madison (Miss.) Central High School, after the Tide's best pitcher in 2013 was moved up in the rotation this weekend.
The second game is where the drama occurred and Cohen had to look deep into his bench for help. With Alabama leading 4-3 in the eighth inning, the MSU fifth-year coach pinch hit Pirtle for Nick Ammirati after the junior was held out of the second game due to his illness. After Pirtle delivered a game-tying single to score Derrick Armstrong from second base, Cohen had a serious talk with senior catcher Mitch Slauter about his broken hand.
"I walked up to him and said 'I know you've been campaigning to play all week but I really need to know if you can do this, I mean - I really need to know'," Cohen said.
The MSU coaching staff decided to have Slauter, who was warming up in full uniform before the first game in the outfield, play catcher while still nursing a fracture of one of the metacarpal bones in his left glove hand. Slauter not only caught the final two innings of defense but he managed to lay down a perfect sacrifice bunt to set up the walk-off single by MSU freshman Jacob Robson.
"I can't tell you what it's like to catch a 90 mile-per-hour fastball with essentially a broken bone in your hand and he did it," Cohen said. "He hadn't seen a pitch in two and a half weeks and he got that bunt down. He was absolutely not supposed to play at all, period."
Robson took a fastball off Alabama reliever Ray Castillo straight up the middle of the infield for the game-winning hit in the second game of the doubleheader. Saturday marked the first career blown save for the Tide's freshman closer as he came to Starkville a perfect 8 for 8 in save opportunities with a season ERA of 1.80.
"It comes down to a couple areas that we need to improve on," Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard said. "Leadoff walks and a few decisions on the field hurt us. The guys played really hard and got after it all day. Give credit to Mississippi State, they got some big hits when they needed them today."
Bracewell, who has battled back from two different surgical procedures on his throwing arm in his career, turned in his longest ever relief outing of 3 2/3 innings allowing just two hits when MSU was down for the first time this weekend. The 6-foot right-hander shut down the Tide (27-20, 11-11), the school that lost him in a recruiting battle four years ago to MSU, even after he suffered a severely sprained ankle after the first out of the ninth inning.
"Ben is such a competitor to battle back from every little setback he's had in his career that I knew a little ankle deal wasn't going to keep him out of the game," MSU senior reliever Chad Girodo said. "We knew he'd finish unless it was a serious deal."
The bullpen dance created once again by MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson had some confusion late in the second game as it seemed Thompson was all set to remove Girodo (4-1) so Holder could get his second appearance of the day.
"I figured they were going to come get me and bring in Holder but I just decided well I stand on the rubber and look in, they'll let me get this batter," Girodo said. "Once I saw Mitch put a sign down, I decided okay, here we go, they trust me."
Thompson took several steps out of the dugout but before time was called, spoke to Cohen and left the southpaw on the mound to watch him strike out right-handed batting Kyle Overstreet to end top half of the 10th inning.
"What we're thinking there is we've got a senior on the mound and Holder had thrown 27 (pitches) in game one so we're going to trust our senior there even against a right-handed batter," Cohen said. "Sometimes these moves work and sometimes they just don't."
Despite not receiving a quality start from either of its most consistent senior starting arms Saturday in Luis Pollorena and Kendall Graveman, MSU managed to allow just one earned run in its bullpen over 8 2/3 innings.
After coming in with two outs in the seventh of the first game, Jonathan Holder tied the school's single-season saves total of 13 with 2 2/3 innings of shutout relief. In just one and half seasons in the closer role Holder is now just seven saves short of the MSU all-time record of 29 set by Vann Johnson from 1995-98.
"Coach Cohen has told me that they're going to bring me in games earlier when they matter the most so I expect to get the ball almost exactly when I did there," Holder said. "I really had a good breaking ball working and that's what got me strikeouts today."
MSU has now won back-to-back series against Alabama for the first time since 2005 and will go for its first home sweep of the Tide in 20 years. With weather conditions calling for a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms before the 1:30 p.m. first pitch, MSU will send sophomore left-hander Jacob Lindgren (4-2, 3.47) to the mound to counter Alabama's southpaw Justin Kamplain (1-0, 4.82).
All of the Dispatch MSU Sports Blog readers: feel free to follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/matthewcstevens for up-to-date Mississippi State coverage.
4. America and the Muslims BOOK REVIEWS