May 5, 2013 10:29:02 AM
STARKVILLE - Okay....I get it - the normal thing among the Mississippi State University baseball fan base is to question each and every move by Bulldogs fifth-year head coach John Cohen or MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson.
It's a natural human reaction and quite frankly, a natural part of being a baseball fan. This is why I get a lot of these comments on Twitter during the course of giving you a summary of what is happening on my account (https://twitter.com/matthewcstevens), which I hope you, the loyal reader, still enjoy.
I'll give you a small secret - it's what we do up in the press box at Dudy Noble Field too. Honestly not because we're rooting for or against Mississippi State, while that is always hard to convince you, the loyal reader, of from time to time. However, we immediately have knee-jerk reaction to moves because it's our job to give you, the loyal reader, the perspective you should crave on why this move is happening, what Cohen or Thompson is thinking and what is MSU trying to cause or avoid with such a roster move.
With that preface, The Dispatch MSU Sports Blog brings you a detailed account of the eighth inning of Saturday's second game of the doubleheader that ended with MSU pulling off a 5-4 victory in 10 innings because with all the moves that were and even weren't made in that inning, it's arguably the most fascinating stretch of baseball played and managed in the Bulldogs 2013 season to date.
Without further ado.....
Let's skip Alabama's visitor half of the eighth inning because it was a relatively clean and normal 1-2-3 perfect frame for MSU junior reliever Ben Bracewell.
-- With a 4-3 lead and six outs left to get in order to avoid losing both games of a doubleheader, Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard decides to shove all his coaching chips to the center of the table and brings in his closer, freshman right-hander Ray Castillo - who hadn't blown a save yet in his college career (a perfect 8 for 8 in save situations before Saturday). While this is a relatively mundane move by a head coach of a Division 1 baseball program, the interesting detail here is Gaspard just watched MSU (35-13, 12-11) secure the first game of the doubleheader by finishing out the final eight outs with sophomore closer Jonathan Holder.
"In the past couple of weeks, I've been coming in a little earlier to get a little more work," Holder said. "I've been conditioning myself to be able to handle the more work in a game beyond just maybe the final three outs."
-- Sophomore first baseman Wes Rea starts the eighth inning with a leadoff walk and is immediately pinch ran for by Derrick Armstrong. Now immediately the question here is: Okay, who is going to play first base for MSU in the ninth inning and beyond if MSU ties the game? However, this move is pretty self explanatory when it comes to the much-needed speed difference on the bases between Armstrong and Rea. Porter strikes out swinging but is followed up by a single up the middle by senior Sam Frost. Suddenly MSU is has two of its fastest runners on the bases with one out and only down one.
This is where things get really fascinating at Dudy Noble Field.....
-- The problem now for Cohen and MSU is the batter coming to the plate is senior catcher Nick Ammirati and while the Sparta, N.J., native is hitting a respectable .259 in SEC play, Ammirati was 1 for his last 20 before that at-bat. The issue becomes for the past two and a half weeks is with the broken metacarpal bones in Mitch Slauter's left hand, Ammirati has been almost irreplaceable because of MSU's lack of depth behind the plate. However, during warmups The Dispatch MSU Sports Blog noticed Slauter in full uniform warming up Kendall Graveman in the outfield grass and SEC rules state a player can not be dressed out in full uniform and in the dugout if he's not on the active roster, like Cohen suggested in his Thursday media teleconference. Suddenly I began to think: "Well then, Mitch Slauter is on the 27-man roster this weekend, interesting". Meanwhile back to the action, Cohen decides to pinch hit Ammirati for his best switch-hitting option Brett Pirtle. Of course, Pirtle, who is hitting .354 in SEC play with a .430 on-base percentage and a .427 slugging percentage, is only on the bench for this game because all week long he'd been suffering from severe dizzy spells and flu-like symptoms to the point that he wasn't sure he'd be able to play the first game of Saturday's doubleheader. So before he made this move (and I assume after Rea's leadoff walk), Cohen had a honest and frank conversation with Mitch Slauter in the MSU dugout.
"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.
Why do I find this fascinating? Simple. When I spoke to Cohen last week about the timetable for when Slauter could get put back on the active roster this was his on-the-record response to me: ""The deal is this - we just can't ask him how it feels. Not because we don't want to know or don't need him. We can't ask because he'll just lie to us in the hope of getting back on the field quicker. He's that type of competitor."
-- So this is what fascinates about this whole sequence right here: Not only does Cohen have to balance out a lineup card, who is on the mound for Alabama, who is available out of the bullpen for his own club but after all that processing, the MSU coach has to have a quick conversation with his senior catcher and evaluate to himself 'Okay is Mitch lying to me here just to try and prove he has the guts to play after sitting for over two weeks?'. Pirtle delivered a game-tying flare single to score Derrick Armstrong from second base on a headfirst slide into home.
"I think one of the real luxuries we have in our dugout is Armstrong," Cohen said. "I don't know if there's any other guy in our league that can score from second base on that play. He can outrun a baseball and you don't teach that."
Remember....this is now the first blown save in the college career for Alabama closer Ray Castillo.
Even after throwing 27 pitches in the first game less than three hours prior, Holder begins to warm up in the MSU bullpen again because the Bulldogs have the go-ahead run at second base with just one out in the form of Sam Frost and in all likelihood would be sent home on a single. However, neither Jacob Robson or Adam Frazier can drive home another run in the eighth.
-- Now here's the following questions for Cohen and the MSU coaching staff in this ninth inning:
Who plays first base? Who plays catcher? Do we bring Holder into the game after he has now warmed up fully in the bullpen?
-- The answer to the first question is Alex Detz plays first base after he got experience doing so during early February when Rea was trying to battle through a severe quad injury. Detz is replaced at third base by Daryl Norris, as the MSU staff is trying get some confidence in the junior from Fairhope, Ala.
-- The answer to the second question was a bit dramatic. Just two and a half weeks after suffering at least one broken bone in his glove hand, Slauter is seen by legendary MSU radio play-by-play broadcaster Jim Ellis in the dugout putting his catcher gear on. So to recap the last half-inning folks, Cohen pinch hit a player who had been severely ill all game so he could turn around and catch another player with a broken glove hand. Let that sink in a while.
Slauter not only caught the final two innings of defense but covered a bunt play perfectly as well in his time behind the plate.
"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 is using the machine to catch 90 miles-per-hour fastballs to try and prove to us that he can play. The unbelievable thing is in 1988 we're playing Kentucky here and I got hit right there (points to the back of his left hand) by a pitch and I'm telling you right now, it feels like somebody is jabbing you right there with a knife. I don't care if it's three or four weeks later. Can you imagine catching a 90 mile-per-hour fastball in that same hand?"
The answer to the third question was: No, MSU stays with Bracewell on the mound and then things get really strange.
-- After trying to stretch for a ground ball that would eventually be fielded and handled by Frost at second base, Bracewell suddenly doesn't look right physically. The junior, who has battled back from two different surgical procedures on his throwing arm following one of the most celebrated high school careers at Briarwood Christian High School in Chelsea, Ala., and everybody's first thought (including mine) is "well, Benny hurt himself again". Bracewell is flexing his right leg and walking around the mound but then goes to the rubber and signals he is ready to pitch again. However, the MSU training staff comes out to the mound with MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson and even from our vantage point in the press box, The Dispatch MSU Sports Blog could tell this irritated and upset Bracewell. Bracewell's body language immediately went to 'C'mon, why are you guys even out here? Leave me alone.' and he throws three warm-up pitches with Thompson supervising to prove he can stay in the game. Remember, Holder is available right now if MSU and Thompson decide to go that route. After the game, we learned Bracewell suffered a sprained ankle after getting his foot stuck on the mound but shouldn't miss any time and is available for the Sunday finale at 1:30 p.m. against Alabama.
"We had to stretch Benny out right there because Holder had thrown in the first game and that's another real tough thing about a doubleheader in this league," Cohen said.
After only getting him four innings of work since the end of March, Thompson decides to stick with his upperclassmen on the mound and Bracewell responds with a strikeout. The junior right-hander allows just one hit in his scoreless 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."
To the 10th inning....
-- Alabama chases Bracewell after a leadoff single, a sacrifice bunt and a wild pitch. Thompson turns to the left-handed reliever Girodo. In a lefty-lefty matchup, Girodo walks Alabama's Georgie Salem - who already had two RBIs in the game. With right-handed Kyle Overstreet coming to the plate, Thompson isn't even on the dugout step anymore, he's nearly in the on-deck circle ready to take Girodo out. Thompson gets to the infield grass, turns to back around to say something to Cohen and then does a complete u-turn back into the dugout to without ever even reaching the pitching mound. In my four years covering this MSU program, I've never seen Thompson do that and I'm not honestly even sure if that counted as a coaching visit but remember, Holder is still waiting in the MSU bullpen.
"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."
"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. "Chad wanted the baseball in that moment."
Girodo responded with a strikeout and then an injured Slauter managed to throw out the runner at first base after blocking the third strike in the dirt.
Bottom of the 10th inning.......
-- Porter walks to lead off the frame, something Alabama' Gaspard would say was the one thing that frustrated him the most about the final part of the game. Sophomore Matthew Britton, who hadn't seen action since March 16, runs for Porter. Frost then bunts but Tide third baseman Kenny Roberts, from Meridian, takes too much fielding the bunt and Frost is safe at first base. Again now MSU has two of its fastest runners on with nobody out. However, the catcher spot is up again and Mitch Slauter hasn't seen a pitch in batting practice in nearly three weeks since suffering the broken bone at Texas A&M.
"I figured he could handle catching and playing defense, what I didn't know there is could he handle an at-bat," Cohen said. "
Slauter managed to lay down a perfect sacrifice bunt to set up MSU freshman Jacob Robson, who said he knew the situation would come to him immediately after Porter walked.
"(Slauter) hadn't seen a pitch in two and a half weeks and he got that bunt down," Cohen said. "He was absolutely not supposed to play at all, period."
-- Now here's the final decision for Cohen: Do I pinch hit for Robson in this situation after watching him strike out in the eighth inning? MSU junior Demarcus Henderson, who managed a walk in the first game after substituting for Robson, was a bench option for the Bulldogs.
Cohen decides no, I'm sticking with the freshman from Windsor, Ontario, Canada.
"He is the type of kid who you know isn't going to lose his focus and has a chance to do something special for you in the game," Cohen said. "Whenever I think of doing moves with the Robson kid, I always have to take a deep breath and remember - he just turned 18 years old about two and a half months ago. He has to be the youngest player in the Southeastern Conference. (Actually Cohen's math and calendar is a little off because Robson turned 18 years old on November 20 but The Dispatch MSU Sports Blog will let that one slide). Not only is he a freshman in this league but he legitimately could be a senior in high school." (now, in fairness, that statement is very true).
Robson would eventually get a walk-off single to win the game 5-4 and clinch back-to-back series victories over Alabama.
"What a big at-bat for Robby, he wanted that stage and he took such a good swing," Cohen said.
So there it is - 2,554 words on the final two innings of a ball game that involved by my count, nine managerial moves in a stretch of not more than a hour of baseball. And the amazing thing is: Cohen essentially went an unprecedented 9 for 9 on the success rate of every move he made in that stretch.
"Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't," Cohen said about all of his late game moves working Saturday.
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.
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