May 14, 2013 11:08:49 PM
STARKVILLE - When John Cohen took the head coaching position at his alma mater on June 7, 2008, he made it clear he was going to turn the program around with dual threat players.
With the 27-man roster limitations by the NCAA and 11.7 scholarship limitations, Cohen was relentless in his pursuit of players that could not only hit and play in the field but contribute at least situationally on the mound. Two of those players highlighted in his first significant full-year recruiting class were C.T. Bradford and Daryl Norris. Both of those juniors gave the Bulldogs 2 1/3 innings of relief in a 3-2 victory over Oral Roberts University Tuesday night at Dudy Noble Field.
"Daryl has been throwing pens for a month now and I was just so impressed with what he did tonight," Cohen said. "That's going to help us because we need that extra arm out of the pen and if that person is Daryl Norris then that will help us in tournament play."
Norris, who was 2 for his last 26 at the plate, had decided a month ago to focus on finding a way to be successful as a pitcher and was brilliant in his first mound appearance since the 2011 Gainesville Super Regional. For Norris, Tuesday marked the first day in a long while he has stepped on a baseball field and had something uplifting happen for him.
"That meant a lot because I just wanted to contribute to this team in some way," Norris said. "I spoke to (MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson) and told him I need to find a way to help my teammates down the stretch any way I can. That's important to me and to everybody on this team."
The Fairhope, Ala., native, who was the Alabama Sports Writers Association Mr. Baseball for 2010, worked 1 1/3 innings allowing just one hit in 26 pitches. After his first outing in 702 days, Norris had his fastball sitting nicely at 92-93 miles per hour and was able to command his slider for three strikeouts. After leaving with two outs in the seventh, Norris got a standing ovation from the Dudy Noble Field and multiple hugs in the MSU dugouts from teammates and coaches.
"Daryl has worked so hard at everything and that's something special to see a guy who hasn't pitched all year throw 94 miles per hour and throwing his slider for strikes," MSU sophomore closer Jonathan Holder said. "You just don't see that every day."
Bradford, who committed before Norris did in 2010 after being named Mr. Baseball in the state of Florida, followed Norris Tuesday night on the mound and went hitless for an inning before seeing the bullpen door for the final time so Jonathan Holder could run out on the field. Bradford was also 2 of 4 at the plate as the junior earned his 20th multi-hit day of the season.
Holder's four-out effort earned him the single-season school record 14th save and leaves him six short of the career record of 29 set by Van Johnson.
Holder was recruited out of Gulfport High School a year after the nationally-ranked group led by Norris and Bradford as a dual-threat player but was eventually moved to mound work exclusively in his first fall season with the program.
Yet, even Holder stood on the on-deck circle in the bottom of the eighth inning waiting to see if he'd have his second career at-bat.
"(My teammates) were cracking on me saying this guy is throwing 93 (miles per hour) and just get the barrel of the bat out there," Holder said with a laugh. "So I get on deck and Coach Cohen tells me 'no, do not swing hard, do not run or do anything like that to get yourself hurt'."
Oral Roberts (21-29) took a 2-1 lead in the fourth inning when MSU starting pitcher Trevor Fitts was struggling with fatigue in his first career start. The former two-time Louisville Slugger High School All-American pitcher at Pelham High School in Chelsea, Ala., cruised through the second and third innings and allowed just one earned run in a 39-pitch performance.
"I don't even know if Trevor slept last night and was just so jacked up to pitch today," Cohen said. "He's just such an energy guy and we wanted to reward him with that opportunity. That breaking ball is real and we're going to need it."
After claiming in Oxford his team wasn't mentally and physically sharp after not having a mid-week game, Cohen watched his two two hitters in the lineup (Adam Frazier and Alex Detz) combine to hit 6 for 9 with an RBI and a run score.
"It's definitely important for us to do that and I had a few fall today despite not hitting anything all that hard," Frazier said. "That just shows me my hands are working better than they have in the past."
The victory marked MSU's most non-conference wins in a season since 1989 as the No. 24 Bulldogs (38-15) finished 24-2 against non-Southeastern Conference opponents.
MSU remains home for South Carolina in Southeastern Conference action this weekend. The Bulldogs and Gamecocks meet at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, 6:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday to close out the regular season.
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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