June 4, 2013 2:06:04 AM
STARKVILLE - Throw strikes, play solid defense and get timely hits.
Sounds easy enough but all of those things are skills that the Mississippi State University baseball team had severely lacked in five previous games against the University of Central Arkansas.
In a Monday elimination game of the 2013 NCAA Starkville Regional, MSU executed its script to success perfectly in a 6-1 victory at Dudy Noble Field. The victory marked the 12th regional title for the Bulldogs program and its sixth in Starkville.
The Bulldogs didn't have a run-producing error until the ninth inning, their two pitchers (Ben Bracewell and Chad Girodo) combined for 17 strikeouts and five of the six runs scored were with two outs already on the scoreboard.
"The two guys pitching for us said we're going to force it to go our way tonight," MSU coach John Cohen said. "In these type of games when you're putting up 17 strikeouts then you're challenging guys with some serious stuff."
MSU (46-18) wins a home regional for the first time since 2000. The Bulldogs completed their third straight regional appearance with a trip to the Super Regional round for the first time since 2011. Two victories at Virginia would send MSU to the College World Series for the first time since 2007.
In the sixth matchup of the season between both clubs, all the nervous energy and disappointing plays that had seemed to engulf MSU when facing Central Arkansas reversed early in Monday night's affair. Central Arkansas (42-22) made three errors, left 10 runners on base and allowed a Dudy Noble Field crowd of 8,662 to involve themselves in the action early and often.
"These kids wanted to bring a regional to Starkville, Mississippi and that's exactly what they did," Cohen said. "Our fans created a unbelievable atmosphere all weekend long and it is truly a special place. There was a lot of discussion in our locker room that if we get to host a regional, it will be crazy. Our kids deserved this."
MSU (46-18) will face No.6 national seed Virginia (50-10) in the Charlottesvile Super Regional. This best-of-three series will begin later this week. Game times will be noon CT Saturday (ESPN2), 6 p.m. CT Sunday (ESPNU) and 3 p.m. CT Monday (ESPNU).
Bracewell, who was making the second start of the season and fifth of his college career, filled up the strike zone early as his first 20 pitches resulted in 17 strikes and six outs. The former Louisville Slugger All-American selection out of high school had five strikeouts in just 2 1/3 innings and allowed just a single hit. By the time Bracewell was lifted, MSU had a 3-0 lead and the Bulldogs ran their record to 29-5 when they score first.
"I think getting a lead was important for sure but more than anything it was Benny going out there and challenging the strike zone," Cohen said. "We weren't concerned about Ben but every single day is a different strike zone and have to adjust to what's there."
Central Arkansas had a throwing error and wild pitch occur during MSU's two-run first and immediately a nervous Dudy Noble Field crowd turned jubilant quickly as they saw a potential Super Regional berth on the horizon. The seven-game Starkville Regional drew a total attendance of 61,433.
"Man, our kids fought," UCA coach Allen Gum said. "Mississippi State has a great club and we're disappointed in the way we played a little bit. I just can't question our heart and how hard we played."
Central Arkansas, which was trying to win their ninth straight elimination game, was unable to recapture its winning form in a hostile environment one more time. Gum decided to send senior right hander Bryce Biggerstaff (6-5) to the mound after throwing 74 pitches Saturday and his stuff wasn't nearly the same as he allowed five runs on seven hits in 3 2/3 innings. Unlike the back to back complete game efforts that UCA got the day before, Biggerstaff was unable to find the strike zone consistently and was taken out of the game after 70 pitches.
After Cohen and MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson seemed insistent on not using a left handed pitcher in previous games against UCA, the Bulldogs handed the baseball to senior southpaw Chad Girodo for what would turn out to be his best career outing in four years at MSU. Girodo doubled his previous career high in strikeouts with 12 in 6 2/3 innings.
"I'm going to be honest when I say I don't think our kids were pressing or nervous about the moment at all," Gum said. "I just really think Girodo was outstanding and completely dominated us on that mound. He was the best pitcher we've seen in tournament and there's no doubt about that."
In two appearances against UCA, Girodo (7-1) pitched 8 1/3 innings of relief and allowed one run combined. In his last game at Dudy Noble Field, Girodo proved his overall improvement from the player who had a career 6.70 ERA to the senior that now leads the Bulldogs with a 1.10 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 41 innings.
"It's a great feeling, but I really wanted to do it for my teammates because we've had such a great season," Girodo said. "We have a special thing going on."
MSU junior designated hitter Alex Detz was named most outstanding player of the 2013 NCAA Starkville Regional and was 8-of-13 and reached base 12 times in 17 appearances. In the title clincher, Detz had two of the Bulldogs' 11 hits.
Besides Detz, the other four MSU members on the Starkville Regional All-Tournament was Girodo, sophomore first baseman Wes Rea, junior second baseman Brett Pirtle and junior outfielder Hunter Renfroe.
Monday night also served as a possible swan song in the home careers for Renfroe and fellow junior Adam Frazier. In what was likely their last home game at Dudy Noble Field, due to both players likely being drafted high in this week's MLB draft, the duo combined for five hits, four RBIs and three runs scored.
"I don't want to think about that," Cohen said. "That's something we'll have to deal with this week but they want to get to Omaha and the College World Series. Everything else is in the background because this is a selfless group of kids."
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