October 17, 2013 3:05:41 AM
STARKVILLE - When asked who he may not physical have available for the start of fall scrimmages, Mississippi State pitching coach Butch Thompson can only make a joke.
"How about a entire starting rotation?," Thompson asked in jest. "I think that would be a pretty important place to start there right?"
Thompson and the MSU baseball program were without three starting pitchers Friday when they begin intra-squad scrimmages expected to compete for roles in the weekend rotation for the 2013 season.
Junior Brandon Woodruff isn't expected to take the mound for another two weeks, if at all, this fall season after having a surgical procedure on his right elbow last May. Woodruff struggled with shoulder problems throughout the 2013 season and eventually had to have season-ending surgery performed by Dr. Rusty Linton, the team surgeon in Columbus, after feeling tenderness in the elbow joint following a start against Ole Miss in Pearl.
Woodruff finished with just 18 2/3 innings on the mound in eight games. He told The Dispatch last April it was "the first injury situation I had to deal with in my career".
The Wheeler native had struggled throughout this season as the former fifth round pick out of high school by the Texas Rangers in the 2011 MLB Draft had failed to get out of the second inning in three of his six starts. Woodruff, who was 1-1 with a 4.34 ERA, was not be able to play in the prestigious Cape Cod League this summer.
In his last start against the University of Mississippi at Trustmark Park in Pearl, Woodruff lasted just 1 1/3 innings while allowing one run on three hits in 21 pitches. In that outing on April 9, Woodruff was unable to get the radar gun over 85 miles per hour on his fastball.
Woodruff has impressed the coaching staff with his conditioning and early bullpen work this fall but will not be tested on the mound against live hitters until Linton gives the medical clear for him to begin that type of work.
"Brandon is doing wonderful and the ball is coming out of his hand so freely and naturally that as a coach, you want to be able to see more," Thompson said. "But we've done such a good job being patient here, there's no sense in rushing this thing when we can see the finish line."
Fifth-year senior Ben Bracewell is coming off a foot injury from the 2013 season that required two pins to be inserted into this right foot. Those protective pins haven't been removed yet by the MSU medical staff and the right-hander will not be allowed to throw off a mound until they are no longer a issue.
In 21 appearances last season Bracewell finished with a 1.76 ERA with 28 strikeouts in 30 2/3 innings. The Chelsea, Ala., native has had a injury plagued college career that has included Tommy John surgery performed by Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala., as a sophomore following being named the Opening Day starter in 2011.
"I feel fine right now and the most healthy my arm has ever been going into a fall season but all I need is this foot thing to be cleared so I can get back to work," Bracewell said. "What I'm really tired of in all honesty is people having to ask me about my health every year instead of talking to me about baseball."
"Benny has been here as long as I've been here and he's about as mature as I am now so I have no concerns about his ability to handle this foot deal and be ready for the spring," Thompson said.
The final element of concern is junior college transfer Paul Young and his organized shutdown for the fall season after being used extensively by Central Alabama Community College as they won the Junior College National Championship this past spring. Young pitched a complete game in victory during the championship game and then was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the 21st round of the MLB Draft. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound righty is expected to compete for a weekend spot after choosing MSU over offers from Florida, Florida State, Missouri, Ole Miss and LSU.
"Paul had a really difficult decision of whether to go to college or sign a professional contract; we are very pleased he chose Mississippi State," Cohen said. "He is a very talented young man with a great arm."
Other bullpen injuries for the fall season include the complete restriction of left handed specialist Ross Mitchell from any throwing off a mound following hip surgery this summer. Mitchell, who was named a All-American selection by Perfect Game and Baseball America last season, will not be allowed to begin a throwing program until late December or early January to prepare for the 2014 season.
Here's the tidbits I gathered from Wednesday's scrimmage at Dudy Noble Field:
- Junior center fielder C.T. Bradford has a desirably new batting stance, which features him less rocking back and forth and his hands higher. He used it Wednesday to knock a single through the second base hole on a chest high fastball.
Redshirt freshman Daniel Garner may force his way into the lineup because of his power bat but the question remains if he can be the primary catcher that Thompson and the MSU pitching staff need in critical games. If not, then he'll be a option at designated hitter but that option forces senior Alex Detz to play third base because he's the classic on-base percentage hitter out of the two-hole Cohen and his staff want to keep.
- Freshman right-hander Jacob Billingsley was very impressive on the mound. In his second fall start, he utilized a devastating curveball that he was holding back until Wednesday. Thompson said he hadn't used the pitch but showed it can be a reliable out weapon for him as the freshman from Magnolia Heights used it in a 3-2 count to get a strikeout swinging.
- The wild card in the debate of what to do with Garner could be complicated if Reid Humphreys continue to impress in the fall. Humphreys, who is the half brother of former MSU player and current Washington Nationals outfielder Tyler Moore, showed some patience by drawing a walk and then perfectly executing a suicide squeeze with Demarcus Henderson at the plate. If he can work his way into the conversation at third base, then a quality bat may have to start games on the bench for the Bulldogs.
- The defensive option that could secure the most trust from Thompson and the pitching staff is fourth-year junior Zach Randolph as the Itawamba Community College transfer had a pair of impressive blocks defensively and saved a run with a throw out of Kyle Hann at home on a ball that barely skipped away.
Senior middle infielder Brett Pirtle reintroduced himself by earning a RBI double to the right-center gap. Pirtle was making his fall scrimmage debut after attending his brother's wedding in Texas. Pirtle, who was the Bulldogs cleanup hitter in 2013, ripped the double nearly to the right-center wall allowing 18-year-old freshman Joey Swinarski to score. Pirtle's bat will be critical from a OBP standpoint as MSU tries to find pieces to hit around Wes Rea in the middle of the order.
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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