February 14, 2014 11:16:23 PM
PLAYER OF THE GAME: Western Carolina junior RHP Jeremy Null: W, 8 IP, 3 H, 0 R, BB, 12 in 113 pitches
STARKVILLE -- That wasn't at all how Mississippi State wanted to start this highly anticipated 2014 season.
The Bulldogs program lost its first Opening Day game at Dudy Noble Field in 11 years in a frustrating 3-2 defeat to Western Carolina Friday night.
Western Carolina (1-0), who is projected to repeat as the Southern Conference champion, traveled seven hours by bus Friday to arrive in Starkville a few hours before the scheduled first pitch and rode a special performance on the mound by junior Jeremy Null to the upset win.
The three-game weekend series was announced Thursday evening after Winter Storm Pax continued to affect the season-opening weekend for numerous schools across the southeast part of the country. Hofstra found it impossible to make it Starkville out of New York state for a game. Therefore, MSU was forced to put together a three-game set with one of the nation's most dangerous mid-major programs in the country.
"This is a SEC-caliber team we're playing this weekend and they proved it tonight," MSU head coach John Cohen said. "They won 39 games last year and they're going to win that many and maybe more this year because they're older with a bunch of juniors and seniors."
Null (1-0), a 6-foot-8 right-hander, shut down MSU (0-1) for just three hits in eight scoreless innings over 113 pitches. The 12 strikeouts for Null Friday night was just the third highest punch-out total of his college career after striking out 13 last year against Washington State and 14 in a eight-inning outing against Georgia Southern. The 2011 Rawlings Atlantic All-Region team selection out of high school before he was drafted in the 37th round by the Seattle Mariners showcased his two-pitch arsenal of a 90-93 fastball and a swing-and-miss slider.
"The story of the night is Null because I thought he pitched really well and in his 113 pitches we have him in our report for throwing 71 breaking balls," Cohen said. "That's a gutsy performance on his part. You just don't see that a lot in college baseball but he wanted to win the ballgame."
Cohen lost his first ever Opening Day contest in his 15th season as a Division 1 head coach as the Bulldogs last lost a season opener in 2003 against Birmingham-Southern 4-1.
Null didn't allow a baserunner to advance further than first base till his final inning of work and got six strikeouts from MSU four-year players Friday night.
MSU's offensive scoreless streak, dating back to the 2013 College World Series championship final against UCLA, reached 22 innings until they scored two runs in the ninth inning. MSU senior co-captain Wes Rea had a confounding evening all around with three strikeouts at the plate and two hot shots go off his glove to result in two WCU runs. However, the 270-pound first baseman also had a 2-RBI single for the Bulldogs only runs in the final inning.
Brandon Woodruff, who was the projected Friday night ace heading into this season, struggled to get just three outs Friday night in another frustrating outing for the highly recruited junior right-hander. Woodruff (0-1), who is coming off labrum surgery and was a fifth round draft pick out of Wheeler High School, allowed two runs on two hits but gave away four walks in a uninspiring 50-pitch outing.
"I thought Woody was a little amped up and probably a little bit overly competitive," Cohen said. "He's a guy that we really think will help us down the stretch and will have to be better than he was tonight."
In his 13 career starts at MSU, Woodruff has managed to just win two games and hasn't gotten out of the second inning three times in the last two seasons.
Bulldogs junior southpaw Ross Mitchell had to head down to the bullpen less than 30 minutes after the game had started and was surprised to have thrown eight innings of relief to get MSU in the game. Mitchell ended Friday with a career high seven strikeouts and rolled three double play ground balls in his 35th career relief appearance.
"With a great pitcher like Woodruff, you would expect he'd be able to go 6-7 innings and we expect him to do that next time," Mitchell said. "It was just one of those days out there for him."
Western Carolina shortstop Aaron Attaway went 2 for 3 from the leadoff spot of the Catamounts lineup, which returned seven everyday players from a 2013 Southern Conference regular season championship. Attaway, who came to Dudy Noble Field as a 2014 Louisville Slugger Preseason Third-Team All-America selection, also made some solid plays up the middle defensively to secure the program's fourth win in its last five tries against a Southeastern Conference opponent.
In the MSU ninth inning, Alex Detz drew a leadoff walk to reach base safely in a 24th straight game. Brett Pirtle followed with a hit. Wes Rea slapped a two-run single up the middle. After a second out, pinch hitter Cody Brown drew a walk. However, the rally ended there with Jacob Robson flying out to left field to end the contest.
MSU finished with five hits total Friday night including C.T. Bradford's 24th multi-hit game of his MSU career.
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.
1. W to host provocative exhibition of contemporary art ENTERTAINMENT
3. MSU to hold Freedom Summer Conference COMMUNITY