February 15, 2014 9:40:07 PM
PLAYER OF THE GAME: Mississippi State junior RHP Trevor Fitts (WIN, 6 IP, 7 H, ER, 2 BB, 11 K in 99 pitches)
STARKVILLE -- Trevor Fitts did a solid job of wiping away those early concerns about the Mississippi State starting pitching rotation Saturday.
Even with the pitch counts that were already in place by MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson for the weekend, Fitts provided a quality start on the mound and gave Dudy Noble Field fans his version of a pitching clinic in a 6-1 victory for the Bulldogs.
"Trevor really set the tone for us today," MSU coach John Cohen said Saturday. "It was big for him to go out there and navigate the first 5 or 6 innings for us today before we finally got some balls to fall for us."
In a effort to get in the win column for the 2014 season, Fitts dominated the Catamounts aggressive lineup with his swing-and-miss action on the breaking ball but also his confidence in getting his fastball over the plate for early strikes. The right-hander, who might be a adequate fill-in for the graduated innings eater in the Saturday role Kendall Graveman, showed impressive composure to work himself out of jams in several innings.
"I was just trying to make pitches and it's honestly better when I don't know my pitch count at all so I don't ask," Fitts said. "One time this summer I threw about 140 pitches and they asked him if I was okay and I said yes but when they told me my pitch count my arm started to get sore."
Fitts (1-0) set career highs for innings in a start (6) and strikeouts (11). Last season only two MSU pitchers managed to record 10 strikeouts in a game and Fitts was never given the kind of trust to even come close to a mark like that in the 2013 season. Fitts ability to work out of the stretch was a major factor in WCU (1-1) going 0 for 9 with runners in scoring position Saturday.
"What a outing from Trevor does for us is give us options with our bullpen and allow guys to be available for us to go win a series and that's why it's so important," Cohen said. "We think having fresh quality arms is the strength of our club."
While this program has proven they can get to the College World Series final series without much of a dominant starting rotation, the major cog in that failing component, Kendall Graveman, was drafted in the eighth round by the Toronto Blue Jays last summer.
"Trevor's curveball and change up are even better than it was a year ago so he can neutralize left-handed hitters and they started 7 left-handed bats on him," Cohen said.
MSU (1-1) scored three runs in both the fourth and eighth innings. In the fourth inning, Brett Pirtle started things with a leadoff single. After a strikeout, Cody Brown gave the Maroon and White its first lead of the season with an RBI-triple. After a pair of walks, Jake Vickerson collected his first RBIs on his first career hit, a two-run single.
"I understand it's going to be a long year but I needed that hit real bad to start thinking good thoughts," Vickerson said. "I don't normally get that excited on the field but it came out as I was rounding first base."
Zack Randolph started things with a one-out single. A hit batsman and Alex Detz's second hit loaded the bases. Wes Rea followed with his second straight game with a two-run single and C.T. Bradford drew a bases-loaded walk. In the first two games of the 2014 season, Bradford is hitting .375 with a on-base percentage of .444 after struggling to find any rhythm at the plate in the final month of the season.
"We needed this because the kids were looking at each other thinking 'are we ever going to score' and in baseball those things can begin to start playing mind games with you," Cohen said. "The monkey is off our back there and I hope now our kids can relax a little bit and just go play."
Vickerson's 2-RBI single to right field with two outs was one of many impressive debut performances this weekend.
At the opposite corner outfield spot as Vickerson Saturday, Cody Brown got on base in the first five plate appearances of his college career as the selective hitter drew four walks in the process. Brown, who was redshirted last year following a high school career that included being named to the ESPN High School All-State team, has all the tools to be a "on base machine" according to MSU coach John Cohen.
"The thing about Cody and Vickerson is your hoping one or both of those guys can make up for the difference you're losing in a Adam Frazier, who is a guy that led the country with 107 hits," Cohen said.
In his first collegiate game behind the plate, Gavin Collins never looked in the dugout once for a sign from MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson and called a quality start for Fitts. The 2013 Top 100 high school prospect according to Baseball America had three walks Saturday in MSU's 6-1 victory.
A much more familiar face finished the game for MSU as All-American selection Jonathan Holder faced four batters and struck out two for his first save of the season. The save represented his 31st career save and the junior needs just 22 more to match the NCAA record for career saves. Blair Erickson of UC-Irvine currently holds that record with 53 saves from 2004-07.
MSU will likely turn to fifth-year senior Ben Bracewell Sunday to establish more consistency in the starting rotation. The Birmingham, Ala., native, who has suffered through a college career marred by injuries, is making his third consecutive pitching start in the opening weekend but is finally hoping he can find a way to stay healthy enough to keep his offseason promise of 100 innings in his final season.
Cohen said after the victory he and Thompson will determine if it will be Ben Bracewell or freshman sensation Dakota Hudson to start on the mound in the rubber game of this weekend three-game set. Regardless as to who starts, MSU will be determined to use both right-handers before Sunday's 1:30 p.m. game is over.
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.
5. A Stone's Throw: Beware COLUMNS