February 18, 2013 8:33:18 AM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- Every time the bullpen door opened at Dudy Noble Field this weekend, a new problem arose for the University of Portland baseball team.
Mississippi State University relievers capped a dominating weekend Sunday, allowing one run on six hits in 8 2/3 innings in 7-1 and 6-0 victories against the University of Portland. MSU (4-0) completed the season-opening sweep of Portland thanks to 10 relievers who combined to give up one run in 15 2/3 innings in four games. Six pitchers had multiple strikeouts, including senior left hander Luis Pollorena, junior Ben Bracewell, and sophomore closer Jonathan Holder. Pollorena had one strikeout in 2/3 of an inning in game one. He went 4 1/3 innings in game two, allowing three hits and two walks. He struck out six.
"When you have as many arms in the bullpen as we do, you can run them out any time you want to," MSU senior catcher Mitch Slauter said. "It's pretty dang hard to get into a rhythm when you keep running people out of that bullpen that is just as good, if not better."
The performance by the bullpen helped MSU to its third 4-0 start under coach John Cohen.
"We know if we can get the baseball to myself, Ben Bracewell, and Holder at the end of the game, we have a really great chance because the two of them are lights out," Pollorena said.
Last season, MSU used Pollorena as a situational pitcher out of the bullpen because of his struggles against right-handed hitters. This season, Pollorena has perfected what he and the MSU coaching staff believes is a changeup equalizer that will allow him to be a better long relief option.
"The thing with our club this year, and we say it over and over, is pitching and defense," MSU coach John Cohen said. "The difference this year is the amount of experience we have back up and down the order."
Pollorena (1-0) was one shy of his career high in strikeouts in 66 pitches in game two. Former Amory High School standout Will Cox went the first three innings, allowing three hits and two walks. He struck out two. The 5-foot-9 Pollorena was hit hard last week in his final split-squad scrimmage.
"I felt like I'd react well when the season started because I came in to throw to the square in the nets and then watched video tape," Pollorena said. "Getting shelled in the last outing before the season was the best thing that could happen to me."
Before the start of last season, MSU reported to Baseball America it had 13 pitchers who could throw 90 mph or better. The Bulldogs have lost only first-round draft pick Chris Stratton from that group.
"We have so many kids on our pitching staff that just say, 'Hey, what's going to help us get to the next level and I'll do it'," Cohen said. "From the moment I got to Mississippi State, this is what we have wanted to create is having a mentor situation. Have the older guy instructing the younger guys. As a player at Mississippi State, I know what that felt like."
Ross Mitchell, who had 24 relief appearances last season, allowed just one hit in the sixth inning to earn his first victory of the season, and fourth career victory Saturday.
The right-left-right relief combination of Bracewell, C.T. Bradford from center field, and Holder worked a perfect final three innings Saturday in a 2-1 victory. In the past three seasons MSU is 71-1 in games it has led after eight innings.
"Ben Bracewell has had a huge spring, and in both velocity wise and stuff wise, pitch ability wise he has been special," Cohen said. "That could be an element that puts you over the top is an experienced Ben Bracewell that can give you two outings in a weekend on a Friday and a Sunday."
After being named a Freshman All-American by numerous publications, Holder could have asked to be a starting pitcher this season, but the Gulfport High standout told the coached early in the fall he preferred to be a closer. He earned his 10th career save Saturday, and has allowed just one earned run in 30 innings.
The sophomore right-hander lost nearly 20 pounds in the offseason and should be able to handle a bigger load this season. That should be welcome news to Cohen and his coaches as the Bulldogs try to replace Caleb Reed.
"I love (the closer role), and I just gave a speech to the team about adrenaline and coming in the last inning to get just a few outs gets me going," Holder said.
MSU used its split-squad scrimmages to tinker with the late-inning situations and build a game plan for the final three innings. MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson and Cohen may pull a starter early in a weekend outing against a quality Southeastern Conference opponent because he has faith in his bullpen.
"On Fridays and Sundays, we can afford to cut a starter a little short because I feel like we have so much bullpen support," Cohen said. "There's so much prowess attached to the Friday night guy, but every one of those (bullpen) guys is just as important as the Friday night starter."
Kendall Graveman earned the victory in game one. He went the first 6 1/3 innings and surrendered two hits and walked four. He struck out four. Trevor Fitts allowed two hits, one run, and walked two in two innings.
John Marc Shelly allowed one hit in one inning to close the door on MSU's bullpen effort.