February 23, 2013 11:19:28 PM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- Over the last three years of recruiting and development of power arms, Mississippi State baseball coach John Cohen and his staff are able to do what they love -- tinker.
One time, 22 years ago during his brief professional career with the Minnesota Twins Cohen had something happen to him that he was convinced he would later use in a coaching situation as a form of karmic payback. During a 1-2 count in a minor league baseball game, Cohen watched a pitching change occur while he was still at the plate.
"I just knew right then I would love to do it to a hitter as a coach because it gives you all the advantage in the world on the mound," Cohen said Saturday.
Cohen was also preparing for it as a player at MSU under his coach Ron Polk without consiously knowing it as well.
"We'd have 1-2 count days or 2-2 days under Coach Polk and anything we did as a hitter in those drills was deemed a success," Cohen said. "It was so frustrating to not have a full court to operate that it further signified to me a reason to do this if you have a deep enough bullpen."
And those final seven words said by MSU's fifth-year coach are the key to the early and likely sustained success of the 2013 MSU squad. This Bulldogs team has quality bullpen depth and lots of it.
"Our bullpen has been exceptionally and you have remind yourself that two of the guys we put out there tonight in Myles Gentry and Preston Brown are freshmen that have never done this before," Cohen said.
In a 2-2 count in the eighth inning Saturday, Cohen went to his bullpen bag of tricks to remove junior C.T. Bradford, a left-handed arm, to go to junior right hander Ben Bracewell. This is after, of course, bringing Bradford in from center field to pitch. One quirky move in the late innings wasn't nearly enough when two were needed. The result Saturday was a routine ground out to second base.
Bradford, after coming offseason surgery to correct two separate shoulder injuries last season, is now able to be a one inning or even one batter matchup guy for MSU this season.
"When I come in or anybody else for that matter during that kind of situation, it usually is one specific pitch that we're looking for there," Bradford said. "It's something we've rehearsed so many times in spring scrimmages so it's just natural now."
In order to pull that move off, MSU now has newcomers in freshman Jacob Robson and junior college transfer Derrick Armstrong to temporary be a quality defender in center field for Bradford when he is on the mound.
"The defensive replacement is so key to do this because you can't give up anything in a premier position like that up the middle for you to do that move," Cohen said. "It's something we've waited two years to do with C.T. and that guy that goes into center is something we've just never had."
The combinations are now endless for Cohen and MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson for the revolving bullpen door of Dudy Noble Field. The 11 2/3 innings of relief for MSU allowed the No. 5 Bulldogs to complete a doubleheader sweep of Samford University and Purdue University Saturday in 8-2 and 7-6 fashions.
"When you only use guys a little bit, you really feel like they can bounce back with quality stuff," Cohen said. "We have that now and it's a major strength to our team not to have to extend our bullpen guys at all."
Ross Mitchell (2-0), a soft-tossing left-hander that doesn't register on a radar gun over 88 miles-per-hour, completed six innings of four-hit relief against Samford that included four strikeouts and 76 pitches.
"In three appearances this season Mitchell has allowed just one earned run in 7 1/3 innings after being a quality long relief option last year out of what was a shortened sustainable bullpen from the left side.
"When you're facing an aggressive team like Samford and you throw at them Ross Mitchell with that sink in the shadows at Dudy Noble Field, we like that matchup," Cohen said. "I know from scrimmages our guys hate facing Ross Mitchell at 3 or 4 p.m. because of the ballpark shadows."
Both starting pitchers Saturday (senior right hander Kendall Graveman and junior righty Evan Mitchell) were unable to get out of the fourth inning. However, seven pitchers later and the Bulldogs (8-0) were able to maintain its undefeated streak to start a season that has many inside and outside the program expecting a run at a berth in the College World Series in Omaha.
"When you have a Ben Bracewell, Jonathan Holder, Luis Pollorena, C.T. Bradford or anybody else coming out of our bullpen, you feel like the game is over," MSU senior catcher Mitch Slauter said. "I can tell the other team is thinking, we're in for a struggle now."
Chad Girodo, another left-handed reliever who has struggled in his MSU career at times earning a career ERA of 6.70 before this season, struck out two of the four batters he faced. The junior from Hartselle, Ala., starred last summer out of the San Luis Obispo Blues' bullpen in the California Collegiate League, compiling a team-best 0.99 ERA in 27.1 innings.
Finally the backend of the bullpen is complete after Jonathan Holder came back to the Starkville campus in the fall convinced he still wanted to be the closer at MSU. Normally, with all the draft stock talk and hype surrounding starting pitchers being higher, college prospects want to eventually start in their careers. However, the sophomore from Gulfport is just fine with the standing ovation he gets coming out to save games for the Bulldogs in the ninth inning.
"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.
Holder has yet to allow an earned run in 5 1/3 innings this season and his career ERA now sits at 0.27 or one earned run over 33 2/3 frames of action. The 6-foot-2, 229-pound right hander already put himself in the top 10 of MSU's all-time saves category Saturday with his 12 career lockdown. Holder has struck out 12 of 20 batters faced this season while giving up just two hits.