April 9, 2013 10:35:20 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- For the past two months, Mississippi State University baseball coach John Cohen has been telling anybody who will listen that Brandon Woodruff will pitch in critical games this season.
In terms of Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) and emotionally charged atmospheres, things don't get any more critical than No. 21 MSU's game at 6:30 tonight against the No. 23 University of Mississippi in the annual Governors Cup matchup at Trustmark Park in Pearl.
"These are the reasons I came to Mississippi State: To pitch in big games against Ole Miss in a minor league ballpark that will be filled with fans all across the state," Woodruff said. "It's become a cliché, but for me, it doesn't get any better, and for a Mississippi kid, it really doesn't."
Woodruff (1-1, 4.15 ERA) has battled injury and a loss of confidence this season, but Cohen believes in him to start him in an important mid-week game against a top 25 opponent. A victory will give either team a boost in the RPI, which is a factor members of the NCAA tournament selection committee analyze to decide regional host berths. MSU (26-9, 5-7 Southeastern Conference) took two of three games from the University of Florida last weekend at Dudy Noble Field for its first SEC series victory, and first weekend series victory in a month.
"I just like the way he has been maturing and like the way our ball club has been playing, winning four of its last five," Cohen said of Woodruff and his team.
The sophomore right-hander has been dealing with elbow tenderness since the beginning of January and hadn't recorded three outs in his previous three outings prior to his outing last week against the University of South Alabama. The Wheeler native matched a season- and career-best with a six-inning start in the 6-4 victory. It was his third career quality start (six or more innings while allowing just three or less earned runs)
"That was the first of any kind of injury situation I've faced in my life, and I don't think I was physically and mentally prepared to face something like that when it happened," Woodruff said. "It's not an excuse, but I can tell you it affected me without knowing it for a while after that happened."
With a good outing today, Woodruff could help his chances to earn a spot in the weekend rotation. He also will have a chance to work tonight in front of Major League Baseball scouts, who will line up to watch the former fifth-round draft pick at the home of Double-A Mississippi Braves.
"We really have believed as a staff that when the weather warms up, Brandon Woodruff would become a quality starting pitcher for us down the stretch," Cohen said. "If that happens for us, we're a quality club in one of the ways we have to win, and that's to pitch it and defend it better than anybody in the country."
Said Woodruff, "There's two keys that happened (against South Alabama). I got ahead in the count to nearly every batter I faced, and life is just so much easier when I'm focused on doing that. The other is I finally decided I'm a starting pitcher for the Mississippi State Bulldogs and I'm not coming off this mound without a fight. That's a physical and mental adjustment that had to be made, and now I see the difference."
Last season, Woodruff had a no-hitter in the seventh inning and was leading South Alabama at Dudy Noble Field before he told pitching coach Butch Thompson he needed to be pulled because he was fatigued and had nothing left in his arm. This season, he pleaded with Thompson during a visit to the mound not to take him out of the game.
"I don't want off that mound, and anybody is taking the baseball from me, they better have a darn good reason because one of the things I've learned from the older guys and my coaches is as a starting pitcher you better be prepared to go the distance," Woodruff said. "You can believe I intend to take my team deep into a game every time I go out there."
Ole Miss (23-9, 4-8) is coming off a series sweep at the hands of No. 2 Vanderbilt University last weekend in Oxford. Sophomore right-hander Josh Laxar (2-0, 2.45) will start for the Rebels.
Ole Miss and MSU have split the previous six Governor's Cup matchups. The Rebels have outscoring the Bulldogs 34-33. MSU leads the series 240-197-5, which includes a 13-14 showing against Ole Miss in the Mayor's Trophy series from 1980-2006 at Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson.
n In related news, MSU senior right-hander Kendall Graveman was named Monday SEC Pitcher of the Week.
Graveman (4-2, 1.99), from Alexander City, Ala., scattered five singles and faced four batters over the minimum in a series-clinching 2-0 victory against Florida on Saturday. He walked two, struck out two and induced 19 groundball outs en route to his fifth career complete-game, and fourth against an SEC foe.