May 24, 2013 10:03:21 AM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
HOOVER, Ala. -- The Mississippi State University baseball team's formula for success at the Southeastern Conference baseball tournament is becoming repetitive.
Step one involves getting clutch hits with runners in motion. The next step requires the bullpen to keep the lead before closer Jonathan Holder can shut the door.
No. 16 MSU followed that formula to perfection Thursday, scoring three runs in the fifth inning to take the lead and using solid efforts by Ross Mitchell and Holder en route to a 6-4 victory against Texas A&M University in a winners' bracket game at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.
"Think about it, we already have a 17-inning game this year, and I really think we're in a much better spot to win this tournament than where we stood last year at this point," said Mitchell, a sophomore, who improved to 11-0.
The Bulldogs (43-16) welcomed the victory because it earned them a day off. MSU will face the winner of today's Vanderbilt-Texas A&M matchup in the second game Saturday (time to be determined). The winner of that game will advance to Sunday's title game.
In its last six SEC tournament games, MSU's bullpen is 6-0 with three saves. It has thrown 43 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings.
The victory also was MSU's fourth straight this season against Texas A&M (32-26). The Bulldogs swept the regular season series on April 12-14 in College Station, Texas.
"All the elements were there for us to do a little more hit and run," MSU coach John Cohen said. "Our kids responded, and you know what, you can put all those plays in but your kids have to execute them."
MSU won its third game in as many days by using all the elements Cohen and his coaches have coveted in recruiting for the past three seasons. MSU pressured Texas A&M into two errors and executed a pair of hit-and-runs that led to runs.
MSU shortstop Adam Frazier, the SEC tournament MVP last season, had his first four-hit game of the season and scored a pair of runs from the lead-off spot. The junior led an effective attack on starting pitcher Rafael Pineda (5-5) for the second time this season. On Thursday, Pineda lasted 4 2/3 innings and gave up six hits and five runs (two earned). The Bulldogs knocked him out in the second inning of a 9-3 win on April 13.
"I feel like he wasn't adjusting to the fact we were seeing his changeup really well," Frazier said. "He made mistakes tonight, and when we were aggressive, we took advantage of those balls up in the zone."
Frazier, a projected top-10 round selection in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player draft next month, leads all players in the tournament with nine hits in three games.
"This is the Adam Frazier in tournament play you expect," Cohen said. "It's amazing he came through in a day where C.T. Bradford physically couldn't play."
Bradford, who is hitting .300, had started MSU's first 57 games, missed the victory against the University of South Carolina on Wednesday and the win against Texas A&M due to a severe quad injury.
Two of the three runs MSU scored in the fifth were unearned thanks in part to a routine ground ball that went through the legs of first baseman Cole Lankford. Derrick Armstrong, one of MSU's fastest runners, manufactured an insurance run in the eighth by stealing second base and taking third on the same play when the ball went into center field.
"Pressure, pressure, pressure is his thing because he gets on with a bunt and when we run him in that sequence he beats the ball to (second base)," Cohen said. "You can't teach that kind of speed and athletic ability. You can mold it but it has to be there before he ever gets on our campus."
With the game tied 2-2 in the fourth, MSU utilized what has become its normal in-count pitching change from senior co-captain Kendall Graveman to junior right hander Ben Bracewell. The bullpen trio of Bracewell, Mitchell, and Holder halted Texas A&M's momentum.
Mitchell matched Chris Stratton's victory total last season, which is the most in a season wins for a MSU pitcher under Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson. He went 3 1/3 innings and allowed only one runner (on a one-out walk in the seventh). He struck out one.
"We were at the mall today before the game, and I think there's a open ping pong tournament (Friday), so I think I'm going to be in that," said Mitchell, who was in his second outing in three days. "I don't know how we go about qualifying for that thing, but we got some good ping pong players on this team."
One of the few outs against Mitchell that reached the outfield resulted in a eye-popping double play in the seventh. Junior outfielder Hunter Renfroe, a projected first-round MLB draft pick, nabbed a line drive in center field and then showcased his arm by doubling off pinch runner Brandon Wood at first base for his sixth assist of the season.
"I don't know if anybody else in college baseball could make that throw," Cohen said. "That's one of those moments where when you talk to scouts and they ask you about Hunter Renfroe, you say there's a point once in a while where he does something and our dugout is silent thinking, 'Wow'. He may have thrown that ball 105 mph from center field."
With MSU off today, Cohen will be able to watch his oldest daughter, Jordan Avery, graduate from Starkville High School.
"I think the most significant thing about this victory is I get to watch my daughter graduate, which was a point of concern in the Cohen household," Cohen said.
MSU's run has turned its borderline hopes at earning a chance to play host to a NCAA Regional into talk it could receive a national seed if it can complete a tournament run with a title. The Bulldogs' Ratings Percentage Index is 10, but SEC tournament victories count as league victories to the NCAA selection committee. The NCAA will announce the host sites for the regionals Sunday night. The national seeds and the rest of the NCAA bracket will be revealed Monday on ESPNU.
Cohen said sophomore left-hander Jacob Lindgren (4-2, 3.91) will start Sunday.