June 4, 2013 10:50:23 AM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE --Throw strikes, play solid defense, and get timely hits.
It sounds easy to do, but the Mississippi State University baseball team couldn't put all of those things together in five previous games against the University of Central Arkansas.
On Monday, though, MSU executed its script perfectly in a 6-1 victory against UCA in the final game of the NCAA Starkville Regional before a crowd of 8,662 at Dudy Noble Field. The victory helped the Bulldogs (46-18) earn their the 12th regional title, and its sixth in Starkville.
The win also secured MSU a chance to face No. 6 national seed University of Virginia (50-10) in the best-of-three Charlottesville Super Regional in Charlottesville, Va. The series will begin at noon Saturday (ESPN2). Game two will be at 6 p.m. Sunday (ESPNU). If needed, game three will be at 3 p.m. Monday (ESPNU).
"These kids wanted to bring a regional to Starkville, Mississippi, and that's exactly what they did," MSU coach John Cohen said. "Our fans created a unbelievable atmosphere all weekend long, and it is truly a special place. There was a lot of discussion in our locker room that if we get to host a regional, it will be crazy. Our kids deserved this."
After committing eight errors in two regional games against UCA (42-22), MSU had two errors Monday, but neither one helped the Bears score an unearned run.
MSU also received timely pitching from Ben Bracewell and Chad Girodo, who combined for 17 strikeouts, and more timely hitting. MSU scored five of its runs with two outs.
"The two guys pitching for us said, 'We're going to force it to go our way tonight,' " Cohen said. "In these type of games when you're putting up 17 strikeouts, you're challenging guys with some serious stuff."
MSU won a home regional for the first time since 2000. In the process, the Bulldogs completed their third straight regional appearance with a trip to the Super Regionals for the first time since 2011. Two victories at Virginia would send MSU to the College World Series for the first time since 2007.
One day after committing four errors in a 5-2 loss to UCA, MSU reversed its fortunes early Monday night. UCA made three errors, left 10 runners on base and allowed the crowd at Dudy Noble Field to get involved in the action early and often.
Bracewell, who was making the second start of the season and fifth of his career, threw 17 of his first 20 pitches for strikes and recorded six outs. The former Louisville Slugger All-America selection out of high school had five strikeouts in 2 1/3 innings and allowed one hit. By the time Bracewell was lifted, MSU had a 3-0 lead, and were en route to running their record to 29-5 when they score first.
"I think getting a lead was important, but more than anything it was Benny going out there and challenging the strike zone," Cohen said. "We weren't concerned about Ben, but every single day is a different strike zone and you have to adjust to what's there."
UCA had a throwing error and wild pitch in the bottom of the first that helped MSU take a 2-0 lead. The runs helped settle a nervous Dudy Noble Field crowd. The seven-game Starkville Regional drew an attendance of 61,433.
"Our kids fought," UCA coach Allen Gum said. "Mississippi State has a great club, and we're disappointed in the way we played a little bit. I just can't question our heart and how hard we played."
UCA, which was trying to win its ninth-straight elimination game, couldn't recapture the form that saw it beat MSU in three of the first five meetings between the teams. Senior right-hander Bryce Biggerstaff (6-5), who threw 74 pitches in five innings in a 6-5 victory against Mercer University in an 11-inning elimination game Saturday, wasn't nearly the same, as he allowed five runs on seven hits in 3 2/3 innings. Unlike the back-to-back complete-game efforts UCA received in victories against the University of South Alabama and MSU on Sunday, Biggerstaff struggled with his control and even though he walked only one, he left the game after throwing 70 pitches.
On the other side, MSU received a solid performance from Girodo, who doubled his previous career high in strikeouts with 12 in 6 2/3 innings. Cohen and MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson appeared reluctant to use a left-handed pitcher in previous games against UCA, which featured a right-handed dominant lineup. But the senior left-hander delivered his best outing in four years at MSU.
"I don't think our kids were pressing or nervous about the moment at all," Gum said. "I just really think Girodo was outstanding and completely dominated us on that mound. He was the best pitcher we've seen in tournament, and there's no doubt about that."
In two appearances against UCA, Girodo (7-1) pitched 8 1/3 innings and allowed one run. In his last game at Dudy Noble Field, Girodo lowered his ERA to 1.10 and improved his strikeout total to 53 in 41 innings.
"It's a great feeling, but I really wanted to do it for my teammates because we've had such a great season," Girodo said. "We have a special thing going on."
MSU junior designated hitter Alex Detz was named most outstanding player of the regional after going 8-of-13 and reaching base 12 times in 17 plate appearances. On Monday, Detz had two of the Bulldogs' 11 hits. Demarcus Henderson also had two hits.
Girodo, sophomore first baseman Wes Rea, junior second baseman Brett Pirtle, and junior outfielder Hunter Renfroe joined Detz on the all-tournament team. Renfroe and classmate Adam Frazier combined for five hits, four RBIs and three runs scored in what could have been their final game at Dudy Noble Field. Both players likely will be early round picks this week in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player draft.
"I don't want to think about that," Cohen said. "That's something we'll have to deal with this week, but they want to get to Omaha and the College World Series. Everything else is in the background because this is a selfless group of kids."
Ticket books for the Super Regional are on sale. The series is expected to sell out, and fans are encouraged to order their tickets as soon as possible to guarantee admission.
Reserved seating ticket books are $36 each. MSU is allotted 400 booklets for reserved bleacher seating on the first-base side. The MSU ticket office will accept orders, filled based on Bulldog Club priority rank, through 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. Tickets orders will only be accepted by phone at 1-888-GO-DAWGS, or in person at the Bryan Building.