June 4, 2013 11:57:40 PM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- Four years ago, the Mississippi State University baseball program began to piece together in recruiting what Monday night's Starkville Regional championship game would look like.
MSU coach John Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson wasn't interested in quick fixes, stopgap measures or average arms that could help them put together a postseason run in the first few years. They wanted quality, power arms that could transform the program. Two of those highly recruited arms were on showcase in Ben Bracewell and Chad Girodo, combining for MSU (46-18) to win its first regional at Dudy Noble Field in 13 years.
According to the recruiting rankings put out by Baseball America in 2009, MSU compiled the No. 8 overall class in the definition of a transition year for the program. The Bulldogs were coming off a 23-33 season and former coach Ron Polk had damaging things to say about the program as he retired for the second time and hurtful things to say of the school's choice of Cohen as his successor.
"Those guys showed a lot of faith in our coaching staff and in Mississippi State," Cohen said. "When they jumped aboard, things weren't going great and they wanted to be a part of it. There was a belief that these kind of things were going to happen."
In a small college town of Starkville, Miss., that wouldn't be confused as a destination for high profile assistants, Cohen and two other former recruiting coordinators at other top Division I programs (Thompson and Lane Burroughs, currently the head coach at Northwestern State University) began the journey of restoring the talent pool. Specifically, the responsibility of this 2009 recruiting plan was to replenish the power arms that would give something for Thompson to work with not just immediately but for years to come.
Those power arms included the signing of Bracewell, Girodo, Kendall Graveman and the best pitching in-state prospect Chris Stratton. The only person of that core group not around in 2013 is Stratton after he left MSU early following his selection in the first round of the major-league draft by the San Francisco Giants last summer.
"It was an arms race for us immediately and we knew it," Thompson said. "We had to immediately identify and then begin the development process of these arms."
Girodo, who picked up the victory Monday night against the University of Central Arkansas in the 2013 NCAA Starkville Regional final, and Bracewell, who pounded the strike zone for five punch outs in the first 2 1/3 innings, were the prominent pieces of that 2009 class to arrive at MSU.
Girodo immediately came in and doubled his career single-game strikeout total with 12 against a highly respected UCA lineup. Girodo got several swing-and-miss action with a diving slider mixed with a fastball that was moving toward both sides of the plate.
"I knew Benny would get us off to a good start but I was ready to come in at any time," Girodo said. "I just got lucky enough to get the ball in the situation that I did."
The Bracewell and Girodo duo would be responsible for making sure the program was restored to moments like Monday's 6-1 win over Central Arkansas in front of 8,662 fans at Dudy Noble Field, who had waited six years for postseason games.
"We had struck out three batters in the previous game we lost against Central Arkansas and for those boys to strike out 17 is proving our guys were on lockdown," Thompson said. "We have so much respect for that UCA ball club that I hope everybody understands how absolutely difficult it is to strike any of them out."
At Hartselle (Ala.) High School, Girodo had a team-leading 17-1 record with an 0.47 ERA and helped lead the Tigers to a nation-leading 50 wins, the state Alabama Class 5A state championship and a No. 22 national ranking.
He was named to the Collegiate Baseball/Louisville Slugger High School All-American team after the southpaw piled up 136 strikeouts and just 11 walks in 105.1 innings.
He could've gone anywhere else in the Southeastern Conference and chose MSU based on a plan to play right away - a plan that failed. Girodo got more than knocked around in his first three years in the Southeastern Conference and suffered a 8.59 ERA in league play.
"You're talking about a kid that only threw 7 2/3 innings for us last year, that's it," Thompson said. "He's a new pitcher, he's a new Chad Girodo than when we ever recruited him. It's all now about his willingness to refine and change what he was doing to what would work."
This fall Girodo eventually bought into a process that saw him use more of a sidearm and ¾ motion technique to not only disguise his pitches but also give him for effectiveness of his secondary stuff. The change in mechanics and his demeanor on the mound has allowed for him to lead all players on the active roster at MSU with a 1.10 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 41 innings this season.
"Monday night wasn't just the best Chad Girodo has ever been here at Mississippi State, that's as good as it gets and I've been doing this 20 years," Thompson said.
Bracewell has fought back from two separate surgeries on this pitching arm the most recent being a operation on the labrum of his right shoulder. Bracewell had surgery performed by Dr. James Andrews in the summer before the 2012 season to correct a serious labrum injury in his pitching shoulder and the rehabilitation from the procedure left him off the active roster for the Bulldogs last Super Regional run in 2011.
Two years later Bracewell will get a chance to have a critical role on this MSU pitching staff as they start the 2013 NCAA Charlottesville Super Regional Saturday at noon on ESPN2. The three-game series will determine one of the eight teams heading to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series.
There was even a point during the 2012 season that Bracewell still couldn't throw a pitch consistently without having pain in either his elbow or up his arm. The MSU coaching staff wouldn't have tried to stop him from asking for a medical waiver and have his career be over. He just simply never asked them. In 2013, he found success in the set up role to record-breaking closer Jonathan Holder.
"When I think of Benny, I just think of all the struggles he has been through while he's been here," Thompson said. "They both could've quit 150 different times and said 'I can't do it at this level' and I think their perseverance more than anything is what you saw Monday night. They wanted it so badly and saw themselves get to that level."
Due to Bracewell being the best right handed option for MSU Monday night and the consistency he'd shown with the strike zone in May, one of the most coveted yet forgotten prospects of 2009 was the Bulldogs best option to start the first few innings. Bracewell's first 20 pitches Monday night went for strikes and the 6-foot, 205-pound pitcher struck out five in 2 1/3 innings.
Three years ago as a first-year freshman Bracewell appeared in 17 games as a reliever and the MSU closer role posting an 0-2 record and a 5.50 earned run average while leading the Bulldogs with four of the staff's seven saves that season. It was during one of those saves in a 8-7 win at the University of South Carolina on April 3, 2010, that the potential shined through. The Gamecocks would eventually go on to win the first of back to back national championships but it was Cohen who told Thompson in a off-the-cuff manner that he saw Monday night's moment for him occurring before he left the Starkville campus.
"He just looked at me in the dugout and as I swear to you said 'Butch this young man is going to win us a regional one day'," Thompson said.
"When things like Monday happen, you remember those things so vividly and I remembered that moment at South Carolina."
Four years ago, Bracewell and Girodo had every reason not to come to Mississippi State based on the negativity surrounding the program. In those four years, they had every reason to quit the program after hardship with their individual circumstances. Monday night, they had recent history to suggest they wouldn't have success Monday night. With the odds stacked against them, they led to MSU to its first home NCAA Regional championship and their head coach believes it was by sheer force of will.
"The two guys pitching for us said we're going to force it to go our way tonight," Cohen said. "Those kids made it happen. They did that, because they wanted it more."