June 11, 2013 9:44:40 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Through the craziness of a ninth inning where everything seemed to be falling apart, the Mississippi State University players knew two comforting things: They had the lead and Johnathan Holder had the baseball.
Those facts were all MSU needed to settle down as No. 6 national seed University of Virginia attempted a last-ditch comeback effort.
But despite giving up two runs and two hits and committing an error, Holder recorded the final out to secure a 6-5 victory in game two of the NCAA Charlottesville Super Regional.
The right-hander, a Louisville Slugger first team All-American selection from Gulfport, retired Derek Fisher on a groundout to third baseman Alex Detz with the tying run on third base and the go-ahead run at second for his 27th career save. In the process, he moved two shy of the school record set by Van Johnson. Holder's teammates showed their appreciation for his work by burying him under a dog pile near the pitcher's mound.
"I wouldn't pick out anybody else in the country to have the ball to get six outs than Jonathan Holder," MSU sophomore Wes Rea said. "I felt as comfortable as I ever have in a ballgame knowing we'd have him on the mound."
Rea had a bigger uneasy feeling than any of his teammates as the Cavaliers (50-12), who had 23 come-from-behind wins this season, rallied in the ninth. The first baseman knew he should've had a putout on a ground-ball flip to Holder that didn't connect and allowed the Cavaliers to cut the deficit to 6-5.
"It just takes a lot to get me moving," Holder joked. "When I tried to find the bag with my foot, both of my feet came up from under me and I saw the baseball at the last second. It's something that's never happened to me."
Not long into the explanation, Rea piped in. "Feed was perfect," Rea joked.
In February, Rea tweeted MSU fans needed "to book their hotel rooms in Omaha for June 13-26" because the Bulldogs (48-18) would make their first trip to the College World Series since 2007. With their most reliable bullpen arm on the mound and in a game that lasted more than 18 hours through two weather delays, MSU turned Rea's tweet into reality.
"We got to school in August and the guys just meshed well," Rea said. "It felt like we have something special in the locker room and we'd never really had with a ball club. We knew going to Omaha was our goal, and if you don't talk about your goals then you're never going to reach them. We're not done yet, and we're going to try to win the whole thing with the same approach."
That approach includes a bullpen of Holder, senior left-hander Chad Girodo, junior right-hander Ben Bracewell, and sophomore left-hander Ross Mitchell that has been dominant this season. Girodo had 10 strikeouts Sunday before game two was suspended, adding to the senior's total of 22 punchouts in 11 1/3 innings. Mitchell worked the final 2 2/3 innings in a 11-6 victory in game one.
"The great Skip Bertman (former LSU coach) used to always say win is defined by what's important now," MSU coach John Cohen said. "What's important now to our kids is putting everything behind them and moving on to the next pitcher or the next play. That's why we're successful."
Virginia coach Brian O'Connor, who worked for nine years as the pitching coach for LSU coach Paul Mainieri before getting the job in Charlottesville, Va., said Monday that MSU has the best bullpen his team has faced. The Cavaliers have faced highly touted, drafted, and evaluated bullpen arms from the University of North Carolina, North Carolina State University, and other Atlantic Coast Conference teams. None of them compared to the quality arms MSU can roll out on a consistent basis.
"I love their bullpen," O'Connor said. "(They have an) ability to throw lefty matchups all the time, and you know what's scary, we didn't even see some of their right-handed guys. They caused us some fits."
Holder, one of five finalists for the 2013 Stopper of the Year Award given to the nation's best relief pitcher, earned his 18th save of the season.
"We felt pretty good about our chances with Holder on the mound," MSU shortstop Adam Frazier said. "Even after those two things didn't go our way in the ninth and the tying run on third, you still feel pretty comfortable."
Holder faced a unique situation to get the save. MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson told Holder he would get the baseball when the game re-started Monday with six outs left to get. It turned out to be a belated birthday present for Holder, who spent part of his 20th birthday Sunday watching rain drops fall at Davenport Field.
Two years ago, MSU was eight outs away from a trip to Omaha, Neb., and led the University of Florida 6-4 in the Gainesville Super Regional, only to see the nationally ranked Gators rally for four runs to earn a trip to the College World Series. This time, Cohen and the Bulldogs had a closer who could seal the deal.
"Jonathan Holder was a starter in high school, and he's part of that selfless attitude you have to have in a bullpen because the minute a guy says, 'I should be doing this' it all falls apart," Cohen said. "I mention Butch Thompson a lot, but the buy-in he has created is such a major component of why we're sitting here today."