Bulldogs say road to Omaha was worth it

June 13, 2013 11:23:33 AM

Matthew Stevens - [email protected]


STARKVILLE -- It was all worth it.  


This was the consensus from members of the Mississippi State University baseball team as they stared into television cameras and faced the most media attention they've received this season.  


Every one of the 27 active members of the MSU roster has faced a form of adversity -- from battling through the questions that accompany slumps to working back from possible career-ending injuries.  


Was it worth working through all of the setbacks for MSU? 


Ben Bracewell, who has had two major surgeries, is a perfect player to ask. 


On Wednesday, the fourth-year junior right-hander attended the media availability at Humphrey Coliseum wearing a walking boot on his right foot. Three years ago, Bracewell suffered damage to the front part of his throwing arm near the biceps tendon. MSU officials said the right shoulder remained strong physically. In 2011, Bracewell then went to Dr. James Andrews, who corrected the labrum injury. The rehabilitation kept him off the active roster for MSU's NCAA Super Regional against the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla. 


At 2 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2), Bracewell will be available for action when MSU (48-18) takes on No. 3 national seed Oregon State University (50-11) in game one of the College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park. 


"I'm still sore after starts because I've never thrown this many pitches since high school," Bracewell said Feb. 10. "I try to beat my record every week with that since I've gotten here. When I'm on the mound it's not an issue. I don't think about it." 


Bracewell (1-1, 1.48 ERA) who wasn't used last weekend in the NCAA Charlottesville Super Regional, severely sprained his ankle last month ago and still wears a walking a boot around campus as a precautionary measure. The Chelsea, Ala., native grew up wanting to play baseball at a Southeastern Conference school and dreaming about a chance to play in the College World Series. Instead of picturing himself in a Major League Baseball uniform, Bracewell said Wednesday he would pretend in the backyard he was in Omaha, Neb., on college baseball's grandest stage. He said he knew about the University of Alabama and Auburn University growing up, but it wasn't until the college recruiting process started that he learned about MSU. Once Bracewell discovered the program's tradition (eight trips to the College World Series prior to this season), he said he realized he knew he had to go to school in Starkville. 


"I made the right choice there without a doubt," Bracewell said. "I would do it all over again. I know it's easy to say that now that we're going to Omaha and playing for a national championship. Here's the real truth: I would do it again, just to play. I love this game so much that I would put my body and mind through anything and everything I did in the past to play one more time." 


Chad Girodo shares that mind-set, but he wasn't sure if he would get a chance to help MSU get to Omaha. The senior left-hander from Hartselle, Ala., went through a stretch where he couldn't get anything right on the mound. After being one of the most dominant high school players in Alabama, Girodo tried everything short of throwing the ball underhand to get Southeastern Conference batters out. As a freshman, Girodo experienced a 24-pitch stretch in which he gave up four home runs. He finished that season 2-3 with a 7.40 ERA in 19 games (48 2/3 innings). As a sophomore, Girodo improved to 3-0 with a 5.71 ERA in 17 games (29 2/3), and lowered his home runs allowed from 12 to three. But last season he pitched only 7 2/3 innings and had a 5.87 ERA (9.00 in league play). 


"It was a matter of just trying to get better," Girodo said. "I got tired of not seeing results and finally went to (MSU pitching coach) Butch Thompson and said, 'This is isn't working what I'm doing. Got any ideas?' " 


This season, a changed arm slot has helped Girodo become a weapon in a bullpen that is one of the best of the eight teams remaining. He has 22 strikeouts in his last 11 1/3 innings, and likely will be an option Saturday if MSU wants to protect a lead so it can hand the game over to sophomore closer Jonathan Holder. After three years struggling to get hitters out, Girodo realized another goal Friday when the Toronto Blue Jays selected him in the ninth round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player draft. 


"You know what's funny is my daughter asked me, 'Dad, why hasn't he pitched more?' " Cohen said. "Every time someone does something exceptional there's a positive and negative, though I don't think there's really a negative with Chad Girodo. What we've done is extended him more out of need and he's answered the bell. The results have been phenomenal." 


Kendall Graveman was a teammate of Girodo's in 2010 on the squad that finished 6-24 in the SEC. The SEC coaches picked the Bulldogs to finish last in 2011, too. Graveman, who was 2-4 with a 6.66 ERA in 19 games as a freshman, was someone Cohen repeatedly referred to when he talked about underclassmen "getting their teeth kicked in" in the SEC. The right-hander from Alexander City, Ala., was removed from the starting rotation as a freshman and a sophomore as he learned the difference between throwing and pitching. In 2011, he realized it was up to him and the rest of the 2009 recruiting class to make sure things changed at MSU. 


"Those SEC coaches really motivated us in 2011 by essentially telling us they never thought we'd return to the prominence we knew we were capable of," Graveman said. "We're going to Omaha with a team led by members of that 6-24 team. You know what, we're not done yet." 


Graveman (7-5, 3.14) has been the most consistent starting pitcher for MSU this season and likely will face OSU All-Americans Matt Boyd or Andrew Moore on Saturday. 


Even though Bracewell, Girodo, and Graveman have overcome different roadblocks to get to Omaha, they share one thing: They will leave Starkville as a class that helped return MSU baseball to national prominence. Five more victories will earn them another reward they can savor: MSU's first national championship. 


"It's hard not to think about it in that way, and when I do think about that, it's always a reminder we did it as a collective effort," Graveman said. "We believed in the process, and part of that process wasn't good, but we knew we'd have a chance to get here if we stuck together as a unit."