June 7, 2014 4:43:22 PM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State spent the entire 2014 season relying on the back end duo of a bullpen to overcome any deficiencies.
Jacob Lindgren and Jonathan Holder proved to be two of the best relievers in the country and were all set for a do-or-die game against one of the nation's best offenses in Louisiana-Lafayette. The No. 1 ranked Ragin' Cajuns scored runs against both the lefty-righty bullpen arms to end the Bulldogs season.
Just one season after having nearly everything break right and executed perfectly through the postseason leading to a trip to the College World Series, MSU (39-24) had everything set up for a third Super Regional appearance in the last four years.
However, a more powerful ULL (57-8) program knocked around ace left-hander Ross Mitchell Sunday and then allowed the MSU relievers to hurt themselves in the final game of the Lafayette Regional.
"We have to play clean games to win championships," MSU coach John Cohen said. "That is how we are built. Baseball is a game of inches and it certainly was there in the third inning."
The unfortunate aspect of Lindgren and Holder being in the final loss of the 2014 season at Lafayette, Louisiana was it was likely the last time MSU fans will see the relief duo in the maroon and white. Both Lindgren and Holder were selected in the 2014 draft by the New York Yankees and expected to sign contracts ending their college careers.
"I'll stay up late during the night wondering what would've happened if they'd seen the best out of Ross Mitchell and a Jacob Lindgren that had better command on everything," MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson said.
Holder is currently the active NCAA leader with a school-record 37 career saves and ranks second among active players with 12.67 career strikeouts per nine innings.
The Bulldogs did rally from a sluggish 12-7 start to to obtain the program's best Southeastern Conference record in 11 years by going 18-12 in league play. MSU was one game back from winning the Western Division for the first time.
"I wouldn't want to be out there with any other group of guys. It's been that way through 60 games for us," MSU senior outfielder C.T. Bradford said. "We have had our ups and downs. We just kept battling. That is why I liked this team so much."
The lack of offensive production is why Cohen and the MSU staff were rightly convinced they had to play nearly perfect defense and get quality performances on the mound to be successful.
After losing leadoff hitter Adam Frazier and power hitting junior Hunter Renfroe to the 2013 MLB draft, MSU struggled to produce offense due to a lack of power in the middle of the order. The Bulldogs used over 50 different lineups but the chemistry never took place on a consistent basis. It's the lack of offense in what is likely the final year of the dead ball era of college baseball that held MSU from getting deeper into the postseason and kept them from hosting any rounds of the postseason.
"I looked around the country and everybody was having offensive problems this season and the ones that weren't are the ones still playing this season," Cohen said. "We will still pride ourselves on pitching and defense because that's what our ballpark dictates but I feel we'll have more offense in the future."
The one bright star offensively was senior Brett Pirtle who was voted second-team All-SEC by the league's 14 head coaches for the second-consecutive season after hitting a team-high .363 in 63 starts. Defensively, the coaches named him to the SEC All-Defensive Team after breaking the school records for fielding percentage (.981), assists (211) and chances (321) at his position.
"You're talking about somebody that left his mark on this program by just never having a bad day," Cohen said. "It's the most impressive about Brett Pirtle. The minute he got on this campus he just never had a bad day or bad practice let alone a bad game."
Next season the Division 1 game will be using a physical baseball that is supposed to have thinner seams and be able to travel further than the current model. MSU is likely to have potentially solid yet untested power with younger players.
Wes Rea is expected to be back at first base for a fifth year at MSU and will rest this summer in order to hopefully get off to a better start than this season. Rea was expected by some to take up part of the power gap left by Renfroe being drafted in the first round by San Diego but Rea was unable to rise to that level. As he continued to struggle at the plate with a .245 batting average and .365 slugging percentage, the MSU co-captain was occasionally benched during SEC play.
"We have our meetings with each player this week and Wes Rea is somebody that has always thought long and hard before he makes any decision in his life," Cohen said Wednesday. "We would love to have him back and we'll support that young man for everything he done for this program. I'm looking forward to that discussion."
MSU is hoping to get a full season of production next year out of highly ranked recruits Daniel Garner, Reid Humphreys and Joey Swinarski next season as they all had the normal struggles in dealing with the higher level of SEC competition.
The Bulldogs will combine that freshman trio with the return of shortstop Seth Heck, catcher Gavin Collins and a top ranked 2014 recruiting class that includes John Holland and top infield prospect Dale Burdick to the everyday lineup.
The pitching staff will need to be retooled as Mitchell was seen as the only consistent starter after getting second team All-SEC honors in his junior season. The task for MSU Thompson is not only finding a competent rotation but also a new set of bullpen arms as well as MSU likely loses Lindgren, Holder and junior Brandon Woodruff from the staff.
One factor will be the transition of first year right-handers Dakota Hudson and Austin Sexton. Both were highly touted and drafted prospects coming out of high school but found struggles in their first season in college baseball. However, Thompson has a excellent record with Lindgren, Chris Stratton, Chad Girodo and Kendall Graveman of turning around players with subpar starts to their career in later seasons.
Hudson will be going to the California Collegiate League to pitch this summer and Sexton is headed to Lima, Ohio to play in the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League.
"I'm going to miss every guy we lose and have to say goodbye to," Thompson said. "But I've been doing this so long, once fall baseball starts again it's like everything restarts with questions. It's our jobs as coaches to put our young men in spots to answer those questions."
With all the veteran leadership leaving the MSU program, a rebuilding process is expected for 2015 but Cohen's reaction to a fourth straight NCAA regional appearance was proof that rebuilding doesn't have to mean a drop off in productivity.
"I think certainly that's our expectation level but you have to win it," Cohen said on May 26. "I think at some point and time you turn a corner and say getting there is nice. Our kids are really focused on winning. That's the next step."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.