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MSU overcomes illness, injuries to sweep Alabama

 

Matthew Stevens

 

STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State University baseball coach John Cohen has refused to let a rash of injuries to key players in the past two seasons be a distraction. 

 

On Saturday, No. 22 MSU showed it is capable of setting aside sickness and injuries to earn a doubleheader sweep of the University of Alabama at Dudy Noble Field.  

 

Brett Pirtle was disoriented and sick for the past week, Mitch Slauter has been recovering from a broken hand for nearly a month, and Ben Bracewell has battled multiple elbow procedures the past two years and overcame a severely sprained ankle Saturday. The three upperclassmen contributed in big ways in MSU's 10-6 and 5-4 victories. 

 

"We sure did have to manufacture some things and use our roster," Cohen said. 

 

The victories helped MSU (35-13, 12-11 Southeastern Conference) pass Alabama, the University of Mississippi, and the University of Florida in the league standings. Rain Friday night washed out the series opener and forced the teams to play two Saturday. 

 

"Yesterday was such a difficult decision from my standpoint because it's just so hard to win a doubleheader in the Southeastern Conference," Cohen said. "I'm just really proud of my kids' ability to battle through everything they had to deal with today." 

 

Pirtle, who is hitting .354 in conference play in the cleanup spot, has been battling flu-like symptoms for the past few days. The junior college transfer was a game-time decision to play after team physician Bob Collins treated him hours before the first pitch. Pirtle even wore a motion sickness patch behind his left ear to help relieve dizzy spells.  

 

"I just wanted to try and play, but it was really difficult focusing on the ball with the dizziness," Pirtle said. "They gave me this patch, and it's supposed to work after 45 minutes for like three or four hours. It just started kicking in at that last at-bat." 

 

Despite being unsure if he'd even be able to play, Pirtle had a single and scored two runs in game one to extend his on-base streak to 21 games. His two-out walk in the second inning started a seven-run frame that helped MSU chase starting pitcher Spencer Turnbull, a graduate of Madison Central High School, who was moved up in the rotation. 

 

MSU had to go deep into its bench in game two. Trailing 4-3 in the eighth, Cohen pinch hit Pirtle, who he held out of the game due to his illness, for Nick Ammirati. After Pirtle delivered a game-tying single to score Derrick Armstrong from second base, Cohen talked with Slauter about his broken hand. 

 

"I walked up to him and said, 'I know you've been campaigning to play all week, but I really need to know if you can do this. I really need to know,' " Cohen said. 

 

MSU opted for Slauter, who warmed up in the outfield in full uniform before game one, play catcher while still nursing a fractured metacarpal bone in his left hand. Slauter not only caught the final two innings, but he also laid down a sacrifice bunt that set the stage for a walk-off single by freshman Jacob Robson.  

 

"I can't tell you what it's like to catch a 90 mph fastball with essentially a broken bone in your hand and he did it," Cohen said. "He hadn't seen a pitch in two and a half weeks and he got that bunt down. He was absolutely not supposed to play." 

 

Bracewell, who has battled back from two surgical procedures on his throwing arm, turned in his longest relief outing (3 2/3 innings) and allowed just two hits. The 6-foot right-hander shut down the Crimson Tide (27-20, 11-11), the school that lost him in a recruiting battle four years ago, even after he suffered a severely sprained ankle after the first out in ninth.  

 

"Ben is such a competitor to battle back from every little setback he's had in his career that I knew a little ankle deal wasn't going to keep him out of the game," MSU senior reliever Chad Girodo said. "We knew he'd finish unless it was a serious deal." 

 

Girodo (4-1) earned the victory by striking out right-handed hitter Kyle Overstreet to end top half of the 10th. MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson appeared ready to remove Girodo in favor of Jonathan Holder. He took several steps out of the dugout and then spoke to Cohen before time was called.  

 

"I figured they were going to come get me and bring in Holder, but I just decided, 'Well, I stand on the rubber and look in, they'll let me get this batter," Girodo said. "Once I saw Mitch put a sign down, I decided, 'OK, here we go, they trust me.' " 

 

Said Cohen, "What we're thinking there is we've got a senior on the mound and Holder had thrown 27 (pitches) in game one, so we're going to trust our senior there even against a right-handed batter." 

 

Despite not receiving a quality start from Luis Pollorena or Kendall Graveman, MSU's bullpen allowed just one earned run in 8 2/3 innings.  

 

After coming in with two outs in the seventh of game one, Holder tied the school's single-season saves total of 13 with 2 2/3 innings of shutout relief. In just one and half seasons as closer, Holder is seven saves short of the MSU all-time record of 29 set by Vann Johnson from 1995-98.  

 

"Coach Cohen has told me they're going to bring me in games earlier when they matter the most, so I expect to get the ball almost exactly when I did there," Holder said. "I really had a good breaking ball working, and that's what got me strikeouts today." 

 

MSU has won back-to-back series against Alabama for the first time since 2005. It will go for its first home sweep of the Crimson Tide in 20 years at 1:30 p.m. today. With weather conditions calling for a 50-percent chance of thunderstorms, MSU will send sophomore left-hander Jacob Lindgren (4-2, 3.47 ERA) against Justin Kamplain (1-0, 4.82).  

 

n In related news, senior infielders Sam Frost and Trey Porter have earned 2013 Capital One Academic All-District VI baseball team honors as selected by members of the College Sports Information Directors of America. 

 

Frost, a mathematics major (3.76 grade-point average) from Hoover, Ala., and Porter, a kinesiology major (3.87 GPA) from Hurley, now advance in the selection process for the 2013 Capital One Academic All-America Team. Frost and Porter are among six MSU baseball players in line to earn their undergraduate degrees at Mississippi State in 2013. 

 

Only one other baseball player from the Southeastern Conference, South Carolina infielder LB Dantzler, earned CoSIDA academic all-district honors in 2013. 

 

Seventeen MSU baseball players have been accorded academic all-America team honors a combined 22 times since 1971. A year ago pitcher Chris Stratton, of Tupelo, became MSU's 17th player to earn academic All-America team honors.

 

 

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