May 17, 2013 12:36:33 PM
STARKVILLE -- When John Cohen took the job as baseball coach at Mississippi State University on June 7, 2008, he made it clear he was going to turn the program around with dual-threat players.
Limited to a 27-man roster and 11.7 scholarships by the NCAA, Cohen was relentless in his pursuit of players who could hit and play in the field and make situational contributions on the mound. Two of those players in his first full-year recruiting class were C.T. Bradford and Daryl Norris. Those juniors gave No. 24 MSU 2 1/3 innings of relief in a 3-2 victory against Oral Roberts University on Tuesday night at Dudy Noble Field.
"Daryl has been throwing pens for a month now, and I was just so impressed with what he did tonight," Cohen said. "That's going to help us because we need that extra arm out of the pen, and if that person is Daryl Norris then that will help us in tournament play."
Norris, who is in a 2-for-26 hitting slump, decided a month ago to find a way to be successful as a pitcher. Against ORU, he was brilliant in his first mound appearance since the 2011 Gainesville Super Regional. His performance was his first significant contribution to the Bulldogs' push to the postseason in a long time.
"That meant a lot because I just wanted to contribute in some way," Norris said. "I spoke to (MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson) and told him I need to find a way to help my teammates down the stretch. That's important to me and to everybody on this team."
The Fairhope, Ala., native, who was the Alabama Sports Writers Association Mr. Baseball for 2010, allowed one hit in a 26-pitch outing that lasted 1 1/3 innings. In his first outing in 702 days, Norris had a fastball clocked at 92-93 mph and a slider he commanded for three strikeouts. Norris received a standing ovation from the crowd at Dudy Noble Field and multiple hugs from teammates and coaches in the MSU dugout after he left the game with two outs in the seventh inning.
"Daryl has worked so hard at everything, and that's something special to see a guy who hasn't pitched all year throw 94 mph and throwing his slider for strikes," MSU sophomore closer Jonathan Holder said. "You just don't see that every day."
Bradford, who committed to MSU before Norris did in 2010 after being named Mr. Baseball in the state of Florida, followed Norris to the mound and pitched a scoreless inning to set the stage for Holder. He also was 2-for-4 to earn his 20th multiple-hit game of the season.
Holder's four-out effort earned him his 14th save, a single-season school record, and leaves him six short of the career record of 29 set by Van Johnson.
Holder was recruited as a dual-threat player out of Gulfport High School a year after the nationally ranked group led by Norris and Bradford. But the MSU coaches decided to use Holder exclusively as a pitcher in his first fall season with the program.
Still, Holder stood on the on-deck circle in the bottom of the eighth waiting to see if he'd have his second career at-bat.
"(My teammates) were cracking on me saying this guy is throwing 93 (mph) and just get the barrel of the bat out there," Holder said, "so I get on deck and coach Cohen tells me, 'No, do not swing hard, do not run, or do anything like that to get yourself hurt.' "
ORU (21-29) took a 2-1 lead in the fourth after starting pitcher Trevor Fitts struggled with fatigue in his first career start. The former two-time Louisville Slugger High School All-America pitcher at Pelham High School in Chelsea, Ala., cruised through the second and third innings and allowed just one earned run in a 39-pitch performance.
"I don't even know if Trevor slept last night and was just so jacked up to pitch today," Cohen said. "He's just such an energy guy, and we wanted to reward him with that opportunity. That breaking ball is real, and we're going to need it."
After claiming in Oxford his team wasn't mentally and physically sharp after not having a mid-week game, Cohen watched Adam Frazier and Alex Detz combine to go 6-for-9 with an RBI and a run scored.
"It's definitely important for us to do that, and I had a few fall today despite not hitting anything all that hard," Frazier said. "That just shows me my hands are working better than they have in the past."
The victory gave MSU (38-15) its most non-conference victories in a season (24-2) since 1989.
MSU will play host to the University of South Carolina at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in game one of a three-game Southeastern Conference weekend series. The teams will play at 6:30 p.m. Friday and at 2 p.m. Saturday to close the regular season.