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Pitching in to make it work: MSU has used depth on staff in multiple ways


Matthew Stevens



STARKVILLE -- Unlike John Cohen, who keeps his cell phone in the back pocket of his uniform pants, Mississippi State University pitching coach Butch Thompson doesn't need to hear or want to listen to the instant reaction to his moves.  


"I can feel it in my gut," Thompson said. 


While every major decision runs through Cohen, Thompson is responsible for developing pitchers and finding the right roles for them on the Bulldogs' staff. Considered one of the best pitching coaches and recruiters in Division I college baseball, Thompson understands the scrutiny he faces when he makes multiple pitching moves in a game -- or in an inning. He knows piecing together a game "backwards from how its traditionally done" can be looked upon with skepticism. After 20 years as a coach, he admits some of what he has frustrated him. 


But it's hard to argue with MSU's recipe for success. 


Even though MSU (46-18) has the most bullpen appearances (194) of any of the 16 teams that are still alive, Cohen and Thompson have found ways to cobble together the pieces of their pitching staff to find the best matchups for the right situations to keep the Bulldogs' season alive. 


"We don't honestly get a lot of questions about how and why we use the pitchers the way we do," Cohen said. "I believe our fans believe Butch Thompson knows these young men, what they can do, what they can't do and how to develop plans for young arms." 


Cohen and Thompson will put that knowledge to the test this weekend against No. 6 national seed University of Virginia in the NCAA Charlottesville Super Regional at Davenport Field. Game one of the best-of-three series will be at noon Saturday (ESPN2). The winner will advance to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. 


For MSU to take the next step, its bullpen likely will have to play a key role. MSU averages using three pitchers per game, and its starting pitchers averaged only 5.59 innings per start in the Southeastern Conference, which includes three-straight complete games by senior right-hander Kendall Graveman.  


"I'm human just like anybody else, and I wish people understood I agonize over these decisions," Thompson said. "Do I even think we overdo it sometimes and we overcoach with our bullpen. Yes." 


Thompson's philosophy on how to handle the pitchers, especially his starting pitchers this season, is based on three things that have helped the Bulldogs produce the most active and, possibly, the nation's deepest bullpen.  


"The first key is you have to ask, 'Does this give us the best chance to win? Will our kids buy into it?' Finally, (you ask), 'Can it be revised based on matchups throughout a game or season?' " Thompson said. "When you have 15-16 guys that can throw it 90 mph, have talent, and can execute multiple pitches to lefties and righties, I guess the question is why wouldn't you utilize that as a weapon in a game. I know people in the stands see me come out and replace a guy in a 1-2 count and go, 'Oh boy, here we go again with the overcoaching,' but we've allowed under four runs in over 50 games this season. Something is working here at Mississippi State." 


Graveman can attest to that. The 6-foot-1, 197-pound right-hander from Alexander City, Ala., entered this season as the team's most experienced pitcher (29 starts in 196 1/3 innings). He has matured from a pitcher who served primarily as a reliever as a freshman but also started four games en route to a 2-4 record with a 7.02 ERA. Graveman improved as a sophomore and went 5-0 with a 3.65 ERA in 14 games (nine starts). Last season, he established himself as a mainstay on the staff with a team-leading 16 starts and 89 2/3 innings, which was the second-highest total on the team. 


This season, Graveman (6-5, 2.94), who is expected to start game one Saturday, has more than double the number of innings pitched than all but three other pitchers -- Ross Mitchell (83), Luis Pollorena (77), and Jacob Lindgren (56) -- on staff. His 98 innings and 16 starts lead the team. He has the squad's only three complete games. 


"Coach Thompson is like a father to me, and I know a lot of the other pitches feel the same way, too," Graveman said. "We don't feel like we're on a short leash when we're out there, I promise you. Are we mad at the time when we're taken out? Sure. But we also believe our next best pitcher is just as good and going to get it done." 


In the 2013 NCAA Starkville Regional championship game, Thompson went to the bullpen after 2 1/3 innings and summoned senior left-hander Chad Girodo to replace junior right-hander Ben Bracewell.  


"I'm sure fans think there's no rhyme or reason to what coach Thompson and coach Cohen are doing with the matchups and the bullpen roles," MSU sophomore closer Jonathan Holder said. "It does take a while to get used to as a player, but eventually you realize it's about trust. It's about having faith in them and knowing they have faith in us as pitchers." 


Bracewell had only allowed one hit before he gave way to Girodo, who was about to face off against the University of Central Arkansas' right-handed dominant lineup. In front of 8,662 fans at Dudy Noble Field, Thompson knew he was working on a tightrope with the fans, but it was one he felt comfortable with because of the depth on this season's staff.  


"It's such a fine line between being the goat and the hero anymore that maybe I'm deflecting the blame of the kids onto me," Thompson said. "Even at this level where the kids should feel responsible for the results, I probably prefer it that way." 


In the 6-1 victory against UCA that secured MSU's trip to Virginia, Bracewell and Girodo combined for 17 strikeouts. Still, Thompson understands the questions after Girodo struck out 12 in the final 6 1/3 innings in what looked like an flipped pitching order in the box score. 


"If that box score is flipped and Benny finished the final 2 1/3 innings then we're not here discussing this and that's just because fans aren't used to and don't get used to something that isn't conventional," Thompson said. "Catering to how the casual or normal baseball fan is used to seeing the game played isn't what I'm worried. Coach Cohen promotes having a creative approach to the game, and with the new bats we're winning with pitching and defense in 2013. We're winning by putting our kids in the best chance to succeed. We're not just sitting back and hoping for something good to happen." 


Thompson said the key is mixing highly competitive starting pitchers who are unselfish and not driven by individual accolades.  


"Do I worry about promoting the idea of not teaching our starters how to pitch out of trouble? Yes. Every day I worry about that," Thompson said. "People don't believe me when I say I'd rather throw a starter and then a closer for nine innings and call it a day. That'd be the easy thing for everybody. I guess in 2013 at Mississippi State we're not interested in doing it the easily explainable way. We're interested in winning baseball games with the best talent we have." 




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