February 15, 2014 11:22:53 PM
STARKVILLE -- The major questions following the Mississippi State baseball team's first series of the season may have been solved Saturday by an unexpected individual.
MSU starting pitchers recorded one quality start against Western Carolina in the first two games of the season, but it didn't come from the projected ace of the staff. Instead, junior right-hander Trevor Fitts defied the pitch counts that typically don't allow for long outings and threw six strong innings to lead MSU to a 6-1 victory before a crowd of 9,187 at Dudy Noble Field.
"Trevor really set the tone for us today," MSU coach John Cohen said. "It was big for him to go out there and navigate the first five or six innings before we finally got some balls to fall."
Fitts scattered seven hits, walked two, and struck out 11 in a 99-pitch outing. He set career highs for innings in a start and strikeouts by using his fastball to get ahead early in counts. Fitts proved he still has the swing-and-miss action on his breaking ball that he displayed last season, but he also showed composure to work out of several jams.
"I was just trying to make pitches and it's honestly better when I don't know my pitch count, so I don't ask," Fitts said. "One time this summer I threw about 140 pitches and they asked me if I was OK and I said yes, but when they told me my pitch count my arm started to get sore."
Of the team's 71 starting assignments last year, MSU had only 17 quality starts, which forced the bullpen to account for more than 65 percent of the innings pitched.
"What an outing from Trevor does for us is give us options with our bullpen and allows guys to be available to go win a series, and that's why it's so important," Cohen said. "We think having fresh quality arms is the strength of our club."
In choosing Brandon Woodruff to be the team's opening day starting pitcher, MSU would have expected the junior right-hander to be the one to set the rotation up for the rest of the weekend. But the highly recruited Woodruff struggled to get three outs Friday night in a 3-2 loss. Woodruff, who is coming off labrum surgery and was a fifth-round draft pick out of Wheeler High School, allowed two hits, walked four, and gave up two runs in a 50-pitch outing that lasted two batters into the second inning.
In 13 career starts at MSU, Woodruff has won two games and hasn't gotten out of the second inning three times in the past two seasons.
"I thought Woody was a little amped up and probably a little bit overly competitive," Cohen said Friday. "He's a guy we really think will help us down the stretch and will have to be better than he was tonight."
MSU is 6-1 in Woodruff's past seven outings dating back to 2013, but Woodruff didn't help his cause by hitting his first batter and walking the next one. Cohen, catcher Zack Randolph, first baseman Wes Rea all made visits to the mound to try to help Woodruff work through the slow start.
"Clearly the ballgame was lost in the first inning," Cohen said.
Woodruff's struggles forced Ross Mitchell to the bullpen less than 30 minutes after the start. Mitchell responded, though, by scattering six hits in a career-best eight innings. The junior left-hander walked one and struck out a career-high seven in an 87-pitch outing. Mitchell aided his effort with three double play groundballs in his 35th career relief appearance.
"With a great pitcher like Woodruff, you would expect he'd be able to go six or seven innings, and we expect him to do that next time," Mitchell said. "It was just one of those days out there for him."
Meanwhile, Fitts responded to his challenge by dominating an aggressive Catamounts lineup.
"Trevor's curveball and changeup are even better than they were a year ago, so he can neutralize left-handed hitters and they started seven left-handed bats on him," Cohen said.
In a contrast to MSU (1-1), Western Carolina rode a special performance by junior ace Jeremy Null on Friday. Null, a 6-foot-8 right-hander, allowed three hits in eight scoreless innings. His 12 strikeouts were the third-highest total of his college career. Last year, he struck out 13 against Washington State and 14 in an eight-inning outing against Georgia Southern. The Seattle Mariners drafted the 2011 Rawlings Atlantic All-Region team selection out of high school in the 37th round. He showcased why he was drafted with a two-pitch arsenal of a 90-93 mph fastball and a swing-and-miss slider. Null didn't allow a baserunner to advance past first base until his final inning in a 113-pitch effort. The performance came a few hours after an eight-hour bus ride.
Western Carolina was forced to take the long trip after Winter Storm Pax affected the schedules of numerous teams in the Southeast. MSU was forced to scrap its scheduled four-game series against Hofstra after the Pride couldn't get out of New York to get to Mississippi. Western Carolina's scheduled series against Ohio also had to be canceled, but the teams worked quickly to make sure the weekend wasn't lost.
"This is a SEC-caliber team we're playing this weekend, and they proved it tonight," Cohen said Friday. "They won 39 games last year and they're going to win that many and maybe more this year because they're older with a bunch of juniors and seniors."
Today, MSU likely will turn to fifth-year senior Ben Bracewell. The Birmingham, Ala., native, who has suffered through a career marred by injuries, will make his third-consecutive start in an opening weekend. He hopes this start is the first of many that help him stay healthy to keep his offseason promise of 100 innings in his final season.
"It's become a running joke around the locker room that here I am standing in front of hundreds of father and sons saying I'm going to do this," Bracewell said. "That's a lot of innings for anybody, but we'll have a really good season if I can just make every start I'm supposed to."
Bracewell's 30 2/3 innings in 21 games marked the highest total of his MSU career. The 6-foot right-hander hopes to improve on that number as a key component of the Bulldogs' starting rotation after serving mostly in a relief role last season.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.
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