May 14, 2014 10:34:45 AM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State associate head coach/pitching coach Butch Thompson is going to have a hard time convincing fans the way he uses his bullpen is still unconventional.
But Thompson also doesn't need to encourage fans his philosophy works, either. No. 20 MSU (33-19, 16-11 Southeastern Conference) will have to find ways to win games in the next few weeks with a pitching staff that has once again been built from the back end.
"It can't be overstated how much coach Thompson has gotten each of those guys prepared for those type of moments," MSU coach John Cohen said. "I just wish we could score more runs for our pitching staff."
MSU has seven of its 16 conference wins from pitchers considered to be high-level bullpen contributors. Junior left-hander Jacob Lindgren has been one of the biggest contributors. The former 12th-round pick by the Chicago Cubs out of high school has taken extremely well to the middle reliever role MSU has carved out for him after struggling as a starter last season.
"You get to a point where you feel like the game can be won or lost in a moment and Lindgren is our best guy," Cohen said. "He is our best swing-and-miss guy, and there's just nobody putting a good swing on his breaking ball."
After lowering his conference ERA from 5.20 in 2013 to a league-low 0.60 this season, the left-hander has used 2014 to almost match his career strikeout total (89) entering this season. Lindgren leads all relief pitchers with 82 strikeouts thanks to a overpowering fastball-slider combination. He also leads the country with 16.8 strikeouts per nine innings.
On Monday, Perfect Game named Lindgren the 45th-best prospect in the 2014 Major League Baseball draft. In addition, Lindgren was named a finalist for the C Spire Ferriss Trophy, which is given to the top collegiate player in the state of Mississippi. On Tuesday, MLB.com's draft analyst Jonathan Mayor named Lindgren the 41st-best prospect in the draft, saying it's "unlikely that he'll last past the second round of the draft."
Also Tuesday, Lindgren was named to the watch list for the 2014 Gregg Olson Award, which is given annually to college baseball's breakout player of the year. The Bay St. Louis native is riding a streak of 14 1/3 consecutive innings without an earned run, which includes 5 1/3 innings of shutout relief Sunday in a 4-3 victory against Tennessee. Lindgren tied a career-high in relief with eight strikeouts and no walks to earn his fourth victory.
"You just know our pitching staff can keep us in a game if we're lucky enough to get some key hits down the stretch," Lindgren said. "Coming off some big wins, the confidence is really high, and it gives us good thoughts going forward."
With Ross Mitchell moving into the starting rotation at the start of SEC season, MSU's search for a second left-hander out of the bullpen might have ended. Lucas Laster threw 5 2/3 innings of relief Sunday. His performance in his last three outings has helped the junior college transfer lower his ERA from 4.76 to 1.52 in less than a month.
"The positive in the ballgame Sunday is Lucas Laster and Lingo coming in and doing what they did," Cohen said. "They gave us a dominating performance on the mound and allowed us to win."
With Chad Girodo, Ben Bracewell, Mitchell, Lindgren, and closer Jonathan Holder in the bullpen last season, MSU could shorten games, which was one of the keys to its run to its first College World Series championship series. With a lot of the same pieces on hand this season, MSU hopes its hitting will respond to give those relievers a chance to be as effective as they were in 2013.
"It's all about roles, and this year it took a little bit longer for us to find those roles and get comfortable with them," Holder said. "What's happening now is the guys are starting to understand how they can contribute to this team."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.
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