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Holder dominates to push MSU into regional title game

 

Matthew Stevens

 

LAFAYETTE, La. -- If you didn't know by now, the Mississippi State baseball team doesn't follow a traditional way of doing things on the mound. 

 

On Saturday, MSU's sabermetric formula worked out just fine to deliver another postseason win.  

 

With the bases loaded and the game tied at 1-1 in the fourth inning, MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson removed starter Ben Bracewell and brought in closer Jonathan Holder. Thompson didn't want to wait until the late innings to use his junior right-hander. What he wanted was someone to stop Jackson State's momentum. 

 

"He didn't get the save, he got the win tonight," MSU coach John Cohen said of Holder. "What's the difference? It's our job as coaches to determine the key moments in the game and use our best players in those situations." 

 

A strikeout by Holder helped MSU escape a bases-loaded jam and helped set the stage for a go-ahead single by Gavin Collins that led No. 17 and second-seeded MSU to a 3-1 victory and a berth in the championship round of the NCAA tournament Lafayette Regional.  

 

Saturday night marked the 25th time a MSU starter has been pulled before the end of the fifth, but it is 22-8 when one of its pitchers is given a hold or save opportunity. 

 

"There was never really a conversation about whether I would end up going the rest of the way, but I just felt like I was getting them off balance and strikes," said Holder, who struck out a career-high nine in 5 1/3 innings. "By the time the ninth inning came around, I wasn't coming out of the game." 

 

Holder went four innings in an extra-inning loss to Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference tournament last week, but Thompson was prepared to see if asking him to get 19 outs was too much.  

 

"Butch Thompson has the best saying for this that he probably stole from somebody -- like we all do in this business -- but he always preaches, 'the batter will tell you all you need to know,' " Cohen said. "Their swings told us everything we needed to know about if John had good stuff." 

 

Once MSU saw Jackson State beat No. 1 and top-seeded Louisiana-Lafayette 1-0 on Friday, th Bulldogs turned M.L. "Tigue" Moore Field into a Cajun version of Dudy Noble Field. MSU gave a large group of the fans clad in maroon and white plenty to enjoy by advancing to the championship round of regional play for the third time in four years. Since the NCAA has instituted the four-team regional round, MSU has never lost a regional round after winning the first two games. 

 

"I'd love to suggest it's all about this time of the year and we just sprinkle some magic dust over these kids, but they come to us that way," Cohen said. "They are able to slow their heart rate down and get the job done in pressure situations. That's why I'd like to sit Mr. and Mrs. Holder up here and ask them if there's any way to create another Jonathan Holder." 

 

Collins, an All-Southeastern Conference freshman team selection, proved he can produce in clutch situations like Holder by lacing a run-scoring single that snapped a 1-1 tie to give MSU its final lead. 

 

The tight-rope pitching and defense act Jackson State (32-23) accomplished Friday night didn't hold Saturday, as MSU took a 1-0 lead in the second. MSU is 31-5 this season when it scores first.  

 

MSU made solid contact against Desmond Russell all evening. A leadoff single by Cody Brown in the second turned into a run thanks to a sacrifice fly by Matthew Britton. 

 

Despite taking the loss, Russell pitched a complete game in a 129-pitch effort that allowed JSU to save its bullpen for its game today against No. 6 overall seed ULL. 

 

"He would've beat a lot of people tonight because to be 120 pitches in and still throwing over 90 mph is amazing," Cohen said. "We feel very fortunate to come away with this game." 

 

Bracewell had great swing-and-miss action early and recorded six strikeouts in the first three innings, but he walked in a run to force Thompson to make a change.  

 

After struggling with velocity and location of his fastball in Hoover, Alabama, Holder had both pitches working perfectly against the Tigers. 

 

"It was a number of scenarios that we played out before the game but hey, they picked out the right one," Jackson State coach Omar Johnson said. "We knew about the curveball, but that fastball had extra life to it tonight." 

 

Holder's outing was his second-longest of the season. It helped allows MSU (39-22) stay undefeated and move in the championship round of the regional without using top left-handed arms Ross Mitchell and Jacob Lindgren.  

 

"I had to make some physical adjustments with what I was doing with my mechanics, and I guess this is the best time to do that," Holder said. "I had to get ahead in counts because I saw on video Jackson State takes some really good, aggressive swings when they get a hitter friendly count." 

 

Cohen said Mitchell will start at 6 tonight against the winner of the ULL-JSU game. 

 

"I'd feel good being 2-0 if we'd thrown everybody because there's some good teams in this regional," Cohen said. "Having Ross for tomorrow is huge. Lindgren is going to want to pitch, too, because that's the kind of competitor he is." 

 

Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.

 

 

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