Actually, from a re-tweeting of the announcement this freshman would get the ball for Mississippi State’s SEC Tournament opener with Arkansas. And “It was very close in proximity of time!” Coach John Cohen clarified about making it official. However transmitted, it was good news to Woodruff and the right call for the Bulldogs.
Because in his first start against a SEC opponent, Woodruff was a winner. As was his team in a 9-1 first-round rout of Arkansas. Woodruff did the hard part for five full and scoreless innings to maintain a much smaller lead, before turning the ball over to the Bulldog bullpen to limit late damage.
Woodruff was up to the pressure. The opportunity, too, which produced that first college victory.
“Coming in I was a little anxious, a little nervous. You know, my first SEC start,” he said. “But after I got in and settled down I was fine.”
All the more so when a great big fly off 1B Wes Rea’s bat gave Woodruff a 3-0 lead in the second inning. That was all Woodruff had to work with the rest of his stint, and it was sufficient. “After Wes hit his home run and we got three runs up I just settled in after that and had to throw strikes and let my defense work.” The final margin was supplied in the top of the ninth on a few timely hits and some untimely Arkansas errors.
Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson spent much of Monday debating who to hand the ball against Arkansas. The usual starters were all ruled-out due to short rests after the weekend sweep of Kentucky. But Woodruff had not tossed since last Tuesday’s non-conference start, the third of this year. With a well-stocked bullpen, then, the rookie got a fourth start…only this time against a conference club.
While Woodruff would have understood another selection, he wanted this chance to throw in a big show. “I was kind of anxious to get the start. I’m fortunate I got the opportunity and my teammates were behind me. I tried to make the most of my opportunity.”
Two-hitting a potent Razorback order qualified as making the most. Woodruff (1-2) only walked one and while he also plunked three batters none scored. He also fanned five, three of those ending innings, and stranded seven in a performance with as much grit as guile.
MSU middle-men Caleb Reed and Ross Mitchell combined for 2.1 innings during which Arkansas did get a run. But 3-1 was as close as this game ever got with another rookie righty sealing the deal. Jonathan Holder took care of the last five outs with no hits or runs to get his seventh save. That is the most by a freshman reliever since 1979, and Holder has yet to allow a run in his 24.1 college innings.
Arkansas sophomore stud Ryne Stanek (6-4) took the loss. The righthander was coming off a tough stretch of back spasms and a sore shoulder from a batted ball to make a short stint last weekend. But Bulldogs took nothing for granted as Stanek had shut them out six-plus innings in a win two months ago.
“I think he’s one of the great arms in our league and was so good against us in Starkville,” Cohen said. “His breaking ball was so good today we struggled early. But our kids just kept competing. Today he gave us a few more advantage counts.”
Along with one great big advantage pitch that set the game’s course in the top of the second inning. Stanek erased a first-frame walk on a double-play, then opened the second with a free pass of CF Hunter Renfroe. An out later the runner was on third base and LF Demarcus Henderson on second after a liner just over first base for a double.
Rea, 0-of-1 officially against Stanek in their first meeting, had a better and bigger result this time. He took a fastball away for ball-one, then turned on a fast-ball in for home run. The high drive caromed off the second fence behind leftfield.
Not, Rea said, that he was going deep on purpose. “We had second and third and I was really thinking small and trying to get under something, get it in the outfield in a RBI situation. But with the velocity that guy was throwing the ball kind of jumped for me.”
So did State’s odds of winning this matchup. Little came easily for Woodruff though as he had to battle through some serious challenges. In the first inning Arkansas had a pair in scoring positions before Woodruff got a called strikeout of Derrick Bleeker. The third frame shaped up as real danger when order-topper Tim Carver bounced a one-out double down the left line. A two-out plunking and walk loaded all bases with Bleeker up again. A calming mound-meeting later Woodruff threw three strikes to strand all.
“When I got in the jam I knew I had to throw strikes, I knew I had to keep the ball down because if I got something elevated they were going to get it in the air. I tried to get soft contact, get a double-play or a punch-out and worked down in the zone. That’s all I was worried about.”
Fine fielding by SS Adam Frazier made for a fast fourth inning, but the fifth shaped up differently starting with a single by the nine-hole Hog. An out later Woodruff had two strikes on Dominic Ficociello only to plunk him for a pair on. The situation deepened as Rea booted a routine roller, leaving loaded bases with one out instead of two down and two on with the cleanup batter Brian Anderson swinging.
And, grounding right back to Woodruff for the force at home and first to sustain the shutout one more inning. “It was a fastball, down and away. He just kind of capped it off the end, fortunately it came to me to make the play and get out of a big jam.”
That was the last batter Woodruff worked, too. Reed got two quick outs in the bottom of the sixth before a Bo Bigham double. It ought not have mattered with a short roller to the left side by John Reeves but 3B Sam Frost crossed-up Frazier for an infield single and runners on third and first. Lefthander Mitchell was given this jam.
Matt Vinson put Arkansas on the board at last by taking a 0-2 pitch into rightfield, but Mitchell lined Carver out to center for a 3-1 score. The pitcher also benefited from a marvelous defensive effort by Frazier in the seventh. The shortstop went behind the bag to snare a Jimmy Bosco grounder, glove-flipped it backwards to new 2B Matthew Britton for one out and a just-in-time relay.
But the Bulldogs could not pad their lead despite runners each inning, usually Frazier as he regularly reached. A bases-loaded seventh was most frustrating as C Mitch Slauter smashed a grounder towards the middle that shortstop Carver somehow got on a do-or-die reach, starting a twin-killing as well. But Arkansas luck, or more accurately defense, ran out in the ninth.
Britton hit his way on and was able to run ahead of a Frazier ground ball to make second safely. Barrett Astin replaced Brandon Moore and did get a ground-out but it put Britton on third, which mattered. Because after plunking DH Trey Porter, not only did Astin throw ball-four to Renfroe but catcher Reeves let it get past the mitt for the 4-1 lead.
The backbreaker came on Slauter’s short-hop to third base. Ficociello, moved to that corner earlier after an injury to starter Matt Reynolds, fielded it just fine. His throw over was high and awry though allowing pinch-runner Tyler Fullerton and Renfroe to score unchallenged.
Neither side was done contributing to the final margin. Henderson singled and Rea walked for loaded bases. Reliever Chris Oliver was brought in to face Frost. The hometown boy not only added a pair of RBI on his single to rightfield, but a bungled relay allowed Rea to jog on across as well. The only silver lining for Arkansas was all six runs were unearned.
But, still counted on the scoreboard and allowed Holder to rock and fire and sit the ninth-inning side on three routine fly balls. Stanek (6-4) took the loss on three runs, four hits, three uncharacteristic walks and five strikeouts. Arkansas also lost a key part of the order as third baseman Matt Reynolds took a Woodruff pitch off the elbow in the first inning. It hit a nerve, literally, and led to some dugout nausea and a defensive change.
But that was one of Woodruff’s rare gaffes on a break-out day. Aided, of course, by Rea’s game-changing blast. “I think that enabled our kids to relax a little bit and just play,” Cohen said. “And you can’t say enough about Woody as a freshman in his first SEC start. He did a great job shoving it in the strike zone and getting soft contact.”
This was the first Bulldog success in Hoover since the 2005 championship game win over Ole Miss. The reward for this one is a Wednesday mid-day meeting with regular season champions LSU, after a loser’s round game between Arkansas (39-18) and Ole Miss (34-23).
As of this posting, Cohen and Thompson were still picking their Wednesday starter with ace Chris Stratton the most likely selection. At least he will be part of the decision process meeting with his coaches, and not learn anything on a twitter.