On Memorial Day 2012, the Diamond Dogs accomplished something that will be remembered by Dudy Noble denizens a long, long time. #7 seed Mississippi State scratched out their usual handful of early runs and used outstanding pitching to defeat #5 seed Vanderbilt 3-0 for the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship.
It was Mississippi State’s seventh league tournament title since the event began in the 1970s. But it was the first for a Bulldog team since 2005, a drought that ended when SS Adam Frazier flipped a ground ball off the bat of Commodore Tony Kemp to 2B Matthew Britton for the final out of the long, grueling week.
Not that these Dogs couldn’t find enough leftover energy to pile together in championship celebration. Including iron man C Mitch Slauter who backstopped every pitch of the week’s 55 innings. “It’s about the hard work we put in, the preparation. You couldn’t ask for a better group of guys to put that together.”
“This is awesome,” said senior RF Brent Brownlee. “This is what we’ve been trying to play for.”
Mississippi State has won a bunch of Southeastern Conference trophies but the one these Diamond Dogs bring home from Hoover has to rank among the most remarkable. Whether it was as the first SEC squad to play six consecutive days in the event; the first to win this expanded format; the first time they took a title with a shutout; or just that John Cohen made history for winning a league tourney as both player and coach at his school, everything about the 2012 championship was special. Extraordinary even.
And the winners knew it. “I mean, we just came in and won the SEC Tournament,” Chris Stratton said. “We played six games in six days and really competed our tails off.”
Most of all in the finale, which was remarkable enough in its own right. All three Bulldog runs came on something other than a base hit, a freshman pitcher got his second start of the season in the same week. Oh, and an All-American starter sure to be drafted next week became a closer.
It worked, too, as Stratton entered with just one out remaining between State and their trophy. He rolled order-topper Kemp out for the first and likely only save of his college career. In the process he made a winner of Ross Mitchell, who earned every iota of his victory.
Entering for the top of the fourth inning with a 1-0 lead, the freshman lefthander survived a couple of base hits and close plate-calls to begin his strong 5.0 inning outing. It wasn’t easy, as five Commodore hits and a couple of walks. But all remained unscored as Mitchell (2-0) ground through his fourth Hoover appearance.
“I felt fine, the coach had faith in me. I wanted to go out there. I also knew I had two all-Americans behind me that could get it done. I was going to go as long as I could and try to save the rest of the arms.” He did just that as a series of staffmates got up to loosen or actively warm, then retake a seat as Mitchell kept going and throwing.
But Mitchell’s wasn’t the only moundsman contributing to the shutout. Fellow frosh Brandon Woodruff, the starter back on distant day-one’s win over Arkansas, got the ball again. It was something of a gamble by Cohen and Butch Thompson that the rookie righty could get this game going under control. And they rolled a winning combination.
“Brandon got us off to a great start,” Slauter said. “I told him before the game give me what you can, every bit you can, go as long as you can. And we’re going to take care of the rest.” 3.0 scoreless opening innings with a hit, two walks, and two strikeouts exceeded the need as it turned out.
After, though, surviving an immediate Vanderbilt challenge. In the top of the very first Woodruff gave a leadoff walk to Kemp, with Mike Yastrzemski bunting no nicely to the right side he reached on a scratch single. A successful sacrifice had both runners positioned to score with one out.
Woodruff didn’t back down but came right after cleanup batter Conrad Gregor, who cranked a line-shot right into 1B Wes Rea’s big mitt. Rea flipped over to second base for a double-play. “When that happened I knew we had a good chance,” SS Adam Frazier said. “When we got out of that with no runs it was huge.”
Vanderbilt freshman Tyler Beede got this start and stranded two Dogs in the first inning. He had the 0-0 deadlock an out into the third turn when Frazier knocked a base hit into leftfield. Another out later DH Trey Porter worked a walk. CF Hunter Renfroe just missed a RBI as his infield single was stopped at shortstop.
But all bases were occupied. Nor did the Dogs have to swing for a run here as Beebe’s first fastball to LF Demarcus Henderson missed the mitt for a wild pitch bringing Frazier across.
While Bulldog pitchers are used to one-run margins, some padding in the fourth put the real pressure on Vanderbilt. Slauter led off with his oppo-field single and was joined by 2B Sam Frost with a one-out walk. On full-count 3B Daryl Norris got nailed on the shoulder to load all bases, and force a pitching change. Steven Rice’s stint lasted just four pitches, all balls to a watching Frazier for another free run as Slauter made it 2-0.
And this time State did score a bonus run. Bases were still full so a tailing Brownlee fly-ball to rightfield sufficed to score Frost. That would be all the offense MSU mustered, none of the three runners plated by a base hit. “That’s what we need to get runs sometimes,” Frazier said, adding “With three runs up and our pitching staff it felt pretty comfortable.”
For their part the pitchers felt confident with their defenders. After Mitchell was hit twice with two outs in his first turn, Frost kept the 1-0 lead at the time going into the hole to rob Connor Harrell of a single. Mitchell had few troubles in the fifth and sixth beside a two-out walk negated by a grounder. The seventh inning was much more intense as with two down a couple of close calls, or non-calls, on good pitches walked pinch-batter Chris Harvey.
Another pinch-man, Will Cooper, was given second life when a check-swing was not called a strike. He bounced the next offering past new third baseman Frost’s glove for a double and two in scoring positions. That also brought up the top of the Commodore order for the big chance. Though the bullpen was busy, Mitchell was not asking for relief.
“I was going to throw my best, as hard as I could,” he said. “Tony Kemp is a great batter but I wanted to face him, he’s one of my friends.” What Mitchell did wasn’t chummy as on 2-2 he stepped off the mound, gathered himself, and came with a high slider that at last moment slid down-and-across the plate. Kemp missed it by inches.
A two-out Vanderbilt double in the eighth did no damage either as on full-count Mitchell fanned Spencer Navin on another slider. “I wasn’t trying to strike them out,” Mitchell said, “I was just using the same approach of fastballs and sneak a slider in there. I threw that quite a bit and had a couple of strikeouts on it.”
He also used up whatever was left in the tank getting that last out. Riley Reynolds showed bunt and was plunked as a result of moving in. Harvey nearly took Mitchell’s cap off with a line-shot single for two on and no outs. That was Caleb Reed’s cue. With a lefthander pinching against the right arm, Connor Castellano pounded a 1-2 grounder right to shortstop for the double play. But when Reed plunked yet another pinch-batter, Stratton got his chance to close one out.
And did so, triggering the celebration. Three runs had been enough after all, aided by errorless defense. “We just pitched our tails off today,” Cohen said. “That’s a good offensive club that won nine games in a row and can score in a bunch of ways. I thought our staff, along with Mitch, neutralized a lot of things they tried to do.” And the Commordores just were not able to knock rubber-arm Mitchell out of the game until too late.
“They had a short leash on me many times, but they believed in me and I believed in everybody behind me was going to make a play. So I kept pitching, staying down in the zone, and it worked.”
State had seven hits with two each by Slauter and Renfroe, though none for RBI of course. But then neither did any of Vanderbilt’s six hits drive someone in, and the Commodores were unable to get the breaks or force the mistakes that led to Bulldog victory. A State team on its literal last legs played errorless defense.
“They were playing off fumes today,” said Cohen. But the Diamond Dogs also got some outside assistance from a horde of fans showing up for the championship game. Of the 12,526 at the park, 90% at least were cheering for Mississippi State…as likely were the Regions Park and SEC officials at the huge walk-up turnout.
“We brought the fans today, everybody was excited,” Brownlee said. “We were just proud we could get a win for them.” Along with a 21st win this season against a SEC opponent, most by any league team for 2012…and of course the trophy, tee-shirts, and caps that commemorate a Championship.
After their amazing, exhausting grind it would be easy for the Bulldogs to sit back—or lay around—all Monday and recharge. But they won’t. All will be awaiting word of where Mississippi State is bound for their NCAA regional, with the announcement show beginning at 11:00am. This team has done something not accomplished by a Bulldog bunch in several years with a conference trophy.
Now they hope to surpass the 2011 team’s run into a super regional and play for the biggest prize of all. It starts Friday, somewhere. Just tell them the address, when to show up, and who to play, Brownlee said.
“We’re going to come out with the same intensity and the same focus and just get it done.”