If left up to Mitchell's left arm, State won't be losing anything this weekend. Saturday evening his unprecedented success story as a long-reliever added another chapter, and victory. Taking over with a 2-0 deficit and a couple more Jaguars waiting to score, Mitchell held everything together for the team.
"We absolutely knew Ross was going to pitch in the game," Coach John Cohen said. "We were trying to determine when to come in." Once in, Mitchell (12-0) wasn't leaving either. He completed the game for a 5.1 inning stint, scoreless, with four hits, no walks, and a career-best five strikeouts.
"I'm just relying on my defense," Mitchell said. "I probably had more strikeouts than usual but I was trying to let them hit it early, and every time they made early contact it went to somebody." Those somebodies handled every grounder or fly ball without fail too.
"No question, Ross came in and just pounded the strike zone with sink," said Cohen. "And did what he's done all year long." Long and well enough that as best MSU records show he is the first reliever-only pitcher to double-digit victories in any season.
But even this bullpen stalwart can't score runs. That was provided in just two key innings by a Mississippi State offense that essentially picked the right spots to strike. The Bulldogs trumped South Alabama's pair of runs with four of a kind in the fifth inning; then expanded by a pair in the seventh while Mitchell was shutting the Jaguars down and out.
"It was just going to the plate and having the mindset to score on one pitch and one pitch only," said 2B Brett Pirtle, whose clutch single in the fifth put State ahead to stay.
Jaguar righthander Matt Bell (6-2) took the loss, his second-straight. He'd thrown well in a regular-season meeting with State in Mobile back in early April with a no-decision. This time Bell was on the hook despite four scoreless frames to start. He ended up charged with five runs on six hits in the 6.1 inning appearance, with four walks and two strikeouts.
Cohen's expectations for Mitchell were not a critique of State starter LHP Luis Pollorena. The senior had some initial issue before putting up three zeroes himself.
"I thought Luis was going to get out of the first inning and get back in the strike zone," Mitchell said. "Even though he was giving up singles it wasn't like he was getting behind in the count."
Pollorena did get out of the first after a walk and plunking and sat the next seven Jaguars. But an out into the fourth Nick Zaharion notched the first hit off Pollorena, with two more singles ensuing to stuff the sacks. Robby Campbell chopped a bouncer to shortstop that produced a force at the middle bag but wasn't turned into two, as Zaharion scored.
"We felt we had a great matchup on the double-play ball, we thought that was going to end the inning," Cohen said. It did not and Drew Cofield's clean single made it a 2-0 scoreboard. That brought in Mitchell for a grounder to keep it there.
Still, "I felt being down 2-0 we were going to have a great opportunity to come back and win the ball game," Cohen said. Such faith was instantly rewarded as State came to bat, though initially no rally developed as C Nick Ammirati walked between two outs.
This did bring up the top of State's order though and SS Adam Frazier slapped a single the other way. DH Alex Detz had hit safely twice already; this time he was picky and earned a bases-loading walk. RF Hunter Renfroe foul-tipped to stay alive, then nubbed a ball to the left side for an infield single and RBI as Ammirati scored.
"I gave up a few clutch walks that really hurt me," Bell said. "I guess I left a few more pitches up and they were able to hit it the other way. I threw a splitter to Renfroe to roll over but was too slow to get him."
Frazier rounded third enough to draw a throw that was wide but hit third base coach Nick Mingione and stopped instead of rolling away for at least one more run. Fortunately, Pirtle took care of that run and another with his bouncer through the right side plating Frazier and Detz. 1B Wes Rea got behind 0-2 and didn't care, slicing another of his trademark singles through the middle for the 4-2 lead.
Which put Mitchell in line for a decision, naturally, and he began protecting that lead with an in-order fifth. With two outs in the sixth consecutive bouncers got through opposite sides for a pair on, which were left stranded on a fly ball.
"Nick did a good job of calling the game backwards," Mitchell said. "Throwing curveballs in the fastball counts, and sneaking a fastball in the curveball counts." Working in-reverse worked well to strand to more Jaguars in the seventh, after a brief mound meeting with coach and infield.
Bell made it into the State seventh with a walk of Frazier and fly ball from Detz, his first out of the evening. Righthander Dylan Stamey was able to fan one Dog but not Pirtle, with a single to leftfield. Rea pounded a grounder into no-mans-land so well the Jaguar third baseman interfered with his shortstop resulting in a bases-loading error.
CF C.T. Bradford made it count too, with a two-RBI single for the 6-2 margin Mitchell put to excellent use, sitting the last six faced. Renfroe ended things in fine style by chasing down a high fly-foul in the farthest rightfield corner. Hunter Soleymani pitched the last two scoreless turns for South Alabama with a hit and two strikeouts.
Mississippi State saw its streak of eleven-straight games with double-digit hits snapped as they managed just nine safeties this time. Detz had the only extra-base hit, a double in the first inning. But all the hitting came from the first six in State's order so that the 3-4-5-6 slots were each able to drive in a run or two.
Now the Bulldogs can scout for the Sunday afternoon survivor and plan the pitching accordingly. "We'll look at it again," Cohen said. "We think Jacob Lindgren is in play, Trevor Fitts could be in play, Myles Gentry could even be a guy to start." The bullpen remains in excellent shape too with Chad Girodo, Ben Bracewell, and closer Jonathan Holder.
And, yes, a certain loose-armed lefty. Because everyone knows at some point Mitchell is headed to there to watch. To wait. And if needed, to warm.