Saturday's winners bracket meeting with Jackson State was just such a setting. With Mississippi State's 1-0 lead erased on a bases loaded walk in the fourth inning and the sacks still stuffed with Tigers waiting to score, there was no question who would get the call and the ball. Or that he would deliver the Dogs somehow.
"Adrenalin is kind of my key," said Holder. "So when I get to come in situations that are high pressure, adrenalin rush, I feel my stuff is a little shaper maybe and I pound the zone."
Pound the zone? Righthander Holder crushed it. He threw a big swinging strikeout to keep the score even after four, and proceeded to dominate the Tigers for the next five scoreless frames. When his offense pushed across a pair in the top of the sixth inning, that was all Holder and Mississippi State needed to take a 3-1 win in the pivotal second round winners bracket.
Their tense victory sends Mississippi State (39-22) on to the Regional championship round Sunday. Game time is 6:05, against the survivor of Jackson State and host Louisiana-Lafayette after an elimination game at 1:00. The Bulldogs will be playing for their third super regional berth in four seasons, and even if they drop the evening game they would have a second chance on Monday.
Hopefully there will be no further need for Holder's services in Lafayette. He threw 5.1 total turns against the Tigers, tying for his second-longest outing this junior season, with 65 pitches in the process. Most of his offerings were more than Jackson State could handle as he struck out nine of the 17 faced, gave no walks or plunkings away, and allowed just one hit. For that matter there were just three ground balls despite all the cuts taken by baffled batters.
"It was a lot more boring in the field for me!" joked 2B Brett Pirtle. "But he's phenomenal. He comes in and pounds the zone and trusts his stuff. They were a team that probably hadn't seen him before and his curveball was just unhittable."
That was true, as Holder (7-1) bent pitches through the zone at 72-73 mph consistently that left Tigers flailing when they did swing. But this night he had more snap on his fastball and was clocked once at 94. As the innings ground on he relied increasingly on the heater and kept putting it past bats. And, on C Gavin Collins' mitt.
"When I see that it automatically gives me encouragement to throw that pitch again," Collins said. "It's isn't one harder to hit than the other, it's just that he mixes it up so well."
However, Holder's show was only the winning one; not the only superb display of this game. In his way Jackson State's Desmond Russell was maybe more impressive. Because the righthander went the distance, all 9.0 innings on 129 pitches with a seven-hitter. Russell (9-5) struck out seven himself and walked just two, and was uncomfortably close to controlling the big-brother program.
"I think our players will all agree, Desmond Russell was fabulous," Coach John Cohen said. "He's 100 pitches in the game and throwing 90 mph. He's just a warrior." And not so very far from a winner as he posted the ninth complete game of his season and 24th career.
"I've got to give it to them," said Russell. "I just messed up with a few pitches."
It was a few for sure as Mississippi State's offense was frustrated most of the evening. The Bulldogs didn't make use of consecutive first-inning singles off Russell, and needed a little help to get on the scoreboard in their second. RF Cody Brown led the inning off with a base hit and was running on a swing by DH Alex Detz that worked as well as a bunt. Russell's first pitch to 1B Wes Rea wasn't cleanly caught (though a wild pitch was ruled) with Collins taking third.
So Rea was thrown three more balls for a walk to set up a double-play. 3B Matt Britton made sure it did not happen with a fly ball near the centerfield track for the 1-0 lead. And that minimal margin was all Mississippi State mustered as Russell retired ten-straight through the top of the fifth inning.
State starter Ben Bracewell wasn't shabby himself either. The righthander got the opportunity with an eye to both this matchup and saving certain arms for Sunday's possibilities. For three innings the senior was in control too, facing the minimum with four swinging strikeouts of his own. True, he did allow a two-out single in the second. But Tiger Charles Tillery, a Starkville native ironically enough, hesitated on a bounced pitch before deciding to run, sort of, for second. Collins threw down and eventually Rea tagged him.
The Tiger fourth was another matter for Bracewell as command just got away. It began on a high hopper that the pitcher actually deflected on the jump, becoming an infield single by the top of the order. With the runner bunted-over, Bracewell walked the bases full; then went full-count to Tillery before missing again.
I feel so bad for Benny because he competed his tail off," Cohen said. "I think he was just trying to be too fine." Emotion didn't delay Cohen calling in Holder however…for that matter Holder might have run himself onto the field at that point after preparing. Not just in the bullpen, but in scouting. It showed when he dropped a big curve through the zone for strike-one to his first-faced.
"Getting ahead early was a key because Jackson State can swing it and when you fall behind they have a tendency to put a really good swing on the ball," Holder said. "I tried to learn watching the game last night and watching Benny do a good job today." Bryce Taylor went down swinging to end that threat. There would not be any more.
"My mindset was just be aggressive. Because I don't really know where we're at in the order but I didn't want to walk anybody in. So I had to go ahead and just trust my stuff that I was going to get an out someway. Ben had them swinging tonight so it makes my job easier when I come in and they're already swinging a little bit."
Mid-way of the sixth Holder had a lead to work with, too. LF Jake Vickerson singled in leadoff, and while using the team's top batter to sacrifice doubtless struck many as odd it is standard State procedure. And it worked too after Pirtle bumped the runner into scoring position. Because Collins roped a base hit to centerfield and Vickerson got home ahead of a wide throw for the lead.
That same throw let Collins take second as well. He had to wait on a drive by SS Seth Heck to get through before taking third on the base hit, but it worked out also. Even though Brown grounded to the second baseman the onlyout was a force at the middle-bag with no relay tried. Collins came across unchallenged for a 3-1 lead that held up.
Holder made sure of it. "He didn't get a save, he got a win," Cohen said. "We felt the game was in-hand when he came in, and we knew that is when it was going to be won or lost.
Vickerson and Pirtle had a pair of hits each to pace State, while Bracewell and Holder combined for a three-hitter and nearly a shutout.
Now the Bulldogs will await their matchup before officially declaring a Sunday evening starter. But all would be surprised, shocked actually, if LHP Ross Mitchell doesn't get the ball whoever is in the other dugout. LHP relief ace Johnathan Lindgren is also primed for an outing, long or short; and the bullpen is in good shape overall as State has only used four pitchers through two games.
Asked if he felt good being 2-0 in the Lafayette Regional without working Mitchell or Lindgren so far, "I'd feel good being 2-0 using everybody," Cohen said. "But having Ross tomorrow is big. He's a winner, incredibly competitive and our kids like playing behind him."