Rookie Pitchers Combine For 7-4 Dog Victory

So what if he's just a freshman? Kendall Graveman knew the right answer when pitching coach Butch Thompson came to the mound two outs into the top of the eighth inning with the tying Michigan State runner on second base. "He said do you want this guy?" the rookie righthander reported. "And I said yes, sir."

Graveman indeed got that guy—specifically Spartan centerfielder Brandon Eckerle—on a ground-out to second base to maintain the one-run lead that the Mississippi State offense expanded to a final margin of 7-4 victory. The win began day-two of the BankFirst Baseball Challenge at Dudy Noble Field, with the host Bulldogs facing Southeast Missouri State in a following contest. Mississippi State, which beat SEMO Friday evening, was 6-3 while Michigan State fell to 5-3.

But this was the same Spartan team that Friday afternoon had beaten the Redhawks in extra-innings. So a one-run margin that had been scratched out in the bottom of the fifth frame was not something the Bulldogs were taking for granted. Not after Michigan State got a tying runner on the paths via a Graveman walk, and saw him take second on an errant pickoff play.

Thus the mound conversation where Thompson checked if his true frosh was up to the challenge of facing a 25th batter in only his third college outing. State had a couple of closers ready to roll out of the bullpen but Graveman wanted the opportunity and got it. "He said be careful with him, we've got an open base," Graveman said. "So I knew if we walked him we had another guy coming in. But it felt good to go that long."

And even better when Eckerle's roller was scooped by 2B Sam Frost and flipped to first base to end Michigan State's last real chance. Because another frosh, Ben Bracewell, had readied to finish out the affair. The righthander didn't just close the door, he slammed it with three-straight strikeouts of the heart of Michigan State's order. "That was as good as Ben has been all year," said Coach John Cohen as Bracewell picked up his first college save.

Graveman got his first decision as well, a winning one as he worked 5.2 innings in relief of starter Chad Girodo. He was tagged with five of Michigan State's ten base hits but only one charged run, with a strikeout and two walks. Run-in during the third inning to strand a pair of Spartans, Graveman took care of that inning…then the next, and next, and on.

"I really didn't expect to go that long. I saw some guys active in the bullpen early. But he kept going to fastballs and we were getting early outs so I wasn't throwing as many pitches each inning, I knew I cold keep going." Graveman's stint was 76 pitches, officially.

"Kendall struggled early but he really found it," said Cohen. "He's going to be special."

Spartan starter Kurt Wunderlich may not have had as special a day but was impressive enough in his own right, working seven complete innings and surviving seven hits with five runs. Wunderlich (2-1) walked two and struck out five Dogs, though he also failed to defend a 4-3 lead in the middle innings.

But it was the Bulldogs grabbing the early lead. Very early in fact, scoring three times in their first inning. RF Luke Adkins got the first of three doubles in the frame and was bunted over by LF Trey Johnson so that he could score on a grounder by 1B Connor Powers. A walk of C Cody Freeman kept the inning going so CF Jaron Shepherd could swing to cover Freeman's move. He did better than that with a double that allowed Freeman go come all the way first-to-home unchallenged. Then it was 3B Jet Butler's turn as he lofted a medium-deep fly down the left sideline. Leftfielder Bo Felt made a diving effort to get glove on ball…which came free as he crash-landed out of bounds. Butler made it a double as Shepherd scored for the 3-0 lead.

Which did not last out the top of the second as the Spartans got a fix on freshman Girodo. With one out and one on third baseman Andrew Carpenter smacked a RBI-triple to the right-centerfield track, scoring Jeff Holm. Designated hitter Chris Roberts was even more impressive as he crushed a two-run shot over rightfield for the 3-3 tie. Girodo needed a grounder to first base to strand the go-ahead runner between second and third.

"Chad was pitching arm-side, not like we felt he could pitch and found some bats early," Cohen said. A leadoff double and walk in the Spartan third had him in further trouble, especially when what should have been an easy rundown of the lead runner was miss-played into men on second and third with no outs. Girodo coaxed a crisp grounder to second off the cleanup batter that neither runner dared advance on, then State made the mound move with Graveman inheriting the jam.

He handled it nicely. Felt took the first pitch to short center but Shepherd dashed in for the catch to hold everyone; then on full count he had to run the other way for an inning-ending grab. "That's huge to get that first out right there," Graveman said. "Coach Thompson called good pitches in that sequence and Cody was catching great, working the ball in-and-out. And we got out of that jam."

Graveman's real jam was his first full inning as in the top of the fourth. Consecutive singles and a walk loaded the bases with one down before Eckerle put his team up for the first time with a single through the left side that still had all posts occupied. Graveman needed a pop-foul from Jonathan Roof and Holm fly ball to get back in the dugout down only 4-3.

From there though the rookie was on top of his stuff, and the Spartans. "I was trying to overthrow a little bit and wasn't getting as much movement. But after the second inning it was a lot more movement on the fastball and you see the off-speed starting showing up. Towards the end we were going more to off-speed and changeups." He would take care of 18 more batters without yielding any other runs; in fact with just a two-out double in the fifth and infield single in the seventh against his linescore.

"I've seen in intrasquad games his stuff is really good and has so much movement," Cohen said. "If he can just get past those first 15 pitches he is really good."

Graveman was also pitching with a tie by the time he returned, after Shepherd dropped a clean triple on the track in the MSU fourth and scored on a fly to center from Butler. An inning later the Bulldogs put their pitcher in winning position with some smart manufacturing. Leadoff man Frost dropped a bunt down the right line for a single and after showing bunt Adkins punched a single up the middle. Johnson worked a walk to load the bases so Powers could get a second ground-ball RBI for the 5-4 lead.

Wunderlich's labors ended after he left a Dog on third base in the seventh, with righty Tim Simpson opening the eighth. He did so by walking Powers, with Freeman executing the bunt nicely. Michigan State opted to make another move and let lefthander Trey Popp pitch to Shepherd. And, walk him. With two outs SS Jonathan Ogden got his first hit of the day, a big one lined into leftfield for two bases and as many RBI. Bracewell made that three-run cushion hold up.

Michigan State out-hit State in total, ten to eight, and had the only homer of the day. But Bulldogs four doubles and a triple, and more to the point got the timely contact to drive in runners from third base as well as well-place hits. "We needed that," said Cohen. "And we made a couple of adjustments. I feel our kids are going to hit, it's just got to be more line-drive, ground balls." Powers did not get a base hit but drove in two runs, while Butler and Ogden both plated a pair. Only Shepherd had two hits.

Eckerle, Roberts, and Ryan Jones all had a pair of hits for Michigan State. But it wasn't enough to overcome a well-rounded effort by three true freshman moundsmen for MSU. "I was really pleased with the effort of our staff," Cohen said. "If we can pitch that way and defend for the most part that way we'll be OK."

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