Mitchell, Norris Lead State To 7-3 Sunday Win

The coach won't say absolutely that Sunday's slot has been won. But John Cohen also agrees that it is becoming harder to deny Evan Mitchell's current claim to become third man in the Mississippi State rotation, after the freshman's solid outing in a 7-3 decision over Georgia State.

In his second college start Mitchell kept the Panthers largely under control long enough for the Diamond Dogs put manufacture sufficient margin of both comfort and victory. The rookie righthander soldiered through the first 5.1 frames, before handing off to classmate Daryl Norris to complete the win and let Mississippi State (10-3) end the weekend with a split scorecard.

"I'm really pleased with our freshman pitching today," said Cohen. "Those are the things that really pay dividends with freshmen. Those two kids are the future of our program."

For Mitchell that future may well be the present. Scoring his third win in as many outings he struck out seven Panthers while giving up two runs on six hits with a pair of walks. "It felt nice to get back there. Last Sunday I had my first start ever, then this Sunday it went good. I left a couple of pitches up and they hit the ball pretty hard, but we stuck to the gameplan and it turned out well."

What made the stint more impressive to his coach and teammates was the fact that Mitchell was not his sharpest, much less overpowering. Georgia State made contact and put people on paths often enough to keep the contest very much in question for four or five frames. Mitchell couldn't just throw, he had to really pitch…and did.

C Wes Thigpen had the best view of how his hurler was handling the pressure. "He didn't have the best stuff but he went with what he had, threw two or three pitches for strikes so he really proved himself today."

As did Norris, making only his second appearance on the hill and the first since February 18. The also-righthanded rookie notched his first save on 3.2 innings with two hits, a run—a solo home run in the ninth specifically—and two strikeouts.

Charley Olson started for GSU and gave a better effort than his final line showed, with five runs on seven hits and a walk. He struck out six Dogs and was always close to escaping damage. "He was pretty good, he'd throw three, for pitches for strikes and mixed it well to the righties and lefties, a very good slider," said Thigpen. Though, one of those sliders wasn't that good because it was what Thigpen hit in the second inning to drive in 1B Ryan Collins for the first Bulldog run.

Mitchell was scuffling early on as he gave up a pair of two-out singles in the opening inning, though fortunately the lead Panther was baited into trying for third on the second safety and was thrown out. In the second again with two down GSU's Rob Lind dropped a single in front of an uncertain LF Nick Vickerson, then Mitchell came inside too far on both the eight and nine batters to hit them and load all bases.

Order-topper Mark Micowski went full-count before watching a breaking ball on the outside corner for the called strikeout. "Wes called it and I felt confident and threw it right in," shrugged Mitchell. Others made more of that key moment. "He had a 3-2 breaking ball that he threw, which is really gutsy, and he threw it right down the middle of the plate and got a punch-out," Cohen said. "That was huge."

So was getting the first MSU runs up right afterwards. Collins got the initial base hit and SS Jonathan Ogden's grounder ate up his Panther counterpart for an error. With the GSU infield tight CF Jaron Shepherd sliced a single through the right side, though so close to the second baseman Collins had to be sure it was through before taking third and could not score. Thigpen grounded to the shortstop as well, but by running hard to first he beat the relay and prevented a double-play allowing Collins to score. 2B Sam Frost followed with a clean single through the right side for a 2-0 lead.

Mitchell held that lead a whole inning, erasing a single/steal with a pickoff in the third. But he was tagged for a double to open the fourth, and after a one-out walk Aaron Schmitz lined a two-bagger of his own into the leftfield corner. Both runners scored to tie it up, and Mitchell needed two more strikeouts to strand the go-ahead Panther.

"I knew just to calm down and take a deep breath and get back to the plan, keep pitching and keep chugging and listening to what Coach (Butch) Thompson and Wes were telling me."

His offense got both scores right back, too. Collins singled and Ogden took one for the team, and after flashing bunt a few times Shepherd earned a walk to load them all. Thigpen roped the first pitch into centerfield for the lead, and with two outs RF C.T. Bradford shot a single over shortstop scoring Ogden.

An inning later it was a case of hustling out another run. DH Cody Freeman singled to open the frame and with two outs was joined on the paths by Shepherd via plunking. With Thigpen at bat and a 2-2 count Shepherd jumped before the pitch and drew a rundown, giving Freeman a delayed chance to charge home. The Panthers reacted late, threw high, and Freeman slid across for a 5-2 lead.

After a walk and fly ball out Mitchell was excused for Norris. GSU's Lind met him with a bunt that Norris fielded and fired for an out at first, and State nearly caught the runner at second as well. It didn't matter as Norris shot down Schmitz.

He also returned to the hill for the seventh with a 6-2 lead. Brent Brownlee subbed in for Vickerson and hit his way on. Bradford walked and both stole successfully into scoring spots. It mattered because 3B Jarrod Parks lifted a fly ball far enough to rightfield for Brownlee to tag and touch home.

Georgia State gave the ball to Brandon Bast for the Bulldog seventh, leaving a pair on the paths. In the eighth he was an out in before a Bradford single and walks of Parks and Freeman. Collins grounded up the middle for a RBI-force play at second, Bradford making the last State score. Schmitz got his second hit and third RBI of the GSU day with the solo shot in the ninth but Norris wasn't rattled and ended it with routine outings.

"The way Daryl came in and threw the baseball is something we really needed because we play so many games in a short amount of time," Cohen said. "We were thinking about bringing in C.T. but Daryl was throwing so well, we had a lead and Daryl is a strike-thrower."

Bradford and Collins both had a pair of hits for State, and Collins and Ogden each scored twice. There were only nine total Bulldog safeties, all singles, but they made up for lack of pure hitting with three plunking, four steals and a sac-fly. And three hits came from the bottom third of the order.

"We've worked hard on our strokes and everything started to come together and we got comfortable at the plate," Thigpen said. "Hopefully we keep it going."

"We had to manufacture a little bit today offensively," Cohen said. "Defensively I thought we were very good. Shepherd makes a great play, Brownlee goes and gets a ball really well, I felt we played a pretty clean game defensively and did what we had to do to scratch out some runs and win the game." A better win than some might see, in fact, as Georgia State left 9-4 and were the only team to beat Iowa over the weekend at Dudy Noble Field.

"They're a good club that's going to win 35 to 40 games," Cohen predicted for the Panthers. Earlier in the day Iowa had to get a ninth-inning hit to beat GSU 3-2 and end their weekend 3-1. State was 2-2 with both losses to the Hawkeyes, including Saturday night's (and midnight's) 7-6 setback when the Dogs rallied from 7-0 down to have the tying runner in scoring position on the last out.

So a Sunday success meant something big to the Bulldogs. "We had a good day out there," Thigpen said. "We came back after a tough, tough loss last night and really competed. I'm proud of our pitching staff and the effort we had today. We had a couple of tough losses on the weekend but we never quit, we gave ourselves chances to win and I'm excited about that. And we came back and got a big one today to give us momentum going into the week."

A busy week, too. State hosts Mississippi Valley State on Tuesday at 6:30 to conclude the 14-game home stand opening this schedule; then goes to Alabama-Birmingham for a Wednesday road game.

"We haven't made a decision yet on who we're going to throw on Tuesday," Cohen said. "We're probably thinking that Kendall Graveman will throw on Wednesday because UAB's field plays a little bit smaller and he's a ground-ball guy. That's our first thought. We're probably going to get six guys out there (Tuesday), C.T. needs an inning and several other guys."

The weekend brings Sacred Heart to campus for a three-game set. Friday's scheduled 6:30 start might be moved up to allow for the evening basketball game at the SEC Tournament which is supposed to tip at 9:00 central. Saturday is 2:00 and Sunday 1:30. Cohen is confident Devin Jones and Chris Stratton will stay in the 1-2 starting roles, and while an all-righthanded rotation is not always ideal…Mitchell is making his case.

"I just need to work on mainly getting that fastball down and getting the second and third pitches over consistently early and late in counts," he said. "I'm just doing whatever Coach says for me to be, if he tells me to go throw in relief or tells me to start or whatever, I'll just compete every pitch."

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