"It was definitely nice to get to pitch in front of my friends and family," Mitchell said. "But I didn't want to think too much about it and get all tied-up, I wanted to treat it like another day, another outing." Only it was not just another day, outing, or situation. It was the winner's bracket and a victory would put the Bulldogs in commanding regional position. So, why give a rookie righthander that responsibility? Particularly one with the added incentive of this coincidental Atlanta location?
"His last three outings have been outstanding," Coach John Cohen said. "And that's why we put the ball in his hands today."
Mitchell rewarded such faith with a superlative, literally, effort. He not only exceeded his previous long stint of six innings, done way back early in the season. Mitchell (6-1) simply controlled a Governors squad that had scored a Friday headline-grabbing upset by beating host Georgia Tech 2-1. Through his first eight full frames he scattered five APSU hits by stranding seven runners and striking out eight.
"Evan was locked-in tonight and did a super job in front of his home folks, and really he carried us through eight innings," said Cohen. "We only had to use two guys, and that's huge for tomorrow."
The second guy, reliever and fellow freshman Daryl Norris, was called on only after Mitchell loaded the bases without a hit in the ninth. All three of the free-passed batters eventually scored but Norris was able to finish out the evening eventually.
"The coaches wanted me to fill up the strike zone as much as I could and as early as I could," Mitchell said. "Not only with the fastball but the breaking ball, and the changeup a little to the lefties. They wanted to me work away from the lefties and get my two-seamer working away from the barrel. And stay ahead as much as I could."
Even better for the pitcher was after the bottom of the first inning he was pitching from ahead on the scoreboard. The Bulldog offense put up one run in their opening turn, and after stranding a bunch through three put together the game-sealing outburst. Mississippi State pushed seven across in the fourth inning for all the necessary scoring.
Those eight total scores were shared among three Governors pitchers, but it was starter Jeremy Dobbs accepting the loss. The lefthander has been APSU's ace all season, and the Ohio Valley Conference pitcher of the year, but had been held out of the Georgia Tech game on a gamble. It backfired as State got to him for the one early run and then piled it on in the pivotal fourth. By no coincidence, the same frame Dobbs (9-3) was chased.
It wasn't just taking five hits with three walks and two strikeouts that finished him. "He came up with a blister, and any time that happens to a power arm that makes it tough," said assistant coach Joel Mangrum. "But I'm proud of the way he battled through three and two-thirds."
Mitchell had some battling of his own early, with a pair reaching in his first turn on a walk and strikeout, and stranded both with his third strikeout of the inning. In the second, he had the tying runner on third base with just one out. Mitchell coaxed a chopper to the left side that 3B Jarrod Parks fielded and fired home so C Wes Thigpen could tag Reed Harper shy of the plate.
From there he retired seven of eight to protect the one-run margin provided in the first. CF C.T. Bradford singled his way on and with one out hit Parks, which gave the senior the program-record of 20 plunkings this season. 2B Nick Vickerson had to wait for the pitch as Dobbs looked back at second for a while, then delivered one he wished he hadn't. Because State's second sacker lined the fastball off the wall in right-centerfield for a double, scoring Bradford while Parks had to hold up at third base.
Dobbs did well to limit damage as bases were loaded before SS Jonathan Ogden flew out. But that was on the 34th pitch of just that first frame. He was at 50 by the end of State's second inning, then in the third loaded ‘em up a second time for Ogden with two outs. On full-count the shortstop took one close-in and a bit up, but the strike was called anyway.
Three innings of relative offensive frustration were forgotten though after the Bulldogs blew it open in the fourth chance. Bradford had gone the other way for his first-inning single. This time he pulled a grounder all the way around, just inside the first base bag and on into the corner for a triple and RBI. After a visit from both his coach and a trainer, Dobbs served up something DH Cody Freeman could drive to leftfield for the sacrifice and 3-0 lead. On a 1-1 count Dobbs was excused for righty Chuck Edlin to finish walking Parks.
Vickerson drew a base-on-balls as well to give Shepherd the RBI opportunity. He cashed it in, albeit oddly as his hot hopper caromed off Edlin and to the right side for an infield hit. Parks was waved around and with a head-first slide got a hand on the plate before the tag came down. And when he popped up, his chest caught the catcher's helmet flush and left the backstop woozy. It also left APSU head coach Gary McClure upset enough to get thumbed on the collision call.
"He did everything he could to keep the runner from getting there," said APSU aide Mangrum said. "And we thought he did."
In the interim Mike Hebert took over on the hill and nailed Brownlee on the hip to load the bases for Ogden, again. This time he swung early and while the shortstop fielded going into the hole Brownlee reached the middle base, probably, before the force attempt. It went for an infield hit, RBI, and 5-0 lead. "I think Brent got me that RBI single beating that throw to second base," said Ogden. Given his second chance in the inning to hit Collins did, this time slashing a two-run double down the leftfield line. Thigpen made it a 8-0 score with his own single.
All the while Mitchell stayed warm tossing in foul ground. "It's definitely nice to get a good amount of cushion in front of you. But you don't want to cruise through it, you want to stay focused like you're up one or two runs." He worked that way, sitting nine of the next ten faced and ending the eighth with an Ogden double-play no less.
The MSU crowd welcomed Mitchell back for the ninth, and even wanted him to stay after putting a pair of pinch-batters on. When another walk loaded the bases he had to leave, with Norris summoned. The rookie righty couldn't save the shutout though as Jon Clinard hit a hard one-hop that first baseman Collins couldn't handle. Two scored on the error, then a third Governor came home on a pionch-single. Norris stopped any further comeback with consecutive strikeouts and a fly ball to rightfield.
"Our kids didn't panic, they put up a three spot and our kids did a nice job of finishing the game out," Cohen said. "Daryl came in and threw the ball in the strike zone and did what he needed to do for us.:
"I didn't want to get too big about it," Mitchell said. "I just wanted to get it over with quick. But I started walking people. I'm pretty happy but I wish I could have finished it off."
Regardless, the 2-0 Bulldog team had completed the key victory in any four-team regional. They advanced to Sunday's 7:00 title game where they await the survivor of an afternoon rematch between the Governors and Georgia Tech, both 1-1 now. The YellowJackets put Southern Mississippi out of the regional 6-2 to keep their tournament going. State can take the regional title by winning Sunday, or if necessary in a Monday evening all-or-nothing finale.
Naturally, the Diamond Dogs would rather seal this deal at the first Sunday chance. "We're definitely going to try to take it one to save our bodies. But we have a lot of confidence going into tomorrow's game and we take every game of the year one by one."
Cohen said pitching plans won't be finalized until the opponent is reasonably certain. "We'll lock down on the game tomorrow in front of us and do as good a job scouting whoever we're going to play. And it could be either one of them. We're going to wait to make a final decision. It could be Devin Jones, it could be Nick Routt, it could be Chris Stratton. We're just not 100% sure, we'll wait until that game unfolds."