The Bulldogs do advance deeper into NCAA season after their three-game run through the Atlanta Regional. And they literally swept the full field to do it. Having defeated Southern Mississippi 3-0 and Austin Peay State 8-3 to reach the championship round, State took care of host and top-seeded Tech in Sunday night's showdown. By taking their eleventh NCAA regional, or in old days district, tournament, they now will travel to Gainesville for a super regional against Florida. The best-of-three series schedule will be finalized sometime Monday by television.
Sunday evening all the Diamond Dogs cared was that after a three-year absence from postseason play they didn't just make the NCAAs. They have now won a tourney and a trophy. "It's an understatement to say we're really proud of these guys," said Coach John Cohen, brought back to his alma mater in summer 2008 to get Bulldog baseball back on a winning track. So, the coach could correctly say, "This is a big step for our program. I just couldn't be happier for them."
While Cohen meant every player and staffer involved, he could be forgiven a bit of bonus pride Sunday in Routt. Starting an elimination game at the SEC Tournament, Routt was hit hard and didn't last four innings. Little over a week later he rose to a much greater opportunity and dominated some big-swinging Yellow Jackets in a much smaller park.
Yet, Routt said, "Georgia Tech has a lot different hitters than Arkansas, they swung early in counts, obviously trying to hit the home runs. Thankfully I had a good defense behind me and the ball bounced our way."
Or smacked right into gloves, such as the six strikeouts that found C Wes Thigpen's mitt. Most contact ended up caught, particularly by a far-ranging Bulldog outfield that ran down drives Georgia Tech expected to become base hits. RF Jaron Shepherd alone had six putouts, including the last out of the tournament. Routt (3-3) only walked one and generally scattered Tech hits until the final frame when three consecutive singles gave the home team at least some hope for a comeback.
A month ago, even a week ago, Cohen would have called on someone—like closer Caleb Reed—to seal such a big deal. Not this time. "I looked out there and felt that guy just wanted it," the coach said. And, got it, with Routt's first complete game since four full-routes (Routts?) as a 2009 freshman. The pitcher said a major difference between last week's tournament start and this one wasn't just how the Yellow Jackets swung.
It was what he had them swinging at. In the space of a week Coach Butch Thompson helped the veteran develop a different delivery on the changeup, one that wouldn't wrench the elbow as before, and Routt caught Tech unprepared. Instead of having to always resort to another fastball in advantage counts he could really change things up.
"Against the righthanders it was very effective, I know I got some first-pitch swings. And the double-play in the fifth inning was on a changeup, so it was working well."
The huge MSU advantage Sunday evening was that not only were the Dogs in the winner's bracket and in control, but they had a much better stocked pitching roster. The Yellow Jackets by contrast were running very low and gave a modestly-used reliever and part-time outfielder the start. Freshman righthander DeAndre Smelter (2-1) made a noble effort but lasted just 2.1 innings with six State runs scored on as many hits, with two walks and no strikeouts. Smelter knew who to blame most for his short and painful outing, too.
Because he had to face Bulldog leadoff batter and hottest postseason stick C.T. Bradford. The freshman centerfielder was already having a very good regional with four hits in eight appearances the first two games. The third time around? He was just great, hitting safely in three trips up against Smelter with two singles and a double. Bradford scored the first Bulldog run himself and drove in four more.
The title game alone would have merited regional Most Outstanding Player honors, though Bradford sealed it with a 7-of-13 tournament. "I was just trying to see the ball and hit it where it's pitched," he said. "It was the same thing, just seeing the ball and attacking whatever is in the strike zone."
Routt assuredly knew where the strike zone was his first three innings, facing the minimum with four fannings and three airballs…two flagged down by Shepherd of course. At the same time his offense was providing about as much support as a starter could ask with runs in the bottom of those same three frames.
Bradford, naturally, got it going with a leadoff single and advanced on both a bunt and wild pitch. With two outs 2B Nick Vickerson did what he had in the previous two regional wins, he registered the first RBI; this with a soft single landing in front of the Tech rightfielder.
In State's second DH Cody Freeman reached on a throwing error and was bunted over before SS Jonathan Ogden chipped a single over the shortstop's reach. A squeeze-bunt attempt by Thigpen was hit to Smelter for a rundown and out of Freeman. Still it was no double-play and two were on bases for Bradford. The previous evening he'd pulled a RBI-double past first base; this time he went the opposite direction with a tailing-away fly that dropped fair in leftfield. Ogden scored easily and as the leftfielder struggled to get the ball Thigpen was waved home as well, sliding in for the second run off the double and 3-0 lead.
It was Shepherd's turn to start an even bigger inning in the third with an opposite-way drive that dropped in left-centerfield for a double…and was turned into three bases by a shortstop relay error. Tech tried setting up a double-play with a more or less intentional walk of Freeman. LF Brent Brownlee foiled that by pounding a base hit through the left side to score Shepherd. That also finished Smelter for another freshman righty, Dusty Isaacs. He did get a strikeout but Thigpen kept the inning going with a ground ball booted at second base. Which meant Guess Who got to swing again.
This time Bradford went back to the right side with a soft single that scored Freeman and Brownlee…and wrought another Tech mound move with Luke Bard stranding a pair of Dogs with 6-0 on the scoreboard just one-third of the way in.
"Everything we scripted out, almost everything, went the way we wanted it to," said Cohen. "And that's unusual in our game. Because a team as good as Georgia Tech many times won't allow you to do what you want to do."
The Jackets offense reminded how good they could be with runs in the fourth and fifth, as Routt's edge might have dulled a bit during the biggest Bulldog outburst. He lost his no-hitter on a leadoff Kyle Wren single in the fourth. A double-play erased that runner, but Vickerson threw a ball away for a two-base error that had Matt Skole in scoring position with two down. Daniel Palka plated him with a single before a fly ball ended the inning with a 6-1 margin.
An inning later with two down Zane Evans turned on Routt for a solo shot over leftfield, the first homer surrendered by State of the weekend. He had to leave another walked Jacket stranded in the fifth, then against the heart of GT's order he went in-order with a strikeout of cleanup batter Palka. He returned for the seventh with an added bit of margin, too.
Parks reached on Tech's fifth error of the evening and even stole second base. He had to stop at third on a single by new 2B Adam Frazier, but Shepherd whipped around for a base hit that one-hopped the first baseman for the RBI. State left a pair in scoring positions but had stemmed Tech's momentum, which Routt stopped entirely by retiring the Jackets in-order again in the seventh and eighth.
"I was just trying to throw it in the zone early in the count, and they were swinging," Routt said. "I'll be honest, they were making good contact and Jaron and C.T. and Brent ran down balls."
At just 94 pitches he was allowed back in the ninth to go for completion. With one out Tech rapped three-straight singles, including a RBI-hit by Jacob Esch, that produced a mound conversation with pitching coach Butch Thompson. But the pitching coach had already lost any argument with the boss so this was just a settle-down talk. Routt fanned Jake Davies, then on full count got a line-drive run down by Shepherd to end the evening. And, the regional.
"Every time one of those big lefthanders gets up you're scared, just lose one and it changes the entire game," Cohen said. "Again Nick just forced them to swing the bat and that's exactly what we wanted."
State also got enough of the offense it wanted, paced by MOP Bradford but with complementary contributions. Shepherd was 2-of-5 with a run and a RBI, while substituted Frazier had hits in both his chances. He had taken the place of Vickerson after the senior second sacker was hit hard in the helmet in the fourth inning and left dazed but otherwise fine.
Palka had two of Tech's six hits, against ten safeties for State. But the most glaring differential was at the end of the linescore where MSU was charged with one error and the Jackets no less than five. As a result just one Bulldog run was officially earned off the four Tech hurlers.
"That's really what did us in. Our miscues in the field gave them extra opportunities, and they cashed in," said Tech Coach Danny Hall, adding "Bradford killed us."
Bradford may have got the individual trophy, and six teammates joined him on the All-Tournament team: Freeman at first base, 2B Vickerson, Brownlee and Shepherd in an all-Dog outfield; and both Routt and Saturday pitcher Evan Mitchell. The only honor that mattered though was the title Regional Champions.
Not, Cohen said, that there will be much time to celebrate this week. That can wait until the season is done and hopefully not for several more weeks. As soon as the Bulldogs get on the bus Monday morning at 9:00 for the return trip (State's staff is in a bigger hurry as their first summer camp session opens at noon), all attention must be on Florida. They don't know the schedule yet, but they do know the foe very well after a regular season series and one SEC Tournament meeting. The Gators, the #2 national seed, routed Miami 11-4 Sunday evening to wrap up their regional.
"They must have played lights-out," said Cohen, who was a Gator assistant himself before moving to Kentucky as head coach and then back to Bulldog country. "We're going to enjoy this a little while, but then this becomes a work week as we get ready to go compete with one of the best."
Then again Mississippi State just beat a good regional field including one of the better ACC clubs, on their own field. All the frustration of last week's SEC Tournament has faded away as the Bulldogs try to stay on this new and better track.
"We had a lot of intensity coming into the postseason," said Shepherd. "We wanted to start a new road to Omaha."