Actually, it might be worth asking them again exactly what they thought Routt was throwing Sunday evening at Chandler Park. He is certainly amused by their reported responses. "Yeah, I think some guys said in the paper that my fastball was flat and they just weren't hitting it," Routt related this week. "I guess they're not very good hitters." Or at least not good readers of pitches, because not a few of those 27 outs came on the split/change.
In fact this was more than a sideline note to Mississippi State's success in the championship game. Up-to-date Dog fans recall Coach John Cohen's comments following the SEC Tournament, how after Routt repeatedly got ahead of Arkansas batters with fastballs he didn't have a changer-of-pace to finish folk off. Oh, once upon a time he did; a changeup that worked well as a 2009 freshman.
But after '10 elbow issues that cost most of the sophomore season, then eleven outings since a March 16 return this year, Routt simply wasn't able to make himself ‘hammer' the change home any more. A simple demonstration showed why. "The old one was like a circle-change, and I'd throw it like that." ‘That' being a serious torquing of the elbow as he wrenched the wrist inward upon release. Even a writer would wince at the sight.
Still pitching coach Butch Thompson wasn't writing off his talented lefthander for tournament time after that one game. Why, even in giving up five runs on eight hits he still struck out six purely on his trademark fastball. Why not try a rushed experiment with Routt's delivery? Or more specifically, grip.
"This one is more like a split/change where I grip it normal," Routt showed. Except it isn't really a normal splitter-grip, and for sure not how typical changes are chunked. The left hand becomes more like a claw in fact. "Yeah, it's a weird grip," he admitted. "But it works. It felt kind of funny, I just had to do some things."
Mostly, just practice…beginning only the Wednesday afternoon prior to Mississippi State leaving for Atlanta, with a bullpen session. "So I had three days to work on it and I used it in the game Sunday." To great effect, and not just because the change really, well, changed things up. Routt's regular heater was working to both sides of the plate quite nicely, and he estimates he threw 80% fastballs.
"It was really good to come out and pitch well and go the distance," Routt said. "I hadn't done it since my freshman year so it was really almost like breaking the wall down I guess. Getting through some adversity and finally having a really good outing."
A great outing, even, since it not only won Mississippi State a regional but beat a good opponent in their yard. And as Routt noted, it had been a long time coming. As a rookie he finished four of his 13 starts, with a 5-3 record and 4.15 ERA. Great things were naturally forecast for the soph season but 2010 was a grind and short to boot. Ironically his last appearance came at Florida before Routt was shut down and worked on.
Admittedly it was still not easy getting back up to speed this year either, until May when he rose to SEC occasion in winning starts at Tennessee and Ole Miss. It is worth pointing out that even in those victories he had as many walks as strikeouts because he, again, was relying 90%-plus on fastballs. Now he has the s/c option designed to finish off foes with easy outs off swings.
"Coach Cohen stresses early contact, so does Coach Thompson. They always say early contact seems to find a glove even if it's hit hard. That was what I was doing, and it worked." The odd twist though is that suddenly Routt has regained the strikeout touch (87 of them) he showed in 2009. It isn't the gameplan exactly as Cohen and Thompson would rather get a three-pitch fly ball out than a six-pitch K job, buuuut…why not?
"I mean, when I'm hitting my spots and they take pitches, I'm not going to waste any time. I'm going to try to bust them on the corner and some guys don't like it, they take it for strike three." Besides, if they do get less than a full swing, it is going to be caught by some Dog based on defensive efforts last weekend at Atlanta.
"I've had some struggles early in this season," said Routt. "But for the most part the past couple of games I've thought I pitched pretty well. I don't know, I haven't gone more than six innings; part was pitch count and part being taken out of the game, not in my control!" Though, even a stubborn starter must admit, when the exit is to make room for a Caleb Reed that is how Mississippi State best keeps control of things.
Yet presented a situation tailor-made for the ace reliever, State let Routt go the, ummm, route. Not without some dugout discussion though. Head coach Cohen even admitted that his aides were giving him sideways looks as the ninth began; they too wanted the sure door-slammer to take over. Even Routt figured that was the plan.
"The last inning Butch came out and said alright, we're going to let you finish off the lefty and then bring Caleb in for the righty. I struck my guy out, and was sitting there like ‘are they going to bring Caleb in? Alright, I guess not, go for it'!" And of course Routt got it. Bigger than even the complete-game win though was what such a decision from the boss signaled.
"I've got a lot of trust in them and they have a lot of trust in me," Routt said. Maybe the only person disappointed by the decision was Reed. After all, he'd just got his 12th save on Friday against Southern Miss and was one short of tying the Mississippi State season record. "I didn't know that!" Routt admitted.
He does know that he will be happy to hand the ball, and a lead, to his classmate this weekend. Or just keep on tossing as long as it's working and Mississippi State is in contention. "I'm going to do whatever the coaches ask me to do." He would have accepted Friday starting responsibility, even, despite throwing 115 pitches Sunday evening. "I guess that's a normal pro five-day rotation!"
This is not a normal super regional situation. Sure, any squad advancing to the second weekend has earned everything…but Florida stands out more than most. They are the second-highest seed in the NCAA Tournament, and coming off dominating performances in both the SEC Tournament—where they had to rally past MSU for a 7-5 win on day-one—and in their regional. When Cohen and Thompson were picking pitching they passed on the standard matchup factors and just looked for hot hands, because there is no weakness to attack here.
"They're similar to Georgia Tech's offense, I think," Routt said. "Note, he meant in the balance of left and right handers with big-swing capability; not in the lack of quality hitting he saw from the Yellowjackets. "They swing it, but they also have guys that are contact guys. Most of them are looking for the home run." Yeah, a sore subject given how the Gators got a wind-aided grand slam to beat the Bulldogs in Hoover. Of course they slugged another slam in the regular season game-two as well, in a 18-0 blowout at Starkville. Routt started the Sunday game, going 5.0 innings with a run on six hits with five strikeouts. He did not factor in the 3-1 final decision.
He has even toed the Perry Field rubber before so the setting is familiar. Sort of, since it was a very short stint and his last of 2010 at that. Another opportunity is welcome, particularly since Routt will be making his best pitches—old and new alike—at another NCAA success.
"It's going to be nice to go out there and pitch more than two innings. Without getting hurt."