Diamond Dogs Open With 6-2 Win Over Cougars

Ben Bracewell has certainly put in his time getting back here. So the third-year sophomore was equal parts excited and relieved about a return to the Mississippi State mound. "It's been I guess almost two years now," he said. "It was unbelievable." Not just that, but successful.

Bracewell got his and the Diamond Dogs' season off to a winning start as Mississippi State opened with a 6-2 victory over Washington State at Dudy Noble Field. Starter Bracewell combined with bullpen Bulldogs Jonathan Holder and Chris Stratton to four-hit the visiting Cougars, and give MSU its ninth-straight win in a season debut.

For their part Bulldog batters rattled four of the six Cougars who threw for 13 base hits and six all-earned runs. "Ben did a great job setting the tone, and our hitters did a great job also setting the tone," said Stratton. "You can't ask for much more than that."

Bracewell wasn't asking for anything more than his chance. A long reliever as a 2010 freshman, the rigthhander went down late that year with nagging arm issues and summer surgery, then missed all 2011 for the long recovery process. Coach John Cohen was sufficiently impressed with Bracewell's fall pitching to project him as a starter, and last week named him to open both this series and the season.

It was the right call for all, even if the long delay and then build up had Bracewell on edge. "I had a lot of adrenalin going, for sure! But it felt pretty good." He put in 4.1 innings with three hits allowed, a walk and five strikeouts, and both Cougar runs. Those came in the top of the fourth, but after State's offense had spotted the starter three runs' worth of lead to protect.

Bracewell didn't look like someone who'd been sitting a season-plus, as he rolled through the first eight batters without a hitch—and four strikeouts. And when a Cougar finally reached base at the end of the third inning, even a Bracewell errant pickoff move proved good for State. The runner, Trace Sing, stretched his luck a base too far and was thrown out at third by RF Brent Brownlee.

Man, it was awesome! I guess that first inning couldn't have gone any better than it did," Bracewell said. "I wanted to get in and out quick and get my feet back under me."

All that was lacking for the starter was a decision. That went to Stratton (1-0) on the strength of 4.0 scoreless innings with just a hit allowed, no walks, and three strikeouts. Holder bridged the pair with two outs in the fifth inning, striking out one with no hits.

Cougar starter J.D. Leckenby (0-1) took the loss on 4.0 innings with five runs on eight hits, a walk and three strikeouts. The righthanded sophomore did well enough against the top-third of State's order but took a beating from the middle-hitters. Then when Washington State went to the bullpen, the 1-2-3 Bulldog batters made their presence better known.

For their eight innings of swinging, every State starter either had a hit, or two and even three in the case of 3B Daryl Norris; scored a run, or drove in a run. Or more often at least two of those three offensive items. "We all wanted to come out and have a good performance, and we did that," said Norris. "Everybody had some good at-bats and we played good together as a whole. Everybody did their part, just doing their job and getting stuff done."

It was Norris getting the first knock off Leckenby in fact, a leadoff double in the second inning. Singles by DH Trey Porter and LF Taylor Stark produced the season's first run and RBI. Leckenby plunked C Mitch Slauter to load the bases for Wes Rea. The first baseman fell behind on two foul balls, before making good contact on a fly ball to the right side for a sacrifice scoring Porter. SS Matthew Britton followed suit with a sac-fly to the left side plating Stark for the 3-0 lead.

Two outs into his third inning Bracewell gave up the first base hit, though the grounder to shortstop could have been ruled an error as SS Matthew Britton's throw pulled Rea off the bag ahead of runner Trace Sing. Bracewell did get an official E on a wild pickoff throw before Brownlee erased it, meaning the starter faced the minimum through three.

"My whole deal right now is pitch count, the quicker I can get on and off the field the better I'm going to be," Bracewell said. "That fourth inning going deep like that was what kept me from going farther." It began with a one-out Britton error as Collin Slaybaugh's well-struck grounder skipped off the first-time starting shortstop's glove. Slaybaugh made second on a wild pitch and scored on Taylor Ard's single. With two outs Jason Monda got around on Bracewell for a liner dropping inside the right line, a RBI-double, and one-run game before Bracewell rolled a grounder to Frazier.

By the time he returned State had its margin back. Slauter worked for a full-count leadoff walk this time but seemed stuck on second base with two outs. On 2-2 CF C.T. Bradford lined a single into center for the RBI, and State didn't stop there. Brownlee bounced a single through the right side advancing Bradford into position to score, which he did on a base hit from Frazier.

"I was starting to labor a little bit and if they got a runner on it was probably going to finish me," Bracewell said. Which was a one-out walk of Patrick Claussen. Righthanded rookie Holder was well-warmed, and Cohen liked matching him against the lefthanded #9 batter. Holder produced an unusual double-play, as with Claussen running he struck out the batter…who interfered with Slaughter's throw towards second base for an automatic out.

Kellen Camus took over for WSU in the MSU fifth and left with two outs and two in scoring positions. Righthander Scott Simon entered to leave the bases full. But Stratton was in control sitting the WSU side in the sixth and coaxing another unusual double-play after a leadoff single in the seventh. Lead runner Derek Jones slid into second late and high on a ground ball to shortstop that interfered with the relay by second-sacker Frazier. Stratton retired seven-straight to run out the evening, showing how far the junior righty has come since a last and brutal outing in May at Oxford.

"I think Chris has really made some adjustments," Cohen said. "And the way he's matured going up to the Cape this summer has helped him. But we need him to go out there and do that every time."

The Bulldogs padded the margin in their last turn with some help. Brownlee reached on a swinging strike three that skipped the mitt for a one-out reach. He stole second on his own. With two outs and Brownlee on third base, the Cougars opted for righthander Ty Jackson. His first pitch was slapped by Norris through the left side for the 6-2 scoreboard.

Stratton was pleased with his return as well, though he warned not to read too much into Washington State's offensive issues in their opener. "They're great hitters. We watched hours of film and the 2-3-4 hitters can really hit. I played with some of them in the Cape." The four Cougar hits went to different batters with Monda's double the only extra-base safety. WSU played errorless ball on defense.

"Washington State is a really good team," Norris said. "And it's good to face a quality opponent and do what we did tonight."

Cohen was satisfied as well, not least with an offense featuring basically six new starters including a mostly-rebuild infield. Sophomore Norris for one example was a first baseman all last season; Rea redshirted, and Britton is a true '12 frosh. Not to be overlooked was juco transfer Slauter getting the series-starting catcher's assignment in his own senior college debut. Working with an unfamiliar staff he was flawless.

"And a whole bunch of guys got their first hits, not only of the year but their careers," Cohen said.

Game-two is scheduled for 2:30 Saturday with junior lefthander Nick Routt starting for State and soph righty Kyle Swannack, the touted junior college signee, for Washington State. But weather was moving this way overnight and the forecast not promising. State had the field tarped in case conditions permit the game getting underway either as scheduled or afterwards.

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