RHP Jonathan Holder was one of the two pitchers picked for just two available slots, but earned it based on three saves in four appearances over the intense week. And as is well-known by now, the freshman has not allowed a run this season. Earned, unearned, or otherwise, no opponent has crossed the plate on his account to-date.
While Frazier was MVP based on batting, defense and pitching won State their trophy. A double-play flip by Frazier in the opening-day win over Arkansas got national airtime in fact. So it was fitting to have OF Demarcus Henderson picked, too, for a selection of excellent and one highlight-reel defensive play in the first win over LSU. What also influenced voters was Henderson's knack for a timely hit, such as the go-ahead RBI against LSU; or himself scoring.
Either way, Henderson was openly emotional about surprising selection. "I just thank God, because I was at a point where I didn't think I was going to play very much any more this season."
HOME AWAY FROM HOME PART II: Bulldog outfielders were kept busy much of the week. Given more spacious dimensions to work with, the pitchers felt a bit more freedom to go for fly balls and count on the trio to run them down. It worked well on the whole, save for a Kentucky home run on Saturday. Everything else stayed in the yard.
For that matter, nothing much else got as far as the fence, so quickly were drives covered if not caught outright. Henderson made a maybe-underappreciated Sunday play when he limited Vanderbilt to a double instead of a triple in the eighth inning. And of course he ran down that LSU drive on Wednesday for another highlight-tape catch.
But the busiest Bulldog out there on title day was RF Brent Brownlee with four catches. None were as dramatic as his likely game-saver Saturday when he hauled into the gap to rob a tying Kentucky double. Neither were they very routine though. In fact Brownlee, and alternate starter Tyler Fullerton, got the worst of playing six day games. Right field is the sun field at Region's park in afternoon hours.
Fortunately Brownlee was comfortable. "I kind of get used to it at home, you know the sun sets pretty bad there in rightfield. Coach Cohen told me before the season I'd be the rightfielder, so it was just battle the sun, work with it, and do the best I can."
Something else worth noting is how Brownlee, Henderson, Hunter Renfroe, et.al., were still able to run on Sunday with no noticed difference. Far as a fan could tell they were in day two or three of a series, not day six of a tournament and sweated-out by then. Asked how they found the legs to get through one more day, "They're back there, somewhere!" Brownlee joked.
"Six games in six days is tough but I'm proud of the guys. Especially Mitch Slauter, catching all six games. I'm sure he'll get an I.V. on the bus ride back."
IRON DAWG: Maybe so. Slauter is a catcher though, so showing fatigue doesn't come easily. Still, he admitted working 55-straight innings without a break had taken a toll. "I'm going to go ahead and rest a little bit, get off my legs."
HOT SHOT: Now, Slauter caught some pretty good heat from MSU moundsmen this week. But the best piece of fast reaction time came from another Dog. In the opening inning Vanderbilt had two runners in scoring positions and one out, so most anything would score a run. A double-play appeared impossible. Unless, of course, a batter scorched a line-drive to a defender.
Which Conrad Gregor did with an absolute laser-shot. By guess or by gosh Rea was positioned just perfectly, needing only raise the glove hand in time for the ball to smack and stick. Then he flipped to second base for a backwards-force and stunning double-up. Stunning to Vanderbilt, at least. The Bulldogs had a different response.
"That's a big momentum boost for us," Slauter said. "We took the game in our hands and I thought we controlled the momentum from then on."
DOUBLE THE FUN: That double-play was just one defensive deed which kept Vanderbilt from pushing any of the 13 Commodores who reached base(s) across the plate. Mississippi State has now won seven SEC Tournament titles, but this was the first time the Dogs took the trophy with a shutout in the championship game.
State added another double-play in the ninth inning, coaxed by RHP Caleb Reed and of the more traditional 6-4-3 variety. This gives MSU 68 for the season, and so efficient has the squad gotten at doubling-off runners all over the diamond that they are almost taken for granted by fans and foes alike.
Not by the team itself, though. "We practice every day," Frazier said. "So late in the season we've got great chemistry. And we trust our pitchers that they're going to get us one."
STRETCHING OUT: Discussing pitching plans Friday, for who might be left to throw the remaining days, Reed called Ross Mitchell, the lefthanded mid-relief man, "Rubber Arm Ross." A compliment of course, even if Mitchell isn't sure who coined the title.
But the freshman doesn't deny the fact that he does have that type of left arm. "It's true," he said after picking up the winning decision. In fact he said, "It doesn't hurt right now. I might have a little soreness tonight, but not right now."
SAVING THE DAY: Holder has established himself as State's sure-thing closer, what with nine saves this freshman season—one shy of the ten Jay Powell tossed in 1991 as a freshman, and by coincidence Powell was at the game with CSS.
Yet after Reed, who got a dozen saves as the 2011 closer before turning set-up man, hit the nine-hole batter with two outs in the ninth, it was not Holder called from the bullpen to seal a deal. No, it was someone who had never thrown for a save in his college career. Chris Stratton trotted to the hill to face the top of the Vandy order, just as if opening a game instead of being in a closing situation.
A further twist: Stratton came to the park hoping for just such a chance. "Yeah, I did. I actually told myself before the game hey, I've need to get me a save under my belt or something! So I'm glad I could." He got it with a 1-2 slider that Tony Kemp grounded to Frazier for a game-ending force, and Stratton's first save.
Holder did not mind letting an elder teammate seize the saving shot in his place. Never mind that Stratton gets to throw plenty with his 11-1 record this season. "Oh, he deserves it," said Holder. "I threw a pretty good bit and my arm is pretty tired, I was glad to see Strat go get it." Oh, and Holder added one more fact about why Stratton had been down there with the relief staff for a few innings: it was day-five since his Tuesday start.
"He needed to throw bullpen anyway, so why not stick in him there?!" Holder said. "He's pretty much unhittable."
PILE ON: Unhittable, but not untouchable. Not by teammates who rushed the mound for the championship celebration. Somewhere his future agent and drafting team cringed at the sight of Stratton being swarmed and Dog-piled.
Slauter had tried his best to prepare the pitcher properly. "I got out there and told Stratton to lay down so we could avoid injury or anything like that. You have to be smart." Good luck with that. As photo evidence showed, one of the first to get to the ace was 290-pound Rea, a Dogpile in his own right.
"Coaches were telling me to watch out before it started," Stratton confessed. "But I didn't care. I just wanted to enjoy it with my teammates."
HOME AWAY FROM HOME PART III: And with maybe ten thousand of their closest friends. SEC officials and Regions Park staff were anticipating a strong walk-up crowd for the title game, with the holiday and a mid-afternoon start allowing travel time. A league administrator reported even the Saturday advance orders had been strong…but Sunday was something else entirely.
The official crowd count of 12,526 consisted of at least 90% State fans, who got there early and in force. Saturday's Dog walk to greet the arriving team made an impression on players, and on championship Sunday they were simply amazed.
"We brought the fans today, it was a good atmosphere," Brownlee said. "When we walked in the bleachers were full, everybody was excited. We'd seen on twitter a lot of people were going to come, we didn't know it would be that many! We were just proud we could get a win for them."
Cohen was just as proud of the turnout. "I don't know if you could have a better home-field advantage two hours away from your campus than we had today. But I tell you what, what our Mississippi State family did today for our players was just amazing."
AT HOME: Though every Bulldog had something special in this championship, 2B Sam Frost's perspective was more local. He is a graduate of Hoover High School which sits just behind the pine trees between campus and Regions Park. The lights of his old baseball field can be seen from the grandstand in fact.
Now the junior has won big for the home folk. He even scored a run, on a sacrifice-fly, for a 2-0 lead in the title game victory. "Man it's been a dream. I never saw myself doing this, since I was ten years old I'd come out here every year. It's unbelievable."
TWO-TIME TITLEIST: Cohen wanted the players to get all the championship attention and beyond required interviews stood to the side so everyone else could celebrate. Yet State's skipper had just scored a special place in SEC history of his own.
Cohen was a senior outfielder on the 1990 Diamond Dog team that shared the championship with LSU, in the first time the SEC Tournament was played in Hoover. Now he has coached a team to the same title, this one unshared. As best can be researched, he is the first Southeastern Conference figure to take the baseball tournament championship as both a player and a coach. And Cohen did it with the same University.
Cohen is now 16-14 in SEC Tournament games counting his years as a MSU player, an assistant coach at Florida, and head coach with Kentucky and now State.