Stratton Caps SEC Season As Pitcher Of Year

Chalk up another decision in favor of Chris Stratton. This time, as decided by Southeastern Conference coaches who named the Mississippi State ace their 2012 league Pitcher of the Year.

Stratton is also the first Bulldog moundsman to win the award since first given in 2003, after the SEC separated it from their Player of the Year. The junior righthander, has an 11-1 record going into NCAA Regional play, and already boasts the most wins by a Bulldog pitcher since Bobby Reed notched 15 in 1990. His 123 strikeouts so-far rank sixth in any Mississippi State season, against just 21 walks.

As Pitcher of the Year Stratton is on the All-SEC first team too. This is something not done by any Diamond Dog, pitcher or player, since the 2007 season; and he is the first pitcher to make first-team all-conference by coaches' vote since Paul Maholm in 2003. Maholm of course was a first-round draft pick that June; in another week Stratton knows his name will be called as well in the opening round of the Major League draft which begins June 4.

"No, I'm not worried," Stratton said. "I'm going to Florida State to play in a regional and I'm excited about it with my teammates."

No other Bulldog made the first or second All-SEC teams, which might be considered a slight by league coaches (who cannot vote for their own players). But this really pointed out just what a total team effort 2012 was for a squad that won 21 league games, season or tournament, without a lot of sheer star power. Certainly with modest offensive power, as pitching and defense were club calling cards.

Which was reinforced by the other honored Dogs. RHP Kendall Graveman was named to the All-Defensive team by league coaches; and RHP and blossoming closer Jonathan Holder was named to the All-Freshman squad.

This P&D approach has worked splendidly for Mississippi State the past two weeks, with eight wins in nine games including the SEC Tournament championship. En route the Bulldogs only played teams which are also in this NCAA Tournament, going 4-1 against Kentucky, 2-0 against national seed LSU, and beating both Arkansas and Vanderbilt as well. Stratton got two of the victories and even a save, first of his college career, during this tear.

But now it's time to play non-conference competition, which Stratton hasn't tossed against since back on March 9. That's when he went 5.0 innings, with four hits and two runs allowed, in a tight win over Mercer. More to the immediate point, Stratton is about to toss in a more normal-sized ballpark after working in the comfortable territory of Dudy Noble Field and then pro-sized Regions Park.

Dick Howser Stadium isn't on the same scale. Not a bandbox by any means, but not the sort of place pitchers can get at-ease either. Stratton actually welcomes this change of pace. And space.

"I've seen it on TV and it looks pretty sweet," he said of Florida State's excellent home field. A couple of his outfielders might have a different outlook given how the straight-line fence in rightfield creates interesting angles and gaps. Not to mention how tempting the right-most corner appears to a left-handed pull batter or a righthander who can barrel it up the other way.

Is Stratton concerned? Nope, and not simply from ace pitcher pride.

"Well, we've played in five of the smallest parks in the SEC this season," he pointed out, referring to such venues as LSU, Alabama, and Florida. The Bulldogs did not visit the league's tightest yard, Kentucky…which by coincidence Coach John Cohen first mentions when comparing DHS to a SEC venue. Yet it is a moot point, more or less, to Stratton at least. This staff has adjusted well enough to cozier confines as the season progressed.

"I think we did a real good job keeping the ball down. That's something we focused on all fall and spring and it will be just like another outing." Sounds simple enough when Stratton says it. Which raises the question: do media looking for angles, and fans seeking excuses, make a little too much of the big/small equation?

"Sometimes," said Stratton. "But you know if you have a big park that you kind of don't have to be as careful sometimes with the pitches you throw. You can just attack the zone. So sometimes it is not really that big of a deal." As long as he is locating, he means. Hanging anything, anywhere, is an invitation good batters will grab at. At the same time, Stratton reminds that barring true bandboxes it takes a really good poke nowadays for the improved college bats to take one out. Meaning, keep the ball down and it is almost sure to stay around.

Oh, and there is another aspect to playing somewhere a bit smaller that might—might—benefit the Bulldogs. The batters, that is. Mississippi State has hit just two home runs in the last 18 games. 3B Daryl Norris had a three-run blast against Kentucky in series game-two, and 1B Wes Rea hammered an opening-day solo shot against Arkansas at Hoover. For the year Dogs have 21 longballs, total.

"But we've had some balls this year with our team that would have gone out at any of those parks," Stratton said of the aforementioned smaller yards. "So it's fair for both teams." Though he adds, it won't be good for some of the stronger swingers in this order to see DHS's closer fences and get big-eyed. Or worse, big-swinging.

"Exactly! Like I said, we just have to keep the same approach and try to hit ball in the middle of the field, that's what has been winning for us." That, and the P&D. Why mess with a formula that has carried Mississippi State into this postseason with such a head of steam?

"We just have to keep this momentum going."

Along that line, Mississippi State coaches are almost decided on keeping their rotation momentum going by starting Stratton in the opener with third-seed Samford. This is not to say minds won't change during the practice days should Graveman's hurting groin suddenly get a lot better, faster. Fans certainly would want to save the ace for a hoped-for matchup with host Florida State, which is getting a game ahead of reality. MSU staff have too much respect after a first scouting glance at the Birmingham-based Bulldogs to throw less than the best.

So, as of now, Stratton will prepare for another Friday start and opening act. He's confident a cohort, or two or more, are up to the opportunity on the second day anyway. It's worked very well for two Mississippi State months, after all.

"Pitching has kept us in games, hitting has been timely," Stratton said. "Hopefully this momentum carries us through the regional and on."

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