"It's really a dream come true," he said.
Not just because the sophomore is getting to toe the rubber on the Southeastern Conference's biggest stage, though that would make this Tuesday memorable enough. And having the responsibility of getting the Diamond Dogs off on the right post-season foot is certainly important, as a loss to #12 seed Missouri might be enough to puncture at the last minute MSU goals of hosting a NCAA Regional.
What makes stepping to the hill in Hoover extra-special? Helena, Ala., native Fitts calls this week going home. Almost literally. He can describe the Met better than some of the locals.
"I've been watching baseball there forever so I know everything about the park," said Fitts. "It's going to be a really relaxed feeling."
Back about the venue in a moment. Fitts has a little better of taking a relaxed attitude to Hoover because he finally got to start a college game last Tuesday. Coming on the heels of the Ole Miss series and with the South Carolina weekend starting Thursday, Mississippi State needed somebody to step into the gap for a strained starting staff. He did.
Fitts (0-0, 1.65) worked the first 3.0 innings in a win over Oral Roberts. He was able to strand two runners on corners in the opening inning; then retire the second- and third-inning sides before getting hit for consecutive singles to begin the fourth frame. Both Eagles ultimately scored with LHP Chad Girodo pitching
Still his coaches came away satisfied enough with that first starting experience. "Fitts has been productive in his bullpens, and he pitched very well early," said Cohen. "We feel this opportunity has presented itself, and he's the best candidate."
"I think it was a graet experience," said Fitts today. "All my teammates were behind me in the dugout and everybody on the field. I guess I kind of got the jitters out and it will be really relaxed going back to my hometown. I'll be more relaxed than the first one."
He also hopes more relaxation translates into better efficiency the second time-out. Such as, "I'm really going to focus on getting that first pitch strike, I think I was about 50% to Oral Roberts. I want to be a lot better than that."
Metropolitan Park, until this year home of the AA-Birmingham Barons, ought to present Fitts every opportunity to throw strikes first, last, and in-between. He didn't play in the 2012 SEC Tournament won by Mississippi State, so in that sense he's a Hoover rookie. The reality is Fitts appreciates this park's strong points for pitchers.
Or the entire Mississippi State team, he believes.
"It's very large and that really works to our advantage. We hit a lot of line-drives and ground balls so that work really well for our offense. And we've got some outfielders that can run down different fly balls and things like that."
As far as the opponent, scouting has been minimal through Monday afternoon. The Bulldogs practiced at Dudy Noble Field, had dinner in town, then left for Hoover. By tomorrow the coaching staff will have a lot more Missouri data to show everyone, Fitts in particular.
"I know they've got four or five lefthanders in the lineup, that's really all. We'll do some more things in the morning," he said. But early indications that the Tigers are not a power club, nor one that runs a lot either, should mean Fitts can take a pretty straight-forward approach. "Hopefully get ahead of everybody and create some early ground balls, soft contact. Take the ‘sting out of the barrel' as Will Clark told us at the beginning of the season."
While Mississippi State begins its post-season, Fitts' alma mater just finished. And on top as Pelham High finally won a state championship, something that eluded the current Bulldog back in the prep days. He's happy, of course. Yet He's also a touch sad for Trussville. "That's where my high school coach went, I called him and he was really down. But he was excited for Pelham."
Meanwhile Fitts will try keeping his own excitement about a SEC Tourney start under control and go about business Tuesday. Last week's debut start was a milestone for any college pitcher to be sure. But he's seen where teammates have taken a conference tournament appearance when regular-season stalwarts can't throw yet and use them as next-year springboards. That was certainly the 2012 case.
"I remember Brandon Wood ruff came through clutch in two games, and Jacob Lindgren found his groove against LSU. It's something special to see them, hopefully that is something that can happen for me." Not, Fitts added, that he figures a good start in Hoover reserves him any slot in the upcoming NCAA play. You never know, sure…
"But I know Kendall (Graveman), Luis (Pollorena), and Jacob have everybody's backs and will be able to pitch in the Regional just as well as anybody we'll go up against."
Oh, and about the exact order those 10 or 15 folk were answered? Fitts ain't saying who was first. Sorry.
As for the potential Wednesday game if State survives Tuesday's test, no starters have been selected. Cohen and Butch Thompson could give RHP Will Cox (2-1, 3.18) his first start since March 26 (Austin Peay) . In fact Cox started in each of the first three weekends this season. Since then he's been primarily a right-handed reliever for short and/or specific matchups, especially as the sophomore has added a drop-down delivery to his repertoire. This bodes well for Cox's future. For now?
"Changing speeds is everything, missing barrels is about changing speeds and that is what Will is doing right now," Cohen said. A good outing Tuesday would also give Fitts a head-start on his 2014 season.
For now though, Mississippi State must plan as best possible for the vagaries of a conference tournament that is utterly unlike Regional and super regional weekends. And as much as Cohen wants to win every time out, this is a week to play it smart since the Bulldogs are assured of post-season play already.
"You can't put your weekend guys in jeopardy," he said. For one example, "We can't imagine getting Kendall involved until Thursday. That would be shorting him a day and we did that last week." On top of that, lead Dog Pollorena has been shorted in consecutive weekends due to the Friday rain suspension at Ole Miss. He would be the presumptive Wednesday night starter against South Carolina, but Cohen won't say yay or nay just yet.
"We want to get through game one and see what is available to us. Day to day you're monitoring arms and seeing how they feel. I don't know who would start on Wednesday, it would probably depend on how we do." Or more specifically, who doesn't do anything.
The twist here in the first day or two is that starting is not Mississippi State's top concern. Not after the last couple of weekends and a lot of short starts. "Because the turnaround is so short you have to protect your bullpen," Cohen said. Not so long ago that would have sounded odd since relief pitching depth was by-far the strongest aspect of the entire team. Now, because the openers rarely got half-way through or even to that point, some bullpen Bulldogs are showing the strain. RHP Jonathan Holder is the top concern today.
Holder (2-0,1.09 in 26 appearances) was sharp as ever on Thursday night in earning his 15th save this sophomore year and expanding the season record he'd set on Tuesday. The next night was another matter as he couldn't break the curveball into the strike zone at all, and even bounced one off the dirt and his catcher for the tying South Carolina run. It came after tossing 23 pitches to close out the Oral Roberts win, then 35 more on Thursday.
So much as Cohen will want to call on #14 if Tuesday needs saving…he probably won't. Later on in the Tournament should State stick around, maybe. But all understand that the Bulldogs won't get through NCAA weekends without their ace door-slammer. Even, Cohen has said, if this means not having a ‘swing and miss' late reliever to throw at a Missouri. Instead they would rely on ground-ball-type guys.
As for all the other well-worked relievers, RHP Ben Bracewell only tossed 0.2 innings all week coming off his brilliant winning performance at Ole Miss. So he is fresh, and LHP Chad Girodo (3.2 innings in three appearances last week) reasonably so. The key, though, is for Fitts to start this one off strong and take some pressure off both the bullpen and coaching staff as they look down the post-season path.
"Day to day you're monitoring arms and seeing how they feel," Cohen said.
Meanwhile, Missouri is putting lefthanded junior Rob Zastryzny (2-9, 3.64) on the Hoover Met mound. Even before looking at the stat sheet State's staff knew the Tiger starter had sat-out their final regular season series, against Kentucky, at least partly from back issues. So they also knew not to take the record on face value.
Hasty scouting, in the form of talking to coaching friends, affirmed this caution. We're gathering as much information as we possibly can," Cohen said. "It helps us that we're playing the night game (Tuesday), it enables us to get more information because this is a team we haven't played.
"I know from folk we've talked to he's very capable of running through innings. He can get swing and miss, and he's a prospect. I've heard from several sources he's the type of kid that can end up in the firs five rounds."
If there is any encouraging item about this uninformed matchup, it is that Zastryzny is a southpaw…and State saw a whole staff-full of them over the past weekend with South Carolina. In fact several Bulldog left-handed hitters had strong series against the Gamecock southpaws, and the best performances might have been from switch-hitters C Nick Ammirati and 2B Brett Pirtle. So this is something State could be well-prepared for again.
Yet… "He's the real deal," Cohen said. "And if we're not ready for him, he's a guy who can beat you for sure."