Graveman Earns State's Regional Starting Call

He was talking to reporters in the Diamond Dog dugout. Kendall Graveman's eyes were on the field though, and that part in particular where he will stand to start Mississippi State's post-season path. "I came back for a senior year, and this is one of the reasons. To host a Regional and do something special for Starkville and the teammates I play with."

The righthanded pitcher will hold a pretty special place of his own Friday night. Graveman has drawn the starting assignment when host and top-Regional seed Mississippi State takes on fourth-seeded Central Arkansas. Wednesday morning Coach John Cohen confirmed what was already suspected around Bulldog Country; that on opening evening he wants the most experienced hand on the hill.

A right hand, at that.

"It's probably not a shock to anybody," Cohen said. "They're a really right-handed club, but we wanted to see what matched-up well against them. And we feel Kendall is our best matchup."

The conventional left-on-right wisdom usually applies when these Diamond Dogs are setting the batting order. Pitching-wise it is another matter. Mississippi State certainly could hand the ball to lefty Luis Pollorena to begin the scheduled three-day Regional, just as has been done most of the season's weekend series. Cohen and pitching Coach Butch Thompson have a different perspective in this case, this matchup.

"Kendall does a great job with the running game and bunt game, and he's one of the better command starters we have." All those are obvious factors after a quick scout of the Bears. A re-scout rather, because the teams just happen to have played a three-game series back in early March, won by the visitors. Though fans came away from Dudy Noble Field impressed with how Central Arkansas swung their sticks, the coaches and pitchers saw other factors.

The statistics sheet reinforces those earlier impressions. UCA doesn't hit for a great average but gets on base in so many more ways, by working counts and taking balls and especially getting plunked. They have 117 hit-by-pitches so far, so command is very much key. That and the umpire's strike zone, which nobody will know until game night of course.

What Graveman knows already is challenging enough.

"They'll pitch-count a starter, they do a really good job being patient. We watched video, if you throw pitches in the zone they'll swing at it; if you throw out of the zone they're disciplined and will take pitches. Our whole goal is to get strike zone, and that's baseball. If you can get strike-one you get early contact and start getting ahead of people."

Graveman has his own first-hand experience with this UCA order. He started, and lost against the Bears in that series, working 5.2 innings with five hits, four runs, three of them earned. On the plus-side he only walked one and struck out seven in the 7-3 final.

Besides, Cohen reminds, the Graveman of late May is a different Dog than in early March. "I think he progressively got better. Again he wasn't that far off surgery." Meaning the off-season procedure for a sports hernia that dogged Graveman in the 2012 post-season. He's healthy this senior year. Graveman is also reasonably well-rested for a Friday start, having last thrown Thursday-week ago starting State's win over Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament. He went 4.1 innings and if not for a couple of consecutive first-inning fielding gaffes might have gone a lot longer.

"Certainly he is a guy we can believe can get us off to a great start," Cohen said.

Which would be a very welcome change of Mississippi State's pitching pace for almost two months now. Quality starts, getting into the sixth inning or so, have been few and far between. As the record shows this hasn't necessarily doomed the Dogs. A remarkable collection of bullpen characters have filled relief role admirably. In fact the relievers have more wins than the starters, which also reflects on the sort of late-game heroics achieved by a scrappy State offense.

Still…the best way to begin a Regional is a strong starting stint. "And Kendall gives us the best chance to get off to that great start," Cohen said.

Central Arkansas is expected to come with a senior righthander too. Caleb McClanahan is 10-5 in his 16 starts with a 2.17 ERA. He's struck out 80 and walked only ten, and been a workhorse with 116 innings. Many of them, coming down the stretch where UCA had to make a late charge and Southland Conference Tournament run to win the NCAA berth.

"Their number-one who I'm sure we're going to face, he's had a week," Cohen said. "We're counting 249 pitches over ten-day period or whatever. That guy is a warrior and he'll be ready Friday night."

McClanahan started the Friday game State won in the series, going 4.1 innings with just two runs on three hits before five teammates took turn in relief. What Bulldogs recall most of that evening was how starter and lefthander Jacob Lindgren lasted two batters before the second one, Blake Marchal, lined a shot off his knee and sidelined the Dog for a while. Though State won that game the disruption to the rotation rippled through the weekend.

"But it was really the first test through the year that we faced," Graveman recalled. "But I think we're more well-prepared this time." Then again he assumes nothing in this matchup, not least because both the Bulldogs and Bears are senior-led squads that have been seriously seasoned this and previous years.

"That's what you want. When you host a Regional you know you're going to get that out of some team, there's going to be another ball club just as skilled."

Cohen said setting a Friday starter wasn't as complex as fans like to make it. There is greater risk of over-thinking pitching plans in fact. "When you don't know who you're going to face on day-two it makes it difficult to maneuver. So you want the best matchup for day-one.

"Because if you win it does change the nature of the tournament, conceivably you can have a three-game set. If you don't you're going to have a four-game set. And everybody in this tournament is trying to win game-one."

The 7:00 debut for State (#2 South Alabama and #3 Mercer square-off at 2:00) can't get here soon enough. Preparing three seasons to host a Regional would have Graveman and other upperclassmen energized enough. But looking at the field today, well…

"Monday, Tuesday it kind of felt like a long way off. But you hit Wednesday and it's here, you come to the field and they're getting the field ready for the weekend. You show up a little earlier each day, just the excitement. It's something that around here we've waited for for a while. It really gets exciting the closer you get."

The excitement extends to an over-worked Ticket Office which reported this morning all chairbacks have been spoken for. General admission tickets for the full Regional are on sale at $50. Individual general admission tickets ($10) go on sale Friday.

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