Sunday Bulldog Regional Notebook

For the record, Ross Mitchell has warmed-up in the visiting team's bullpen before, during intrasquad scrimmages. Having now experienced it during a real ball game? "We need to fix that bullpen up," he reports.

Spoken like a for-sure southpaw. That sort of comment is pure Ross Mitchell, who by now is as recognized for being as loosely-wrapped in attitude as he is in delivery. Proof of the former is provided by last week's now-notorious Ping Pong tournament photo, with Mitchell in a camo tank top, goofy socks, and so on.

Proof of the latter is his consistent ability to get outs with a repertoire of off-speed, even off-kilter stuff that baffles the best batters. South Alabama can now attest after Mitchell twirled his way through 5.1 relief innings to earn the Starkville Regional victory. His 12th of this amazing, even astounding sophomore season.

Coach John Cohen is as awed as anyone by the 12-0 record, all in 30 relief appearances. "And every time somebody says that I think, is that possible?"

Obviously so. Records are sketchy on such things, but to the best D.B. can determine Mitchell is the first, full-time, bullpen-only Bulldog to notch double-digit victories. Put in another perspective, he now has more wins than 2012 ace starter and first-round draftee Chris Stratton…who is likely shaking his head somewhere too.

"I don't think much about it," Mitchell says. "I've been put in lucky situations a lot of the year. I'm just trying to win the ball game for the team, if I get the win, so be it." He does have a fair point. By the nature of both official scoring, which rarely awards wins to starters who don't get through five innings; and more to the Mississippi State point the nature of this starting staff, Mitchell has absolutely benefitted from right-time and right-place appearances.

And yet, with 83.0 innings in those 30 stints so-far Mitchell has thrown more turns than any Dog but starter Kendall Graveman's 98.0. So he's earned every decision, as well as one save. He achieves the success with low-80s fastballs and lesser-speed stuff that registers as low as mid-60s on some guns. Spotting it is the key, and why his 1.41 ERA ranks with the best in the SEC in any role.

If the highest praise comes from opponents, count South Alabama skipper Mark Calvi as a fan. "That's as dominant an 81-to-84 as you're going to see in college baseball. He has the ability to keep it off the fat part of your bat. And when he changes speeds there's a differential."

That ‘dominant' comment amuses Mitchell. "I might be the only one that's throwing 81 and 84 in the country! I have to thank him for saying that."

Just as Mississippi State is grateful this Smyrna, Tenn., southpaw came to campus in 2010. And survived, because as is well-known now Mitchell very nearly was cut after an ineffective first fall. So much so, his coaches even suggested transferring to junior college to get stronger and such. Fortunately Mitchell was stubborn enough to stick, but also adaptable enough to change the arm slot and accept a reliever's role.

And now here he is, top Dog in the Dudy Noble Field bullpen. Or bullpens, depending on which dugout State is assigned for Sunday night's championship game.

MR. CONSISTENT: It has become such a consistent sight, that maybe Brett Pirtle's ability to reach first base is almost taken for granted these Dog days. It shouldn't be.

The second baseman has a truly impressive streak going into Sunday, having gotten on-base now in 35 consecutive games. It's a stretch that began back on March 26 and has been maintained against some interesting odds at times. In six of those contests after all Pirtle did not hit his way on, after all.

Four times he's reached by walking; and the other two contests, against Auburn and Vanderbilt, he took a pitch off the body for the free base. It needs noting, this streak has been maintained without resorting to a fielders choice or suchlike.

Still reaching by swinging is Pirtle's preference and the junior has been a hot Dog of late. In the last eight games he is 14-of-35 batting, a .400 average, and has scored nine times. He accounted for the tying run in Friday's rally past Central Arkansas.

Saturday night though Pirtle was driving Dogs in. His fifth-inning single scored SS Adam Frazier and DH Alex Detz with the tying and go-ahead runs during the decisive offensive stretch. Before that swing, he'd struggled against Jaguar Matt Bell with a ground-out and fly-out.

"I didn't have the best at-bats the first two. So I was going to change something. I was going out to do whatever it took to get on base. The bases were loaded and the team needed me." Pirtle provided exactly what Mississippi State needed by slapping a single into rightfield, and the Bulldogs never looked back.

Pirtle also did it on a 1-2 count, a big advantage for a good pitcher in the two-out situation. But then two turns against Bell had given Pirtle priceless scouting of sorts. "Luckily I was sitting on a changeup/splitter and fouling off fastballs. And he threw it in, I square it up and it worked out."

CLUTCH CLUBBING: All six Mississippi State runs against South Alabama—four in the fifth inning, two more in the seventh—came after two were out. Curiously, considering some of the situational swinging issues this offense has had over the season, Pirtle said being both an out away from ending and even down in the count helps clarify the team's plate approach.

"When you go to the plate you go with the mindset of squaring-up one pitch and one pitch only." There are obvious risks of course; a team taught to swing only at strikes and looking for specific ones is subject to umpiring whims. But this weekend it is working well enough to win the games.

Cohen can even joke about it now. "Mentally we're trying to convince our guys it's two outs all the time, that's when they take their best swings!" Somewhat more seriously, the coach said many Bulldogs—notabbly Pirtle, DH/3B Alex Detz, and others—thrive under such pressures. "I think those guys do a great job of simplifying." By which Cohen means not trying to be a big-hack hero; just the opposite.

"They just throw their hands at the ball." And putting a baseball in play often as not now puts the pressure back on a defense unable to cope as well. "It's being selfless, not getting big. Those guys want to have successful at-bats to help our ball club."

ALL THE TOOLS: Along that line, not getting too big let RF Hunter Renfroe come up big Saturday night. Batting right before Pirtle's clutch appearance, and with State down 2-0, Renfroe too was presented with a bases-loaded, two-out situation. Hero time, right?

Right, just not as outsiders would expect from the team's slugging leader. Getting behind 1-2 in the count Renfroe was just looking for contact and got it. He didn't swing too soon or too hard, instead he got around on Bell's offering and dribbled it to the third base side. It was perfect because the Jaguars were sitting back at double-play depth.

The third baseman charged late and had no play on the batter, as C Nick Ammirati scored State's first run. He almost had one behind when Frazier rounded the corner too far, and the throw was a wide but hit Coach Nick Mingione who was prone on the ground signaling Frazier to get back and down. It didn't matter as Pirtle plated that and another runner.

The larger point was how the inning was sustained by Renfroe's under-control swing and faster feet. "He ran a 3.96 (to first base)," Cohen reported. "There are leadoff guys in the big leagues that don't run that on a full swing."

Renfroe can, regularly. His great speed is very well known around the region and, for that matter, to big league scouts who are itching to call Renfroe's name first in this week's June draft. The arm was shown last week at the SEC Tournament with a highlight-tape catch and throw to first base for a double-play. And for good measure Renfroe reminded of his range last night. The game's final out came on a foul-fly that Renfroe chased into the literal right-side corner for a simply great catch.

The bat? Well, none deny that the last two months have been frustrating for him and his offense. From leading the league in batting at .400-plus, Renfroe has slipped to a current .347. His last longball was May 4, and the RBI-double Friday was his second two-bagger of May. And still…Cohen resists moving his biggest bat around in the order.

Because, he said, spotting him between hot Dogs like Detz and Pirtle is helping Renfroe contribute in other ways. He's also got a modest three-game hit streak going too, an encouraging June sign. But last night's nubber-RBI was the real reason Renfroe remains a real threat.

"Those are the kinds of things that don't make a quote-unquote ‘slump' when you have those capabilities. That's special. He doesn't have just one skill that changes the game, he has many. He runs into a wall and makes a play a lot of guys can't make. I don't see slump."

Pirtle seconds that notion. "He's been struggling, but that's baseball, you struggle. What's good about that play is his speed. The (third baseman) was way back, he beat it out and he gave me a chance and Wes a chance. He's fine, he's a five-tool guy and he figures it out. He's fine."

UPDATING: Going into Sunday, Detz was not only leading Mississippi State batting. His 6-of-7 success has him first in Starkville Regional statistics, a .857 average. Mercer's Chesny Young (5-of-8, .625) is second and through for the season now.

Rea is only 10th in average after two games, but the timing of his hits and RBI as well as some really special defensive work should give the big Dog the early lead in Regional Most Valuable Player voting.

Mitchell and Graveman are tied with South Alabama's Anthony Izzo with five strikeouts, showing that this has been a weekend of contact instead of big swings. Nobody has knocked anything out of the ballpark so far.

In fact the ‘longest' safety of the series is Pirtle'S Friday night triple off Central Arkansas. Though, many scoffed at the official ruling of a three-base hit because his drive hit the Bear leftfielder and got through to the fence. The player explained, and replay affirmed, he simply lost track of the drive in the lights.

Related to that, Saturday night Bulldog LF Demarcus Henderson almost let a routine fly get away from him. He had to make a last-instant lunge to get the glove underneath at ankle-level. It was remarkable since Henderson had made a series of better-hit balls that could have gotten into gaps look like easy catches…which they weren't.

Mitchell had a fine view of it from the mound. "That's a tough play with the lights there," he said. "Yesterday a guy missed it."

Through two games for everyone, South Alabama leads in team batting at .319; Mercer was second at .299, the Bulldogs third at .290, and Central Arkansas fourth at .239. But the State staff ERA of 2.00 is half that of next-best South Alabama at 4.00.

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