"I thought Benny really set the tone for us, and Chad was just unbelievable," Coach John Cohen said after watching two moundsmen hold the pesky Bears to six hits, a lone run with only one out left, and 17 strikeouts. This, of a Central Arkansas order that doesn't whiff often or easy.
"The two guys who pitched for us said we're going to force it to go our way tonight," Cohen said. "In these type games when you punch out 17 guys you're really challenging the strike zone with real stuff."
Girodo's stuff was strongest. Entering in the top of the third inning with a 3-0 lead, but with bases stuffed by Bears and only one out, he didn't rise to the occasion. He leaped into the breach. "I was ready to come in at any time," Girodo said. He absolutely was, stranding everyone in that turn and another six before finishing it off with a 12th strikeout. And if not for a borderline call in the last Bear chance he would have capped a shutout, too.
"He was exactly what we needed tonight, he and Benny both," Cohen said. Bracewell took care of the first 2.1 innings with a hit, two walks, and five strikeouts; while Girodo (7-1) got the winning decision with five hits, the run, two walks and a dozen shootdowns.
Of course great pitching was half the title game equation. Bulldog batters set their own opening tone, scoring twice in the first inning and again in the second for the 3-0 lead that set up Girodo for success. And given how Central Arkansas had tormented State in five prior meetings, winning three, scoring any sort of workable margin was absolutely priceless.
Coming a day after getting four-hit by the Bears, concerns were obvious to everyone…but the Bulldogs. "Absolutely not," said RF Hunter Renfroe. Instead of trying to get-big and hit bombs, "We took short and quick swings at it." The result was a 11-hit evening, as well as other contacts that worked just as well.
Because this time it was Central Arkansas self-destructing on defense. Their three official errors and other gaffes like wild pitches and unfinished fielding contributed directly to the first three State scores. Bulldog baserunning built on Bear mistakes too. "Our approach stayed the same, we got real quick and the ball came off really well," said Rea, who went 3-of-4 with two RBI on singles in the fourth and sixth innings and scored once himself.
It was the sort of offensive output State ought to have produced all along, said DH Alex Detz, voted Regional Most Outstanding Player after going 8-of-13 in the four games including a 2-of-3 Monday.
"I think we just weren't going to let this one get away from us. We just felt we were a better team than them and let some games slip away, and we weren't going to let that happen."
Giving Bracewell the ball was an easy call, as State wanted a righthander who could locate strikes against the right-side strong Bears. The fourth-year veteran seized his chance by outing six of the first seven and throwing first-pitch strikes. He did need a fine piece of fielding help in the first though. With two outs and Ethan Harris on second after his double, Blake Marchal pounded the ball to third base.
3B Sam Frost not only knocked it down on the dive to save a run, he recovered in time to tag Harris coming hard to the bag. After the rough glovework of Sunday night that sparkling stop was a visible boost to all Bulldogs. Just as encouraging was putting up a pair in the bottom of that inning to deflate Central Arkansas as well.
Detz singled the other way for a one-out reach, and after fouling off a trio of tosses Renfroe watched a dirtball advance his teammate. His own fly ball to center barely missed the glove of a diving Jonathan Davis on a great effort. Detz, who had to wait and watch, could only take third on the base hit.
2B Brett Pirtle was robbed of a single at first base but the grounder still scored State's first run in Detz. And with Renfroe on second now, 1B Wes Rea pounded a hot hopper that was fielded at third base. But Garrett Brown's low throw skipped the first base mitt so Renfroe came on around and headed home.
Another error set up the next Bulldog score. Frost dribbled it up the right side where the charging first baseman muffed it into foul ground. Frost collided, hard, with the fielder and literally crawled to the bag, shaken up. But not so much that with one out he could take off for second as C Nick Ammirati just tried to tap the ball somewhere.
He succeeded better than planned, his bouncer getting past the third baseman for a single and Frost on third base. That was close enough to score on Frazier's ground-out to the first bag side.
"I think getting a lead was important for sure," Cohen said. It sure was in the top of the third when Bracewell's location left. He walked a pair of Bears around an out, and Davis was able to reach on a dribbler to load all posts. Girodo got the emergency call as a lefthander was due up. He flew Harris out to short leftfield, and fanned cleanup batter Marchal on three swings.
Girodo had an equally intense fourth frame of his own making, with a couple of singles to shortstop around two swinging strikeouts, then a bases-loading walk to bring up the top of the order. Another swinging took care of that jam. "He pounded the strike zone and stayed with the plan," Cohen said. "His slider was magnificent and his fastball really took both sides of the plate."
Even better was getting consistent strike-ones, mostly called. "I knew I had to go first-pitch strike with a club like Central Arkansas," said Girodo. "Because they'll take until they get a strike and they don't like swinging the bat early."
Where the Bulldogs did, making good contact on CA starter Bryce Biggerstaff. He got out of the third on a double-play but was finished before the fourth did. LF Demarcus Henderson doubled between two outs so the top of State's order could swing a third time on Biggerstaff. Frazier got behind but fouled off strike-three, then took the next offering to the other field for a RBI single. Detz chopped an infield single that was unwisely thrown over to first, allowing Frazier to take third behind it.
"Tonight was kind of all about placement," Detz said. "I didn't really hit the ball that hard, but I was seeing it really good all weekend."
This finished Biggerstaff with lefthander Blake Clayton taking over. It was an interesting choice as righthanded hitting Renfroe was up, and the wrong one. Renfroe scorched a pulled grounder under the third sacker's glove to score Frazier for the 5-0 margin.
The Bears' last good chance at a real rally followed as a leadoff walk and pinch-hit double had a pair in scoring spots with none out. Not yet. Girodo got a talk from pitching coach Butch Thompson, who typically leaves the dugout only to change pitchers. Yet Girodo remained after the conversation to get a soft liner to shortstop before consecutive punchouts of Treece and Logan Moon.
The trick was continuing to compete, said Girodo, and not take any lead for granted. "All the way through there wasn't a moment you could let up. You still had to bear down and have your best stuff."
State's two-out scoring strength returned in the sixth too. In fact nobody reached until Frazier legged-out an infield single with two down. Detz was hit on the forearm and not happy about it, but it felt better when Renfroe ripped a hit under the third baseman for the 6-0 lead.
Some fans wanted to see closer Jonathan Holder take the ninth, but most were happier having Girodo run back out. Even a leadoff double, on a drive Renfroe miss-read, wasn't forcing any changes as Girodo got two swinging strikeouts. Order-topper Forrest Allday did save some squad pride, at the price of crowd anger, when he dumped a bunt back to the mound. Girodo fielded and instead of flipping tried to outrun Allday to the bag. Replay showed he did get a tag on his dive; the umpires didn't see it so and Brown did come around to spoil the shutout.
Girodo settled for striking out Davis to complete the victory and the Regional. He also earned All-Regional team honors, along with teammates Rea, Pirtle, Renfroe, and M.O.P. Detz. "I actually didn't know until somebody told me on the walk over here," said Detz, an on-base machine all weekend.
Bulldog batting was well-balanced in the top, middle, and end of the order with seven hits off Biggerstaff (6-5) and five runs. Interestingly only one walk was given to a Bulldog, Rea.
A Monday evening crowd of 8,662 were on-hand to watch Mississippi State score its 11th regional championship since 1978, and sixth at Dudy Noble Field. Interestingly, five of those home-field titles have been won on Mondays after extra games were forced.
"It goes without saying, I'm really proud of our club," said Cohen, who has directed Dog teams to two first-round Regional titles in the last three seasons. Now he takes Mississippi State (46-18) to a super regional at Charlottesville after #6 national seed Virginia took care of their home-field business. The best-of-three series is scheduled for a Saturday start.
Planning is already underway in fact, though the Dogs have earned a little down-time. And, the right to celebrate completing their Starkville Regional with a championship.
As Detz said, "We did what we had to do."