The real challenge to Mississippi State poise was on a bouncer to the right side that 1B Wes Rea fielded just fine. It was Holder getting to the relay that made things more interesting. Plus, "It takes a little bit to get moving," the officially-229-pound pitcher said. "And I got going full-speed." At which Rea jumped in "The feed was good!"
"The feed was perfect," Holder agreed, as Rea was sitting right beside him. The problem was he'd misjudged approach and had to shift a little rightward to the bag. "And looked up and the ball was coming. My feet came out from under me." The ball got away, a fifth run scored, and all sorts of scary scenarios flashed across MSU minds.
"We've done that play a gazillion times," Coach John Cohen said. "And to see that ball hit off his glove on a pretty good throw, you're going ‘this is impossible, no way'. But what you have to do, even our coaching staff, is put it behind and say what is important now?"
Why, getting that final out was all that was important. Holder did on his fourth grounder of the last inning, sealing the victory and earning his 18th save of the season. "I just tried to keep as composed as I could."
PILE ON! Speaking of composure…as soon as the last out settled into Rea's mitt, Holder heaved his skyward in sheer relief and joy. Within moments he'd been swarmed by most of the squad for the obligatory dog-pile celebration. It was a bit blurry to the closer, though.
"I don't remember much, but I do remember seeing the ball hit to Detz and he made just about a perfect throw. And I see Wes, full-speed tackle coming at me. It was unbelievable."
Sure, but wasn't it a little scary too having a 270-or-so fellow thundering his way, first to pile onto him? "Well, It's good, I'm glad he got on top and kind of block some people and the pressure from coming down on me."
BIG BOMB…: Rea has had some mighty shots in his career already. The tenth inning walk-off against South Alabama is well-remembered, he's left Pearl's Trustmark Park, and the whole conference saw him take Arkansas deep on opening day of the 2012 SEC Tournament.
But the two-run bomb he unloaded Sunday night against Virginia will be his most fondly-recalled home run to-date. With the score tied in the third inning and two outs 2B Brett Pirtle reached on an infield single, which needs noting as it kept the inning going and made UVa's Scott Silverstein throw again to Rea. In the second inning the pitcher had popped him out.
"I swung at a first-pitch fastball and he jammed me a little bit," said Rea. "It had a little more velo than I thought. So just being a hitter I knew they were probably going to do the same thing. Fortunately I got the same pitch and was able to jump on it a little earlier."
As soon as contact was made, all knew that one was lost. The only question was how far, and Rea cleared not just the fence or even bleachers in leftfield; he carried over the trees too, a two-run shot for a lead State never lost. It was his seventh homer of the season, as well as the first Mississippi State shot of any sort in either SEC or NCAA tournament play.
But anyone who watched State's batting practice Sunday afternoon ought to have been warned. In one four-swing series, he launched three balls to the same field including one just as far as the contact that counted.
…AND SMALLER BALL: Practically forgotten by Monday afternoon was how Mississippi State stretched the lead from 3-1 after Rea's shot to 5-1. They played small ball, aggressively. LF Demarcus Henderson led off the fourth inning with a bunt for a single that caught Virginia flat-footed. An out later DH Derrick Armstrong singled, giving SS Adam Frazier another RBI opportunity.
The hottest hitter in the tournament, Frazier had already driven in State's first run in the second inning with a two-out single. This time he waged a fine fight with Silverstein before roping a base hit up the middle to score Henderson. RF Hunter Renfroe plated the fleet-footed Armstrong all the way from second with a bouncer that was thrown badly from across the diamond. Renfroe simply put it in play and State's hard running did the rest.
For that matter the first RBI by Frazier was every bit as key as Rea's big blast, as Virginia led 1-0 on their own home run. Answering was vital. "I knew we had to score with bases loaded. If we didn't we probably wouldn't win the ball game." A startling statement but as things played out, correct.
ROLE REVERSAL: Sort of anyway. It was just about universally expected Holder was going to pitch the re-start, as starter Chad Girodo had worked a strong stint Sunday. Plus the middle-to-lower half of Virginia's order was due up in the eighth and made mostly of righthanders.
Indeed, as pre-game prep went on Holder as well as RHP Ben Bracewell went to the third base bullpen…and just sat there, neither giving a sign which was the one supposed to throw first. Finally as the Bulldog at-bat got going and produced what proved the margin of victory, Holder started loosening. All fans by now know, the sophomore stopper has a specific, almost religious-like routine that is disrupted only at gravest risk.
The trick, he said, was not to think or act like a starter. "It was definitely different, because I hadn't known I was pitching since high school. Everything was about the same. I got here, warmed-up the same, threw right before we were to take BP. Then rain delay, I started out in the pen and didn't do anything like as tater would do. When the inning started I acted like Coach (Butch) Thompson had called down to the pen and said hey you're in the game, let's go."
Go he did, to pick up his 18th save of the season and 27th career, two short of the MSU career record after only two seasons.
The irony was that had Holder been able to close it out Sunday night, it would have come on his 20th birthday. Mother Nature interfered with that fine story line, but the birthday went well enough anyway. "It was good. I wish we could have gotten it yesterday, but I'm not complaining."
HOME AWAY FROM HOME: Frustrating as a late Sunday suspension was, in one way it played into State's Monday hands. The crowd was way, way down from the first two days as home fans either had to work, had other obligations, or saw the score and didn't think it worth the trouble.
Bulldog backers by contrast stayed the extra day mostly. State reported over 500 tickets sold through the school and more were obtained locally. So the Diamond Dogs had strong support in a road venue. And they loved it.
"Our fans did a really good job," Frazier said. "Stepping up and being into the whole game. It made us feel comfortable. We're glad we got a couple of wins here to make their trip worthwhile. But we're pretty excited to go to Omaha for them also."
PLAY DAY: Having a lead heading into Monday's resumption helped to be sure. Yet locals were surprised at just how loose the Diamond Dogs were Monday upon reporting to the ballpark. As both teams watched the rain fade away at last, and waited for the tarp to be lifted, State players found ways to amuse themselves and others. RHP Kendall Graveman worked on his golf game, using the pitcher's sledgehammer (a conditioning tool) to put a baseball. He found the artificial turf in front of the dugout had a pronounced break to the left.
Bracewell, Myles Gentry, and Luis Pollorena hauled out the football also used for training and ran a few plays, with Bradford ‘breaking up' on pass by former prep quarterback Bracewell. Even before Sunday's suspension Holder was using a cane as a ‘paddle' pacing up and down the dugout. And then there were the usual in-game antics overseen by the Bench Mob, with godfathers Ross Mitchell and Evan Mitchell and Pollorena. Mitchell even had a cap bearing that label on post-game.
Meanwhile Virginia, whether from situation or by temperament, was a calmer but maybe stiffer squad in their dugout. Maybe it had no effect on the outcome…but maybe it did.
Holder, who credits RHP Trevor Fitts as one of the sparkplugs, said it is a simple philosophy. "He says it's a kid's game and we're 20, 22 years old and we get to come out here and have fun playing the game. Sometimes you take for granted, and if you look around you're really blessed to be here."
"Our bench does a good job of keeping us loose," agreed Frazier. "Nobody really cares what they look like, like these guys over here got hair down to their b***!" This aimed at Rea and Holder who were sharing the post-game podium with the shortstop, whose own legendary locks don't allow him much room to critique either.
Even TV commentators have noted how hirsute so many Bulldogs are this year, and after the game Cohen talked about how Fitts had presented him a ten-minute video making the case that players should be allowed facial hair this year. Cohen, tutored by Ron Polk and Pat McMahon, took a lot of convincing on this count, but ultimately agreed. Now all can see the shaggy results.
But whether it is the hair, or how they wear the gear, whatever, "Everybody on the bench is doing crazy stuff," Frazier said. "We just have fun with it." MSU-ELLANEOUS: Mississippi State is advancing to its ninth College World Series. Five times now, Bulldog teams have punched their ticket by winning on a Monday. In 1979, '85, '90, and '97 State won Regionals that were stretched an extra day that sent them straight to Omaha. This year it had to be done in a super regional of 2.0 total innings. Though, the Bulldogs had adavanced to Charlottesville by winning last weekend's Starkville Regional on, yes, Monday.
Cohen is the not the first former Diamond Dog to take a MSU team to Omaha. State's first-ever College World Series squad, in 1971, was directed by alumnus Paul Gregory.
State is now 2-3 in super regionals with wins in 2007 and 2013; losses in 1999, 2001, and 2011.
Brett Pirtle takes a 38-game streak of reaching base to Omaha, a run that began on March 26.
Adam Frazier, who tied the game record with a six-hit Saturday performance, has at least two more contests to set the season hits record. He is tied for second at 102 now with Tommy Raffo (1989), and one behind Brian Wiese's 103 safeties in 1998.
Frazier also has 284 at-bats this year; three shy of David Mitchell's 1990 mark of 287 in 71 games as the leadoff hitter.
This team's 48 wins are the most in a State season since the 1990 team went 50-21. That was Cohen's senior ball club.