A Weird And Winning State Staff

OMAHA -- Some would say Mississippi State's management of the pitching staff is, well, different. Others might call it unusual. Jonathan Holder keeps it simpler. "We're weird."

Maybe so. But weird sure has equaled winning for this Diamond Dog crew, to the joy of fans and frustration of foes struggling to get a grasp of Mississippi State pitching plans…as well as a bat on their pitches.

"Yeah, we're definitely not the normal," Chad Girodo agreed. "We're definitely not traditional. But everybody has their own role and we just work together and we all know our job. We know when our number is called do your job, and if not somebody is right behind you just as good."

As good though in a different sort of way, that is. Girodo is correct about a most non-traditional staff where essentially only closer Holder has a classic sort of identity. And even he has seen duty this season in non-save situations, throwing before half-way of games.

"We're different," said Holder. "I think that is what makes us good though." Sufficiently so that Mississippi State is about to make its best pitch, or pitches, for a national championship. The College World Series' best-of-three title round begins Monday, with Trevor Fitts (0-0) throwing first pitch of the evening for the designated ‘home' team.

Handing the ball to someone without a decision, and for that matter only five starts in the sophomore season, almost epitomizes how differently the Dogs do things. "And it's hard to run from at this stage!" said pitching Coach Butch Thompson, the not-so-mad scientist constantly coming up with fascinating formulas for success. Or just plain survival.

"Butch has done a great job with our pitching staff," Coach John Cohen said. "From the very beginning in the fall we've tried to structure it to where ‘you're going to face lefthanders' and ‘you're going to come in this situation'. Our kids feel really comfortable in that role."

Except when they aren't comfortable…physically that is. It's fair to say because first starter Kendall Graveman didn't feel at his best Friday, his team is now playing for the championship. Or as Graveman said it, "I was really locked-in and focused because I didn't feel great."

"It's that time of year when you're over 100 innings and are coming off a short rest. I wasn't sure if I was starting or not so I threw a pretty good bullpen." Again, this on-the-surface madness followed MSU's underlying method, with Graveman anyway. And it really worked well against an aggressive Oregon State order, Thompson said.

"I told him I think you've got a chance to be even better. I think you'll be in the bottom of the strike zone more, change speeds more, and be better." Indeed, Graveman was as five scoreless innings showed, against a team that had run him off in 4.2 frames a weekend earlier. Thompson expected better the second time-around because, first, Graveman's arm was tired. Not a lot, just enough.

"He never comes out in the first inning like he did after he has a lot of rest. He's trying to throw it through a door and it's up and he gives up potentially two runs in the first inning." Instead Graveman stayed down and the Beavers had to chase his locations; another adjustment from the first meeting.

"See, he got through two hitters the second time through the lineup. We treated it as we picked-up where we left-off, we were facing them the third and fourth times through the lineup. And Kendall's brain is so sharp, you saw his strengths come into play. He saw somebody, within a week he saw them again, and he really knew what he wanted to do. He came out with three pitches in the first inning and really pitched."

Doing so confounded another item of conventional wisdom, that the second facing favors the offense. What Thompson couldn't help thinking though was of a much younger Graveman, the kid he'd signed out of Alexander City, Ala., on the urging of friend and ten-year big leaguer Scott Sullivan. "He coached Kendall in summer ball, said this is a boy that someday I believe is going to be a man of integrity, that's why you should take him and give him a scholarship." State did, then one awful day at South Carolina Graveman was shelled for ten runs as a rookie.

"I remember him crying and having to get him back in the hotel, sitting with him in the lobby three hours past curfew saying I got you; you're going to be OK because you can do this, this, and that." And here Graveman is, two College World Series games (one a winning decision) under his belt and hoping to start a third. No, demanding.

"I've already talked to Coach, right after the game. So I'll be knocking at his door, but that's their decision. That's the only thing I can ask, and the only thing they can ask from me is to be honest with how I feel." Saying ‘not great' might work just fine.

At this weird season's point Graveman is the closet Dog to an ace figure, and Fitts is the alternate. Who would open an if-necessary game-three hinges more on who throws how much in relief the first two outings. And if he doesn't toss at all, unlikely as that is, there's a lefty who will ask a chance. For the Indiana game Girodo actually was hoping he'd get the call.

"But I knew I'd get the ball at some point in time, whether it was the second, third, seventh I knew I was pitching at some time. So you have to always stay locked in, luckily I got in pretty early and got on a roll." And earned the long-relief win following up on Fitts with 6.1 innings. Remarkable innings, and the latest example of how this senior southpaw is the breakout surprise of the post-season.

In four NCAA Tournament outings, Girodo is 3-0 with a 2.33 ERA. The amazing stat though is strikeouts; 34 of them in 19.1 innings. Now only Holder has more Ks for the season, 86 to 73. Against Indiana he added ten to the total, yet "I really had no clue! It didn't feel like I had but five or six.

"I try to get in a zone and not worry about anything, just get people out. Luckily its been going well for me. But you never know, next time I could strike out none and get knocked-off the mound."

Not likely if Girodo is catching corners and slipping strikes through the zone. This senior may well be the archtypical story of the staff-season, because as a junior Girodo was essentially an afterthought with barely seven total innings in 2012.

Fast forward a year and here is Girodo, 9-1 on the season and a 9th-round draftee of Toronto with a wicked low-slot slider. Thompson got a hint from an old Dog the pros would come after Girodo, too. "Jay Powell is texting me that guy is going to pitch in the big leagues. I'm like c'mon Jay!" Count Powell as a prophet now.

For that matter former big leaguer and broadcaster Ben McDonald was watching Girodo at the Charlottesville super regional, commenting on how different the arm slot in his press guide photo from '12 is compared to now. This caught Powell's eye as pro potential, especially as lefthander. "Jay said there's not enough that have that, he goes from vanilla to a unique lefty and he's in a category few are." For which Thompson takes minimal credit.

"No. I'd be lying. He took to the adjustment, and this last month he's blown-up. He's in the zone, whatever the word you use, and I'd like him to stay a little bit longer!" Nor is Thompson about to tweak Girodo any further at championship time. His pre-game routine with the pitcher is simple: "Is Chad on the bus? OK, we can leave! But it's at the point what am I going to do? He works hard on his own, you just want him to stay with it."

Ross Mitchell isn't in just a zone. This amazing southpaw is out in a galaxy of his own. Not just because he is absolutely most unlikely 13-game winner in college or any other level of baseball, but Mitchell hasn't absorbed any losses either. He seems prouder of that -0 than the 13-part of his record.

"Once a team scores it's hard to keep the other team scoreless because they're doing everything to come back. For me it might not be the same way, but I was able to get some outs." Not least by rolling grounders for double-plays, lazy fly balls…or even a remarkable number of comebackers to end innings as a deeper statistical analysis surely would show.

If Mitchell and Girodo aren't tough enough long relievers to cope with…there stands Holder in the bullpen ready to seal deals. He's thrown in four-straight games now but for just 0.2 and 0.1 innings the last two outings, so no worries about a tired arm for Monday. Or Tuesday.

And as formidable as Holder's stuff can be, with 90-mph or better fastballs to either side and a curveball that truly breaks 12/6, he benefits directly from those lefties preceding him. As 1B Wes Rea sagely noted last week, he'd hate to see a Mitchell one at-bat and return to face Holder the next.

"Maybe that's been part of the success," Thompson said. "I don't think that's coaching or anything, I think for whatever reason we found a way of disrupting timing, of different styles that has worked." Which the coach isn't about to mess with now.

"We practice everything," said Holder. "We've been in all types of situations, really I think the coaches feel comfortable putting anybody in any situation." This, to the continued bafflement of opposing orders struggling to grasp a pitching staff which works off an inverted script.

Weird, yeah. But in a winning way.

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