Not just win the Southern Conference but defend their 2013 crown. A veteran Catamount club, only booked for this series Thursday after weather scrubbed the four-game set with Hoftsta, turned their unexpected trip into a win over a top-ten host. And did so behind one decent offensive inning and a great pitching performance.
Catamount ace Jeremy Null dominated the Bulldogs for eight full innings with just three hits allowed on 113 pitches. The big righthander, 9-2 last season, got this year going in style. He struck out a dozen Dogs against a lone walk, and handed a shutout over to his bullpen.
"He was a two-pitch mix tonight, it was a fastball/curveball," said CF C.T. Bradford, the only Bulldog to touch Null twice. The other single was by DH Daniel Garner, right after Bradford's second base hit in the seventh inning. "He mixed it up a little on the curveball whether it was buried or getting over as a slider, whatever you want to call it. He did a great job."
Not just with the strikeouts either. As frustrating to club and Coach John Cohen was a series of routine air balls, eight in the first six innings and only one getting close to the warning track. A State offense built on line drives and grounders bounced balls around the infield only twice off Null.
"The story of the night is their guy Null," Cohen said. "He threw 113 pitches and we had him throwing 71 variations of curveballs. That's a gutsy performance on his part, you just don't that a lot in the early part of the season. We didn't take good swings against him and he had two of our seniors who've been here four years struck out six times against him."
At that pitch count on opening day Western Carolina wisely chose to relieve their ace arm. This gave the Bulldogs their shot at making it a game though. Colton Davis four-pitched walked the leadoff batter, and after a ball-one to 2B Brett Pirtle was replaced by righty Jonathan Waszak. Pirtle was able to bounce a base hit into rightfield and with a throw to third base he took second too. 1B Wes Rea, who'd struck out three times against Null, made opportunity count with his single to centerfield to break up the shutout.
A grounder put pinch-runner Kyle Hann on second base and after lefthanded pinch-batter Cody Brown was presented a southpaw reliever entered. Bryan Sammons walked the redshirt freshman for the potential winning run, but on full-count LF Jacob Robson flew out to left. Pinch-batter Seth Heck grounded up the middle for the final out.
Both Bulldog runs came at the end, where two Western Carolina scores came in their first. RHP Brandon Woodruff had worked for this starting chance since last April's surgery. Worked hard, and Cohen wondered if the emotions got the better of his junior opener.
"We kind of lost the game in the first," Cohen said. "We walked a couple, hit a guy. I think Woody was a little amped-up and overly competitive. But he's a guy we really think is going to be better than he was tonight."
Woodruff began with two strikes, then plunked his first batter and walked the next. After a strikeout, first baseman Jacob Hoyle singled through the right side for a RBI and Catamounts on corners. Woodruff got called strikeout but walked the bags full for Luke Gragg. The designated hitter spanked a ball to the right side that Rea knocked down but had no play on for a 2-0 deficit. Woodruff got a swinging strikeout on his 40th pitch of the inning.
"Wes made a spectacular play on a ball down the line, that's a double and somehow he gets a glove on it and prevents two runs from scoring," said Cohen. "But if we can get an out on that play it changes everything."
What changed in the top of the second was Bulldog pitchers after Woodruff began with consecutive walks. Mitchell is a long reliever but even he was surprised to enter so early. A successful bunt didn't faze the lefthander as he got swinging strikeouts (one of them re-done when State had run to the dugout before a foul-tip was ruled) to strand the pair. Mitchell rolled double-plays in the third and fourth turns and sat the sixth inning side.
"I was just mixing pitches and keeping them guessing, I had a good defense behind me," he said. Where the Catamounts had outlasted Woodruff they swung early on Mitchell's tempting changeups. "I was able to throw it where I wanted to for the most part and had a bunch of great plays behind me."
The only damage to Mitchell came in the seventh as with one out order-topper Aaron Attaway skipped a double inside first base. With two outs Mitchell jumped off the mound after what he saw as a strike three. He had to return and Cody Jones' one-hopper was two inches too far for Rea to backhand. Attaway scored for the 3-0 lead with what proved the winning run.
Mitchell went the 8.0-plus on 87 pitches, with one run on six hits, a walk and career-best seven strikeouts. "It's definitely the most I've ever thrown but they were a swinging team and I was able to get contact."
Mississippi State didn't get good contact on Null at all, other than Bradford's leadoff single in the fifth inning. He stayed stuck on the first post. Two down into the sixth 3B Alex Detz gave a ride to rightfield which was run down at the track. With two again out in the seventh Bradford came through with another single, again to center, and DH Daniel Garner chipped a hit behind first base for runners on corners.
Lefthander Robson pinch-hit for Henderson and got ahead three balls. Two strikes filled out the count, Robson fouled off a pair, then watched one right down the chute. Null ended his stint with a strikeout of the top of the order in the eighth.
"We fought back and battled and when he left the game it was really different for them," Cohen said. "We're having a different conversation if a couple of balls fall late in the game."
The big-swing Catamounts had eight hits against ten strikeouts, while State mustered five hits all evening. "They're a good team, their pitcher did an unbelievable job and our hitters were grinding," Mitchell said. "They started getting going towards the end but it was a little too late."
Cohen was disappointed by the outcome, but not surprised. It was the risk taken when swapping a stranded Hofstra squad for a conference champion bound for a return to NCAA play. "This is a SEC-caliber team, they won 39 last year and they're really old with a bunch of seniors and bunch of juniors. Yesterday we're trying to find an opponent and they're one of the few teams available. They wanted to compete and did a great job."
A rocky first inning on the hill by a lead starter, using up the long-lefty in the first game, and being three-hit at home over eight innings wasn't the sort of debut the Dogs had hoped for. Neither is it any reason for fear, Bradford reminded.
"Honestly I'm proud of the guys, we stayed calm, we stayed relaxed, and that's a good quality to have. It didn't fall our way tonight but that's a good quality to have because you're going to be in situations like this and that's what you need to pull through."
Cohen said RHP Trevor Fitts (0-1, 3.03 last season) will start Saturday's 4:00 game, while RHP Jordan Smith (7-3, 3.73) is supposed to throw for Western Carolina.