Given his opportunity to start a SEC Tournament game, with all the single-elimination pressures involved, Laster didn't just rise to the occasion. He leaped for it with 8.1 mostly-dominating innings and put the Diamond Dogs in position for a needed victory. A win which should surely have the junior lefthander in-line for more starting assignments. Like, as early as next weekend's NCAA Regional?
"Oh, I'd love to," Laster said. "If that's the role they want me to play then I'd love to do that."
As recounted in Monday's tournament advance, Laster drew the game-one assignment in Hoover because he had not tossed in the final regular-season series. It left him completely fresh from his last previous appearance on Sunday against Tennessee when Laster settled things down over five-plus innings. The extra rest showed as Laster threw 117 official pitches against 32 Georgia batters, and saved the Bulldog bullpen for end-of-evening dramatics.
Which were why the starter didn't get the deserved decision; that went to Jonathan Holder after losing the save situation when State won in ten innings anyway. In all other aspects the win belonged to Laster.
C Gavin Collins had the best seat in Hoover's house to evaluate the outing. "That was an unbelievable start he gave us. The best start we could have asked for. He's so unbelievably confident in what he does and he's been working so hard all season. I'm really proud of him."
Laster allowed three total runs, the last which ought to have been un-earned because the runner reached on a dropped ball at first base. But that can't count as an error because it was on a double-play attempt. Otherwise Laster was touched for just five hits and gave two walks, while striking out eight.
"He got down in the zone and just worked changeup/fastball, a ton of changeup/fastball and got guys to miss-hit baseballs and allow our defense to work," Coach John Cohen said. "And he got that big double-play, it should have been a double-play in the ninth." State coaches actually chose to lift Laster after the un-turned twin-killing, worried that the instant emotional swing might unsettle him. "And he was at 100-something pitches," Cohen added.
Naturally boards and blogs lit-up with the question, why hadn't Laster been used before. As related in Monday's story, the juco transfer did well to stay on the roster after a very rocky fall camp. Cohen even responded during the early season to Butch Thompson's insistence Laster get work with "the kid who couldn't get anybody out in fall?" Which was entirely true. Laster himself doubted his status mid-semester.
But a lot of pre- and early-season work with Thompson to tweak delivery and armslot and such put Laster on a faster track. Not in time to make the first road trip of SEC season, which ironically enough was to Georgia in mid-March. Laster wasn't too hurt at the time; today he's actually pleased. "You know, that was in a time I was making some adjustments. It wasn't my time to pitch yet."
And as the strange twists of baseball fate had it, this meant Georgia had no first-hand scouting of Tuesday's starter…whereas Laster could draw on reports his fellow pitchers provided along with other video cues. So, "Yeah, I guess it worked out in my favor them not seeing me before."
Laster's one rough inning, the top of the third, was his own fault he said; "I started throwing a lot more off-speed and just didn't locate the fastball on both sides. If I'm not doing that I've got to find a way to get back to it." He did, sitting eight and then six Georgians in a row. And no, he said, standing on the mound in a big stadium with do-or-die pressures wasn't, well, pressure.
"I felt like my team had my back the whole time, so I felt like I was nine people on the mound. I wasn't too afraid of it at all."
GREEN LIGHT: Mississippi State came into the season expecting to put the team's overall good speed to frequent good use. It has not worked out quite as hoped. Yes, the 68 steals through 56 games has exceeded all last year's total 59 thefts. And yes, the Bulldogs have taken a fair share of extra bases with the occasional run-and-hit mixed in. Still the speed hasn't thrilled too often.
But it showed up Tuesday evening, and right when Georgia was off-balance. They had just watched a 2-1 lead turn into a 3-2 deficit when 1B Wes Rea unloaded his two-RBI double, and off a new pitcher at that. Rea was immediately replaced on second base by OF Derrick Armstrong, the team's fastest flyer, in case opportunity arose.
It did. With one out and two on after a more-or-less intentional walk of LF Jake Vickerson, RF Demarcus Henderson grounded to shortstop. Vickerson ran hard into second base and got Georgia second-sacker Mike Bell off his balance taking the throw, so Henderson could get to first base ahead of any relay.
But the real action was rounding third as Armstrong turned the corner and turned on the jets. Georgia recognized it a little late, and the throw for home was a little up the line allowing Armstrong to streak past and slap the plate for a 4-2 lead. Which, as Cohen said, proved mightily important later.
"We don't win the game if that doesn't happen. Coach (Nick) Mingione sends him, we got him running on the play. And I'm just watching the replay on the board and thinking my goodness that guy's fast!" Which is not exactly a revelation; Cohen has commented often how fleet of foot Armstrong is on the paths.
Still, "There are times you're going, that's game-changing speed. You just don't see that very often on a baseball field."
COLOR COORDINATING: Cohen began his post-game interview with "The real story of the ball game, besides our uniforms of course, was Lucas Laster." First things first from a marketing standpoint, maybe?
The special white tops, with the large classic ‘MS' in gray outline and black numbers, certainly were a story. For good or bad, fans are judging themselves and message board polling definitely trends downwards. But, seeing the Diamond Dogs and for that matter all Mississippi State squads in new duds is almost routine by now. Time generally smooths most ruffled impressions anyway, though the pink-trimmed garb used in game-three against Tennessee are probably the exception. At least the vintage-Astros-style strips unveiled at Charlottesville and worn to Omaha last summer have been gradually accepted.
From a player's perspective? Lucas Laster was emphatic about Tuesday's white shirt and white pants with the long sidestripe. "I loved them!" he proclaimed, and not so much for appearance as practicality. "They were very light and I was able to move around a little bit better! I feel I might not have been able to get to that ground ball if I'd had a heavy jersey on!"
SEVEN-AND-GO: As discussed in the previous Notebook, Mississippi State posted a 6-0 record in extra-inning games during the regular season. So when their SEC Tournament opener went into overtime too, were the Bulldogs worried?
"It's just another challenge," C Gavin Collins said. "And we don't mind it at all."
They shouldn't. Extra-inning games aren't just a trademark for this Bulldog team. This was the third-straight year Mississippi State had to put in extra work at the SEC Tournament. In 2012 it was a 10-inning win over Louisiana State to qualify for the semifinals, with Matt Britton making the go-ahead hit for a 4-3 final. Last season of course it was the 17-inning epic with Missouri ending at 12:24am as the Dogs won 2-1.
Other overtime wins at the SEC Tournament were 2003 Ole Miss and 1999 South Carolina. There has only been one such loss; 1996 to Florida, for a 5-1 record when these games go longer than scheduled.
"We're 7-0 in extra-inning ball games," Cohen said. "But we'd sure like to be 7-0 in games we don't have to go extra innings. But that's how it rolls and these kids are pretty comfortable in extra-inning ball games because we play a ton of them."
BIG DOG: It's been a tough junior season for Wes Rea. The team's captain has struggled at the plate with a .253 overall average, after batting .291 last season. And Rea's work with the bat went so far beyond simple statistics anyway. In May and June tournament play, he had an uncanny and unscriptable knack for coming up in a clutch setting…and delivering, by just muscling a ball into the outfield for one or two RBI en route to another victory.
2014 has been another matter, and lineup shuffles in search of any offensive cohesion have had Rea working as a substitute more often than starting. But when Mississippi State got a pair in scoring positions Tuesday night in the sixth inning with none out, and Georgia went to a lefthanded pitcher, Cohen called on Rea. Presumably, to get a fly ball for the sacrifice and tying RBI.
Rea delivered so much more. He came up looking for a first-pitch strike from a UG team that had scouted his first-pitch tendencies well. Rea foiled it with a flawless stroke and contact for the clean double, two RBI, and a game-changing lead. It didn't hold up at the end but neither did State trail again.
"He got that barrel out front and created a good barrel angle, that's the old Wes Rea," said Cohen.
As much as the scoreboard, Rea's production change the club's attitude said Collins. "That really got us going. He's first pitch swinging and he just looked like he was so locked-in right there. He comes up clutch and that's what the captain does, he comes up clutch. He's struggled a little bit, so him coming through I feel was big for all of us."
Laster was even more descriptive what happened when they saw the drive drop. "It's like drinking about three energy drinks at one time, it's just a huge energy boost to everybody."
MEANINGLESS STAT OF THE DAY: There were five balks called in Tuesday's four games.