Oh, on the usual topics this time of year. Mostly about how pitching is planned to make a run at winning the Lafayette Regional. And since such discussions inevitably revolve around exactly where Mitchell will be applied, why not hear his opinions on the Mississippi State mindset?
First and foremost, they're ready to play ball again. A short break after the SEC Tournament was probably for the best. But "From here on we can't take any more days off. It's going to be a grind."
Goodness knows grinding is Mitchell's forte. The 2013 long-relief star of Mississippi State's Omaha squad has reinvented himself as the long-lasting starter for this 2014 club. In 18 appearances, eleven of them starts, he has ground out 107.1 total innings. That's not just most on this staff but second-most in the whole SEC.
Yet even that number doesn't tell the whole tale. It is the 74 innings he has compiled in those starts, meaning he has averaged right at seven innings each outing. That includes four complete games, too. And his numbers would be even higher if not for a couple of quick—by his standards—hooks from the coaches. Not because he wasn't efficient, Mitchell said.
"Both games they pulled me with no runs, it was some good situations for a strikeout pitcher and hold a lead in a tight game." Mitchell approves of the tactic; why not hand the ball to hard-hammering relievers like Jacob Lindgren and Jonathan Holder to run out a win? Or get a good matchup from a Myles Gentry or other arm?
Approval doesn't mean he liked taking his seat early. "I had a pretty good streak going," he said just a bit wistfully.
Mitchell goes into NCAA season after a no-decision in the last start, working 5.1 against Kentucky in the SEC Tournament. He was replaced for one of those matchups, though Mitchell also said it was not his best performance of the season. "I thought I did pretty well the start of the game. The sixth inning rolled around and they put some good swings on a couple of good pitches, and I made some bad pitches. But that's baseball."
Except that this true lefthander's style is not exactly ordinary baseball. His low-slot delivery and big, sweeping release is about as far from a typical SEC starter, much less ‘ace' as can be envisioned. Mitchell is of course brutal on left-side batters but that same style makes him a better matchup for righthanders than the ‘book' would indicate. Other than his tendency when coming-in on righties to nick our outright plunk them, of course. His ten HBPs are most on the staff, and since Mitchell doesn't throw hard batters will crowd the plate a little closer anyway.
Then as soon as one does get his free pass, he ends up rolled into a double-play often as not. Mitchell is classic in one aspect: he is the dedicated ground-ball pitcher. Sharp ones with consistent hops which put the pressure on Diamond Dog infielders to make it an out. Or two. Every one of those infielders love how Mitchell keeps them on their cleat-toes because it's better to be busy than bored by a string of strikeouts.
And really, Mitchell has "Oh, absolute 100% trust," in the defensive Dogs. "I have to because of the way I pitch! That's important for a pitcher like me and I think most of my success is the defense behind me." It is their stops which erase runners reaching on hits, walks, plunkings, whatever and keep Mitchell on the mound. And keep him there, and keep him there, and…
Mitchell is amused at suggestions his extended stints would push him beyond limits. He's no fireballer so the arm is not strained, and the low slot is easier on the joints too. Then there's that almost inexplicable knack for erasing his own mistakes and working out of jams, and returning for a fresh inning.
"I guess when I'm throwing more, it means I'm pitching better!" Or something.
The fact is that for all the amusement Mitchell provides both on and off the field, he has made himself a quality SEC pitcher. A record-setter too; his 13-0 record last year with every decision coming in relief is something not seen in this league before and probably never again. That was stepping-in for a starter who needed replacing though. This year Mitchell is getting more typical decisions as a starter and the 8-4 record reflects it.
He impressed the league's toughest judges though, as conference coaches voted him second-team All-SEC as a starter. Quite a twist for a fellow who was developed as a matchup lefthander in middle, not even long, relief, eh? At the same time Mitchell's status reminds something else about Bulldog pitching as a whole. There isn't a real rotation in 2014.
And it isn't a problem, Mitchell said, especially for the post-season. A whole season of shuffling and shuttling and just plain scuffling for some sort of trio to open games ought actually be a strength now. State is not tied into any specific scheme and can adapt the staff as each new day demands.
"That's important at this point of a season. And I think we kind of benefit from that. If a team has two starters and not really anything for the third game it can hurt them. But we have such strong long relief I think anything we're ready for."
"We have so many different kinds of pitchers on our team that we can figure out which pitcher gets that type of team. We'll see what kind of teams we're playing and make adjustments off that."
Mississippi State had not officially announced the 1:00 Friday pitching, though following Wedneday's practice both Coach John Cohen and Coach Butch Thompson were planning on righthander Trevor Fitts. The San Diego State batting order is dominated by righthanders after all, and Fitts has started more games this year than even Mitchell. Friday fits his style, too.
Which presumably leaves Mitchell really rested and ready for Saturday…if the Bulldogs win game-one and are facing host Louisiana Lafayette. Yes, the Ragin' Cajuns are also a right-side heavy order…but Mitchell is not the normal southpaw against righties as noted. And in an likely decisive winners bracket matchup it would be reckless not to go with the best Bulldog. Also, should State fall into the losers bracket after Friday, it's natural to think Mitchell can be saved a little longer for another stay-alive game.
Whenever he throws, Mitchell has had a healthy cheering section at Diamond Dog games. This weekend will be a little more special though. "I get to see my great-grandmother, she's coming to Louisiana Lafayette. And she told me before the season I'd better get back to Omaha because she got to go last year!" Some cousins are making the trip too, and of course the immediate family.
Yes, Omaha… Mississippi State is about to take—or try to—the first step towards a return to the College World Series. And attempt it on the road no less. There are plenty veterans of those two weeks in baseball's promised land like Mitchell and one trip isn't enough. But he isn't being selfish…well other than for great-grandma.
"It was fun not just getting to go to Omaha, but the whole team. I would love to experience that again, with some of the new guys. I'm really excited and I think we have a good chance to get back there."
But just the chance. Everything else has to be earned all over again, starting Friday. It's not the same as playing a regional on Dudy Noble Field, but then 2014 has been a very different season than 2013. Only the ultimate goal seems the same.
"It's been kind of like what we've expected, you never know what is going to happen. I didn't expect to be a starter, but I've had to embrace that role!"
Besides, the weekend forecast is increasingly iffy for south-central Louisiana. We know now that there's one Dog who can call for a weather alert if necessity arises.