In their previous 33 NCAA Tournament appearances (either the District or Regional formats), Diamond Dog teams have begun 2-0. Eight of those teams went on to win their tournament, including the 2011 (Atlanta) and 2013 (Starkville) squads coached by John Cohen. Other squads beginning with two or more wins and taking the trophy were in 1971, 1981, 1985, 1990, 2001, and 2007.
The four losses were in 1983, 1989, 1991, and 1992. The '89 and '92 teams were playing at home, too.
State has also reached the championship round unscathed and had to play twice, including last year's team which was forced into an extra title game before eliminating Central Arkansas. The same thing happened with Notre Dame in 2000, and the Bulldogs were able to get it done in a second game. The 1983 team wasn't so fortunate as host Texas rallied for a double-header Sunday sweep to take their regional in Austin.
HOT DOGS: It's unlikely any fan, or foe for that matter, is surprised 2B Brett Pirtle is leading his team in tournament-time base hits. The senior second baseman and leading hitter for the full season is 9-of-23 in six tourney games (SEC and NCAA) so far. He's scored six times and driven in four runs as well.
But he isn't alone at the top of the tourney-hitting list tonight. Pirtle has to share the lead with his middle-infield cohort because SS Seth Heck has nine hits himself. The junior is 9-of-24, has also scored six times, and driven in a pair of teammates.
Tied for second after six games with eight base hits are C Gavin Collins and CF C.T. Bradford. But, senior Bradford got all his safeties so-far at the SEC Tournament. Here in Lafayette he's 0-for-7 hitting first in the lineup. Fortunately fellow OF and lefthander Jake Vickerson has his teammate's back; swinging second Vickerson is 4-of-8 in the Regional with three RBI and a run.
BY THE BOOK: It probably surprised observers not familiar with Mississippi State's offensive philosophy when, with a 1-1 tie and a leadoff runner at first base, Pirtle was told to bunt Vickerson over. It did not surprise State fans, though they do often express frustration with playing the game this way. Why take the bat ‘out' of the best hitter's hands?
The approach was justified fortunately. Pirtle bumped Vickerson into scoring position for Collins. And the catcher came through with a clean single into centerfield which let the speed Vickerson come around and home for what became the winning run.
Partly it was the philosophy…but partly it was who State had coming to the plate. That's the faith Cohen has developed in freshman Collins. "And there's something about Gavin. After he gets about two at-bats in, he's better than early in a ball game," Cohen said. Indeed Collins was up a third time against the same pitcher having struck out in the first inning and flown-out in the third. Turn number-three was the magic number.
As noted already Collins is having a fine freshman tournament time at the plate. It is also worth noting: his .360 average in 35 games against SEC teams, regular season or tournament, is actually best on the ball club if only .001 in front of Pirtle. Expectations were high for Collins coming in, and he's probably exceeded most offensively already.
"He's had some at-bats that he wished he could have back early on in ball games," Cohen said. "But he progressively gets better. And he's got power, he's got good feel to hit, and the ball just explodes off his barrel when he gets into position."
Collins did more on his go-ahead hit than drive in the lead run. When the throw came to home, wide and late, he slipped on to second base to get in scoring position himself. It allowed him to take third on a base hit and score on Heck's grounder for the final margin of victory.
In the eighth, it was Pirtle turning a routine single into a double by running hard. He did not score but the play showed how aggressive State was going to be on the bases against this defense. "We saw the outfielders playing kind of back in the first inning," Collins said. "And they played deep pretty much throughout (against) everybody in the lineup. We wanted to try and test their arms."
BRINGING THE HEAT: Jonathan Holder is rightfully famed for his huge 12/6 curveball. It is the pitch that has made him the most successful stopper in Mississippi State history with 37 saves (4th-most ever in the SEC) including last year's epic run of 21 closings. There is more to Holder's 2014 repertoire than the big breaking ball though.
This junior season he is firing the best fastballs of his college career. Stadium radar readings are a grain-of-salt thing and they vary by venue. But at Hoover, Holder was hitting mid-90s routinely. Saturday night in Lafayette on a gun that seems to read a little lower he was still staying 91-to-93 with the fastball, and in one clutch sequence he clocked a 94. This, after he'd bent a ball at 72 to the same luckless Jackson State batter.
Pitching speed is relative but Holder agrees, his arm was a little livelier than usual against JSU. "It's a big deal. Just getting ahead early and using my fastball to my advantage." A brutal one at that as Holder didn't just strike out nine of the 17 Tigers faced; he got eight of them swinging and almost all on a high heater.
Holder has always had a capable college fastball, which his 12/6 curve makes that much more effective given the comparable release points that leaves batters not entirely sure what is coming. But up to now a high-80s pitch was good enough; now he's in the 90s and just throwing it by guys even if they are thinking fastball.
"Yeah, I made a few physical adjustments, I've been working over the whole year really. I feel I've kind of got some stuff figured out--about the right time to do that I guess!" Holder laughed. "But yeah, it felt pretty good tonight." The right time he meant is both this team's post-season, and his own status in the upcoming Major League Draft. A righthander with one big moving pitch and a legit fastball not only looks for a good draft slot but the chance to contribute early as a professional in matchups. That is certainly something LHP Jacob Lindgren can look forward too as well.
LONGER LABOR: After leaving the sacks stuffed in the pivotal fourth inning, it wasn't a surprise Holder returned to pitch the bottom of the fifth as the game was still tied. But even after the Bulldogs regained a lead, this time a two-run cushion, it was Holder taking the hill every next inning. Mississippi State was staking the game and likely tournament on Holder going the rest of the way even if it burned him for any further games.
As Holder said, "There really wasn't a discussion. It was just kind of hey, we need to win this game. Every game we're in is the most important. I told Coach (Butch) Thompson I wanted to stay in until the game was over or until I couldn't hang in there any more." Obviously he hung in very well against overmatched Jackson State.
"The way they were reacting to his breaking ball early on, we felt Jonathan was where he needed to be," Coach John Cohen said. "And they had an eight-man right-handed hitting lineup so that fell in place for us as well."
What the Bulldog coaches now hope is the rest of the staff is in place for tonight's title game and, if necessary, another one Monday. LHP Ross Mitchell is ready and a lot more rested than usual for Sunday evening and Lindgren hasn't tossed in over a week either. State would not have imagined, much less planned on, having both the best lefthanders fresh after two regional games.
Though, "You know, I'd feel good being 2-0 having used everybody!" said Cohen. "Because there are some really good teams in this regional."
IGNORE THE NUMBERS: Which included Jackson State. The Tigers were not outstanding even in their own conference for the regular season but got hot at the right time—no pun intended given the well-publicized burning of their bus and gear—and won the SWAC tournament for the automatic NCAA berth. As a four seed, yes, but by knocking off host Lafayette in the first round and handing the Cajuns their first shutout of 2014 the Tigers showed they aren't a normal #4.
In fact, "This is the biggest mismatch of a RPI I've ever seen," said Cohen, qualifying that he didn't know exactly what the Tiger's ratings was. Never mind. "It doesn't reflect who they are, they're a good team and can beat anybody. They do a lot of little things your average Joe might not notice, they're well-coached and well prepared and have older kids. That's a recipe to beat people."
Maybe more telling was JSU's post-game press conference. Unlike many a four-seed in this setting, there wasn't a trace of ‘just happy to be here' from the Tigers. They were openly frustrated at losing to their in-state cousin and SEC member.
Also, two days into this NCAA Tournament and many a one-seed and for that matter some national seeds (like Lafayette) have learned the hard way to take the four-teams seriously. 2014 in fact is shaping up as the bloodiest season in many a year for top seeds around the country...which obviously leaves a whole lot of teams realizing that the road to Omaha is a lot more wide-open than ever imagined.