Tatum Making Case For A Rotation Role

It could have been the first strikeout. Or, maybe when he struck out the entire first-inning side. Certainly when he shot down a fifth-straight batter, Vance Tatum had to know something special was going on. “I really had a good feel at the beginning of the game.”

Good? It’s fair to call the beginning of Tatum’s performance just plain great. And the rest of his Sunday victory was pretty darned impressive, too. The sophomore lefthander dominated Samford for eight full innings in a 6-2 win that capped yet another unblemished week for the unbeaten Diamond Dogs.

Game and weekend alike signaled something else. Mississippi State seems to have the makings of a real pitching rotation for 2015.

More than enough makings in fact. Which means coaches John Cohen and Butch Thompson have some interesting choices to make in coming days. Interesting in a good way, that is. The 13-0 Bulldogs transition from round-robin weekends against two opponents, to a true series as they host San Diego.

And that series itself prepares the next and biggest transition: to conference season the following weekend. So, Cohen said Sunday, “We’ve got one more week. (This) week is really interesting because we don’t have four, we have three. So we’re going to have to make some tough decisions leading into SEC play.

“We have some great candidates, I thought we had four great starts and that makes your decision a lot tougher. But at the same time it’s a lot more pleasant when you have lot of guys pitching well.”

The Diamond Dogs are doing exactly that. With just a couple of isolated hiccups, the MSU mound staff dominated Arizona and Samford. As importantly, they did it without the same sort of lopsided scoring provided in most of the preceding nine wins. Yes, the offense put up runs for reasonably comfortable wins against Wildcats and (visiting) Bulldogs.

At the same time it was the men on the mound setting State’s tone. None made a bigger statement than Tatum, with his 12-strikeout outing. The sophomore southpaw was worried the Sunday game might get washed away by weather. As soon as he toed the Dudy Noble Field rubber a half-hour behind schedule, though, Tatum was right on track.

“I just went in with the right mindset.” The right stuff, too. He used fastballs and sliders for the early innings, and struck out nine of the ten Samfords he saw to start. True, those Bulldogs are a free-swinging bunch due to their cozy home park. But Tatum wasn’t just teasing batters. He was razor-sharp, with 16 of his first 17 pitches called or swinging strikes.

Tatum also showed he could adjust, once Samford started sitting on fastballs mid-game. “So I introduced the changeup a little more to them.” And the strikeouts resumed, three in his last two turns. And in one inning, Tatum got Samford swingers to ground right back to…him, for outs almost as easy as the fannings.

“I felt like it was pretty easy,” Tatum said, not bragging a bit. “I wasn’t out there over-throwing or anything. I just had it all in my legs.” Thompson also let Tatum go back out for the ninth with the 6-1 lead. “I told him it was my game!” Samford spoiled the complete-game bid with a leadoff double and eventually would get a run charged to Tatum off a Trevor Fitts pitch.

The larger point was how in a third appearance of the young season, this regular reliever of 2014 showed the strength of a long-stint starter. “The last couple of starts have built the endurance up a little bit. And I finally had all my three pitches. I was able to throw all three of those. So that felt really good.”

How good? What can compare to getting a big-swing strikeout, or hitting the corner for a called K?

“Maybe limiting-out on ducks in twenty minutes?” Tatum suggested.

Tatum understands that SEC batters are not going to be sitting ducks for himself or any Bulldog starting pitcher. But he really, really wants the ball to begin a game with Alabama weekend-from-next. Based on his three outings so far, with two wins in as many starts, a 1.50 ERA and 25 strikeouts against five hits, Tatum is making a mighty case for inclusion.

But, so are several teammates. RHP Preston Brown has opened all three weekends with winning decisions, a 2.12 ERA and 22 strikeouts. Brown has given up hits in his 17 innings but limited runs and pitched to the defense’s strengths.

State was encouraged how LHP Lucas Laster shook off a slow first start to whip Samford on Saturday, going 6.1 innings with seven strikes and best of all no walks. And until Tatum did his thing, RHP Austin Sexton’s 10-strikeout, no-walk win start against Arizona was the talk of the weekend. Sexton did not get the decision, as one good-guess swing by a Wildcat produced a two-run homer and tied game.

Fortunately LHP Ross Mitchell was ready to step in and throw the last three-plus innings and, by taking over a tie, get the decision and his own third win. What MSU fans eager to see how 2015 pitching should take from that is how Cohen and Thompson have stuck to the pre-season goal of keeping loose lefty Mitchell in the bullpen. And, using former starter Fitts (a 0.00 ERA in five games with four saves) for later relief.

What it means is, for the moment at least, four quality candidates for the three weekend starting spots are establishing themselves. For that matter MSU isn’t writing off freshman RHP Jesse McCord, either, though the rookie righty might be best developed with midweek starts and wins at this early point. And soph RHP Dakota Hudson is having to settle for mid-relief stints, at the moment anyway. His stuff has been outstanding with a hard fastball that gets scouts excited.

Were this not enough to excite Bulldogs who have for years bemoaned the lack of a real ‘rotation’ here, there’s even more good news. RHP Paul Young, the 2014 signee who has sat since rehabilitating from surgeries, is thissss close to activation. Meaning, add another candidate to a list longer than any political party touts these days.

So Tatum knows, one big game isn’t winning any weekend job just yet. Nor should it. “Coach Thompson and Coach Cohen admitted to everyone that our starting pitching had a lot of depth this year, a lot more than people expected. And our bullpen has even more depth than people expected. So whoever’s number is called, it’s called and they are asked to do the job.”

Ahhh, but what none of the other pitchers have is Tatum’s entertaining title of ‘Moonlight’. Fans and media alike have seized upon the nickname, which is definitely a headline writer’s dream. But whence comes such a lunar label?

“My sophomore year of high school I went out to Oklahoma for the Junior Sunbelt Classic with Mississippi,” Tatum recounts. “The week before I went out there I pitched at 9:00am. I think I might have got out of the first inning.

“And so the first thing I told the pitching coach, I said hey, I can’t pitch in the morning time, whatever you do please don’t pitch me in the morning time! They kind of assumed I could only pitch at night.” Thus began the Moonlight legend, which MSU teammate Myles Gentry seized upon.

“Myles Gentry started calling me ‘Moonlight Tatum’. And it was right when Twitter started getting big; I need a name. That’s what it was, and it’s never changed since.”

Now if Tatum has his way, status as a starter won’t change either. But he knows all about the decisions his coaches are making these days, so “Whatever they put me is fine with me.”

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