Yep, just one closer and that’s sort of a shame since for four decades Mississippi State has been blessed with excellent, or exciting, or both sorts of door-slammers. But selecting our closer was reasonably simple.
The rotation? Not quite so much. Oh, picking the Diamond Dog moundsman to open it up was as easy as it gets. Then things became really interesting. Because pitching is where comparing styles, eras, teams, etc., is a far larger factor than hitting and fielding.
Consider that Bulldogs who have the most wins typically threw in the years of SEC double-headers and seven-inning games. That doesn’t lessen their greatness. It does mean pitchers from the early 1990s on had to pace themselves a little differently. Or, did they? Because nothing has changed more in college and for that matter professional baseball over the last three decades than relief pitching. Starters don’t have to stay on the hill and take beatings, they get lifted earlier and oftener.
The other factor, and this became key in choosing between two nearly equal candidates from similar era, was the offense supporting the starter. Or lack thereof. Folks say a double-play is the pitcher’s best friend? Most Dogs we’ve known would rather have a three-run lead to pitch with.
So take all that, use it to narrow the field down to what became six leading candidates for three spots, and set the starters. There was no way to go wrong with any rotation!
STARTING PITCHER: RH JEFF BRANTLEY 1982-85 45-12 (#1 wins), 3.14era, 427.0 innings (#1), 63 starts (#1), 364 strikeouts (#2)
There have been Bulldog moundsmen with a few better statistics. There have been those with better pure stuff. There is no, repeat no other Mississippi State pitcher who would be selected to throw for this team on the first start of a series or tournament. In fact he should be the real face of Diamond Dog baseball for both achievement on the field and for leadership in the dugout. Not a bad record at all for a fellow who signed out of high school as a shortstop/pitcher. To be fair his Major League image of the scrappy guy making lesser stuff work was plenty over-played. Brantley was as skilled a college pitcher as there was in his 1980s era. He might not necessarily overpower or out-craft; he just pitched the way pitching is meant to be. And he won, more than any Bulldog before or since. The irony is how his greatest single game was actually his last in the College World Series elimination round; and a loss though the decision went to the reliever. With elimination looming and on precious little rest Jeffie threw eight heroic innings and four more balls on a 95-degree Omaha Saturday. It was an outing for the ages and was just as much the epitome of 1985’s ultimate frustration as the grounder off cohort Gene Morgan’s ankle the night before.
PITCHER: RH BOBBY REED 1987-90 35-7 (#2 wins), 2.92era, 52 starts (#2), 305.0 innings (#7), 185 strikeouts
He’s not top-ten in strikeouts or earned run average (a stat that typically favors relievers anyway), though he certainly had the blow-away stuff to use if necessary. ‘Bo’ Reed rarely had to try powering it past a batter too often though. He just rolled steadily through orders and innings producing defensible contact, throwing on what we now call a hard downhill plane from his height and high release point. And unlike all our other candidates for the rotation he was NOT in top-ten in walks, either, reflecting consistent control. Considering all of those innings he worked that might actually be Reed’s best statistic. Oh wait, no it isn’t. Reed comes in behind only Brantley in the category that counts most: he won games. A total of 35 victories and in just 58 appearances. Now would you like to know what makes him truly stand out? Reed lost only seven games in four seasons, two of them as the lead Dog in the rotation going against SEC aces. That’s the definition of a winner. Of course it didn’t hurt having Pete Young and Jon Harden closing out his decisions, as well as throwing with some of the best batting orders in program history giving him leads in the first place. But somebody still had to get those victories started on the mound. Few have done it better here.
PITCHER: LH Paul Maholm 2000-2003 27-10 (tie#5 wins), 3.55era, 273 strikeouts (#4), 312.0 innings (#4),
This was really, really, really close between Maholm and Eric DuBose (1995-97). And no, the decision did not come down to which had the longer or better professional career. This was purely settled on Diamond Dog days by both comparing statistics…and by noting that Maholm pitched for slightly less-quality teams but had equal or better numbers. Speaking of equal, both had 27 victories; Maholm just got his wins while working ten fewer career games. His 6.8 innings-per-appearance is the highest of any Bulldog we reviewed in fact, a fitting reflection of pure durability and at times sheer grit. Now to be fair Maholm did come to college (remember the story that he had moved into the room but delayed showing up for his first class while still dealing with the club that drafted him?) right after the first NCAA attempt to deaden the bats a bit. That helped with the strikeout numbers a little. But Maholm didn’t need much such help anyway. He threw hard enough and from the left side obviously, yet beat people as much on location and movement with just 105 walks in three seasons. It’s also worth noting he was the last truly top-tier lefthanded State starter. Of course DuBose was also a southpaw, so feel free to disagree with our selection. Just like a dozen years later every MSU fan vehemently disagrees with Ron Polk’s starting Maholm on opening day of the 2003 Starkville Regional instead of having him for pivotal game-two.
CLOSER: Jonathan Holder 2012-14 81 apps (#4), 11-2, 1.59era, 37 saves (#1), 191 strikeouts
Sometimes you just let the numbers settle the score. No bullpen Bulldog has Holder’s numbers, so he wins. He not only holds the career and season saves records but is eight-ahead of #2 in each category. Because he was a closer and thus did not have the total turns his total strikeouts don’t make any top-tens. But that’s also because there isn’t a category for strikeouts-per-inning and he had 191 fannings in 135.2 official frames. Even better for a guy throwing in all-or-nothing situations, Holder walked just 31 guys in three seasons coming out of the bullpen in pressurized situations. And he did it with a classic 12/6 curveball batters knew was coming but just couldn’t keep from biting on. Because his senior year saw some struggles after a pre-season finger injury, and lack of offensive support or more to the point quality catching of the breakers, the legend lost a little luster. It shouldn’t. Besides, name any Bulldog who better fitted his walk-up song?
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Obviously DuBOSE is first on our minds. Yes he played for better teams on the whole, though to be fair again he arrived when State was in the mid-90s rebuild mode with that brilliant 1995 rookie class. A career ERA of 3.55 in the nuclear-bat era speaks for itself, as does 20 complete games in 56 appearances. He also probably had better pure ‘stuff’ than Maholm hence ranking #1 in strikeouts at 428. Hmmm, now we’re re-considering again… Starting pitchers are rarely if ever noted for dugout chatter. JACK LAZORKO (1977-78) was the exception. If it was possible to use naughty words and in funny ways, Jack knew it. Fortunately he was just as proficient as he was profane with 18 wins in two seasons. The most remarkable individual single season of all belongs to DON MUNDIE (1979-81). As a senior he didn’t just win 14 of 21 games, he threw 16 complete games. So what if most were seven-inning contests and relief pitching was a whole different deal back then, that’s 16 complete games! He also got to work two College World Series. Going back to the dawning day of Dawgs’ Bite we remember DON ROBINSON (1975-78), who also became Ron Polk’s first standout starter. All these years later he’s still top-ten in wins and strikeouts and #3 for innings too. He’s also one of just four Dogs to start 50 times.
About 1990 or so Polk and assistant Steve Smith decided pitching meant college success. They didn’t realize bats were going truly nuclear and State fell out-of-step with the game and really never recovered all the lost ground. Story for another day. Still the recruiting did bring in some great arms. Jay Powell (1991-93) may well be the greatest what-if of them all. Able to bring it at nearly triple-digits pace as a frosh closer, he was set back by bone issues; then State couldn’t 100% decide if he was a reliever or starter. Dedicated to either of those roles he’d could have become an all-time best. He was an all-time character. Among the other outstanding signees of that era the top talent probably was B.J. WALLACE (1990-92). His 19-strikeout performance in the 1992 Starkville Regional and then-record 145 for the season showed what Wallace was capable of, he just was a little too inconsistent using those tools and could’ve used the toughness shown by peers like Gary Rath, Kyle Kennedy, et.al.
A good comparison to Powell was indecisive use of Jonathan Papelbon (2001-03), who eventually became a regular reliever with 13 saves in three seasons. He’s a case of a Dog who did better once in pro ball. Much better. One beneficiary of Holder re-setting the saves records was Van Johnson (1995-98). Because it made everyone remember how proficient he was closing games himself with 29 saves, besides setting an appearances record of 115 which will be tough to top. From the Strange But True File, we present the improbable career of Ross Mitchell (2012-15). How else to describe a record of 27 victories with just 14 starts, something which can never happen again. Unless present-day State continues this dozen-year-and-counting struggle to find a real rotation. Then who knows?
Finally, from a writer’s standpoint the best individual ‘story’ of Bulldog Baseball history belongs to none other than JON HARDEN (1989-92). It wasn’t just that he was a near-sighted goofball who drove coaches and especially catchers nuts missing signs and throwing something unscripted. Or that on a team of characters he was the truly a stranger in a strange land. Today’s fans owe it to themselves to find any scrap of video of ‘Chaka’ throwing his eephus pitch…for strikeouts. You really, truly had to be there, and even we who were still can’t entirely believe what we saw…