By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
ATLANTA – When this season began, Nick Routt was on the shelf, and John Cohen wasn’t sure when he’d get him back, and in how good of shape.
Well, Routt made it back, all right, and on Sunday the junior left-hander threw the biggest game of his career as Mississippi State defeated No. 12 Georgia Tech, 7-3, to win the NCAA Atlanta Regional and advance to the super regional round.
MSU (37-23) will head to Gaineseville to take on Florida, and it’s the fourth super regional for State since this format was introduced in 1999. Last time, in 2007, the Bulldogs hosted and swept Clemson to earn their eighth College World Series berth.
Florida (47-16), which took two of three from the Bulldogs in Starkville this season and beat them in the SEC Tournament, is the No. 2 national seed.
The schedule for the best-of-three series in Gainesville should be announced today.
Routt (3-3) missed most of last season with an elbow injury and subsequent surgery. His return to full-time throwing kept getting pushed back, partly because, as Cohen put it, “He’s a tough read.”
The unassuming Routt eventually became the Bulldogs’ most reliable weekend starter, and he had it all working against top seed Georgia Tech (42-21). Routt threw the second nine-inning complete game of his career, allowing those three runs on six hits while striking out six against one walk.
“It really feels good to get it done and get to a super regional,” Routt said. “This is what I signed at Mississippi State to do, was to go on and play in the postseason. The first two years, we haven’t done that.”
This is Cohen’s third year at the helm, and it was his third season at Kentucky when special things started happening. The Wildcats won the SEC title and hosted a regional in 2006.
After MSU reached the College World Series in 2007, it fell off a cliff, and it’s been Cohen’s task to rebuild the once-proud program.
Heading into this regional, he got the sense his players were refreshed and primed for a strong run.
“Since I’ve done this before, there’s something that happens in Year 3,” Cohen said. “I can’t put my finger on it – something happens. There’s a level of mental toughness that you can just see rise to the top.”
That mental toughness was evident all over the field this weekend, as the Bulldogs beat Southern Miss, Austin Peay and Tech by a combined score of 18-6. State got quality starts from Routt, Evan Mitchell and Luis Pollorena.
That mental edge was embodied by regional MVP C.T. Bradford. The freshman center fielder was 3 of 5 with four RBIs on Sunday, getting a pair of two-run hits in the second and third innings. Both came with two outs, the latter giving State a 6-0 edge.
For the weekend, Bradford was 7 of 13 with five RBIs and three runs scored. “Bradford killed us with his two hits,” Tech coach Danny Hall said.
MSU is now 27-1 this season when scoring at least six runs, and that was more than enough cushion for Routt, who kept pumping his fastball into the strike zone and got some good help from his fleet-footed outfielders – Bradford, Brent Brownlee and Jaron Shepherd.
Scrappy – but talented, too
MSU won this regional as the No. 3 seed, and after his team lost to Georgia Tech in an elimination game Sunday, Austin Peay coach Gary McClure called the Bulldogs “scrappy.”
Cohen thinks there’s more than scrappiness to his squad.
He pointed out Shepherd’s defensive skills, Routt’s tall frame, and said, “It’s hard work and it’s skill. This isn’t scrap, this is talent.”
One of the themes of the weekend was MSU getting off to fast starts. In each game, second baseman Nick Vickerson drove in his team’s first run in the first inning. He did that Sunday with a single to score Bradford.
Georgia Tech starter DeAndre Smelter, a freshman, gave up six runs in 21/3 innings pitched. The Yellow Jackets’ biggest issue wasn’t pitching, but defense – they committed five errors, leading to six unearned runs.