By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
ATLANTA – Evan Mitchell could hear his friends calling for him, but he just tried to keep his head down and tune it out.
He did, and it’s that sort of focus that has Mississippi State on the brink of something large.
Behind Mitchell’s arm and some suddenly hot bats, the No. 3 seed Bulldogs (36-23) are one win away from advancing to the NCAA super regional round after an 8-3 win over No. 4 seed Austin Peay (34-23) at Russ Chandler Stadium on Saturday night.
The Governors must face Georgia Tech at 2 p.m. today in an elimination game, and the winner will turn around to play MSU at 6. If State wins that game, it wins the regional. If not, it has another chance Monday to win it, because it’s a double-elimination format.
Mitchell (6-1), a freshman right-hander from nearby Marietta, Ga., tossed eight shutout innings before being touched in the ninth. He was charged with three runs on five hits, striking out eight in the longest outing of his young career.
Dave McDonald, Mitchell’s high school coach, was among the 100 or so friends and family members on hand.
“He’s always been such a laid-back kid that I was confident he’d be totally focused on what he was supposed to be doing tonight,” McDonald said.
Mitchell has come on strong late in the season, and that seems to have rubbed off on his teammates. Cohen, MSU’s third-year coach, thought big things could happen for this team despite going two-and-out in the SEC Tournament.
He gave the players two days off after the quick exit, and they returned with renewed energy.
“We haven’t done anything yet, but just from our practices last week and these last two ballgames, I feel like our kids are reenergized,” Cohen said. “There’s a spring in their step, the barrel’s getting there a little cleaner, our delivery’s a little bit better, it’s a little cleaner defensively.
“Everything’s just a little sharper.”
State’s bats were a little off at first. It got a run in the first inning but left the bases loaded both that inning and in the third.
But the Bulldogs broke through with seven runs in the fourth, and that made life a lot easier for Mitchell.
“It was definitely nice to get to pitch in front of my friends and family, but I didn’t want to think too much about it and get all caught up in it,” Mitchell said. “I wanted to treat it like another day, another outing.”
MSU was three outs away from recording back-to-back shutouts for the first time in NCAA postseason play – it beat Southern Miss 3-0 on Friday. But Austin Peay loaded the bases in the ninth to chase Mitchell and got all its runs after he left.
In the critical fourth, C.T. Bradford roped a Jeremy Dobbs pitch down the right field line to score Ryan Collins, and Bradford scored on Cody Freeman’s sac fly for a 3-0 lead.
Two pitches later, Dobbs (9-3) exited with a blister on his throwing hand. In 32/3 innings, he allowed three runs (all earned) on five hits, walked three, hit two batters and struck out two.
It all unraveled for Austin Peay after that, as MSU scored four of its runs with two outs.
Jarrod Parks scored on Jaron Shepherd’s infield single, which bounced off reliever Chuck Edlin’s foot. Parks barely beat the throw home and rammed into Austin Peay catcher Matt Wollenzin on a head-first dive.
Wollenzin stayed in the game, but his coach, Gary McClure, earned his first ejection of the season after arguing with the home plate umpire.
Cohen doesn’t know yet who he will start today, but he mentioned junior Devin Jones (2-5, 4.45 ERA), junior Nick Routt (2-3, 4.15) and sophomore Chris Stratton (5-7, 5.21) all as possibilities. Those three have 33 starts between them this season.