By Rick Cleveland
JACKSON – Let’s suppose that back in February someone told you this Mississippi State baseball team would win nearly 50 games, host and win an NCAA Regional and then earn a first College World Series appearance since 2007.
And then let’s suppose the same person also told you the Bulldogs would do all that with starting pitching that lasted, on average, less than half a ballgame.
You know what you would have said, right? No way. Not possible. Can’t happen. Not in baseball.
But it has happened. No such statistics are kept but I’d bet John Cohen’s Bulldogs are the first college baseball team ever to advance anywhere near this far with a bullpen that pitched more innings than the starters.
It defies baseball logic. Any baseball expert will tell you the first building block for a championship team is quality starting pitching that takes you deep into ballgames. At State the starters have almost been “set-up men”: setting up for the shut-down bullpen.
This spring, in Mississippi, we might have witnessed the best bullpen in college baseball history. Consider: State is 42-1 when leading after seven innings. Nobody, not even this State bullpen, is perfect.
But the numbers are truly staggering. Entering the Super Regional at Virginia, State’s bullpen was 30-5 with a 1.68 earned run average and 19 saves. State’s relievers had accounted for 299.1 of State’s 580 innings pitched.
Injuries to front-line starters have caused Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson to adjust pitching plans on the fly this season. Kendall Graveman, who has been State’s most effective starter, averages six innings per start. Jacob Lindgren, the Bulldogs’ second best starter statistically, goes exactly four innings per start.
That really does defy baseball logic, says Jay Powell, the former Bulldog ace, who excelled as a starter at State and then in the bullpen in the Major Leagues where he won the seventh game of the 1997 World Series. Powell, who now coaches at Jackson Academy, has pitched as a starter and a reliever and coached both.
“When you have a great bullpen, it usually means you have great starting pitching,” Powell says. “Because when your starters don’t go a lot of innings, it really taxes the bullpen and usually wears them out.
“That’s what makes State’s bullpen so amazing. They have so many good arms, and they haven’t worn out. This bullpen is really, really special and I think you have to give Butch Thompson an awful lot of credit.”
State has eight pitchers with an earned run average of 2.51 or below. All eight are primarily relievers and made a total of nine starts this season. While closer Jonathan Holder (2-0, 18 saves, 1.17 ERA) gets most of the attention, others have had remarkable seasons as non-closer relievers.
Chad Girodo is 7-1 with 1.10 ERA, Ross Mitchell is 12-0, with two saves, 1.41 ERA, 86.1 IP). Yes, that’s correct: twelve victories, no defeats. Obviously, there are many more. After all, we are talking practically 300 innings of relief here.
Holder, who turned 20 on Sunday, leads the entire State staff with 83 strikeouts. In two seasons, he has struck out nearly four of every 10 batters he faces, which is a crazy number, perhaps the craziest of the many crazy numbers produced by this Bulldog bullpen.
Rick Cleveland (rcleveland @msfame.com) is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.