By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
Chris Stratton doesn’t know precisely when it happened, but the Mississippi State right-hander went into attack mode this past offseason and hasn’t let up one bit.
He’ll be making his second consecutive start tonight when the Bulldogs (15-7, 1-2 SEC) open a three-game home series against No. 3 Arkansas (20-2, 3-0). Stratton’s last start might have been the best of his career.
A week ago at LSU, the junior from Tupelo struck out 17 and allowed just one run in 82/3 innings. MSU lost in 10 innings, 3-2, but it was evident that Stratton is once again capable of being a starting pitcher.
He lost that role late last season and moved to the bullpen, which is where he began this season. With Friday starter Ben Bracewell out with elbow soreness, coach John Cohen has turned to Stratton (4-0, 2.12 ERA), who has clearly been a different pitcher this year.
“Last year when I was starting, I would kind of pick at the corners and wouldn’t really go after hitters as much, and would try to mix up my pitches because maybe they would know what I was about to do,” Stratton said. “Now it’s like I’m just really attacking people, and it’s really helped my pitch efficiency, and it’s keeping our bullpen fresh for the weekend.”
Stratton’s new “bulldog mentality”, as he calls it, was developed last summer and fall. He pitched well in the Cape Cod League, and began gaining more confidence.
“Just seeing how good those hitters were and being able to navigate through them really boosted my confidence and helped me know that my pitches are good enough,” Stratton said.
“You feel like he’s earned that spot all along,” Cohen said, “it’s just his comfort level, and I think he’s pretty comfortable with starting that (Friday) game.”
Stratton leads the SEC in strikeouts with 44, and his 292/3 innings rank second on the team behind Sunday starter Kendall Graveman. Last week’s outing was Stratton’s longest since April 17, 2010 – he threw 133 pitches – but he’s not worried about his arm being ready for tonight.
Nor is Stratton concerned with being a starter long-term, if that becomes necessary.
“The first two years have really helped me build up my pitch count. I’ve seen everything. I’ve been in the bullpen, I’ve been a starter, so I don’t think there’s anything that can come after me that I haven’t already been through before.”
Stratton has been through the SEC grind before, and tonight poses a stiff test in the form of Arkansas, which swept Alabama last weekend. The Razorbacks have an SEC-best 2.25 ERA and will send junior righty D.J. Baxendale (5-0, 2.30) to the mound for tonight’s 6:30 start.
MSU is still without several starters due to injury, which puts a good bit of pressure on Stratton and his fellow pitchers to keep the score low. State has a team ERA of 2.62, which ranks fourth in the league.
“Coach (Butch) Thompson’s done a great job,” Stratton said of MSU’s pitching coach. “He’s just really told us that we’re competing against their pitching staff. If we can out-compete their pitching staff and keep their hitters at bay, then we have a great chance at winning.”