By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
Butch Thompson is a self- described “builder,” but even he is at a loss to explain what Mississippi State’s pitchers have done this season.
Maybe “rebuilder” is a more accurate term, because that’s what the fourth-year pitching coach has been for MSU, which now has one of the nation’s top pitching staffs. Thompson, an Amory native who played at ICC, has rebuilt staffs at places like Auburn and Georgia, and he helped lead Birmingham-Southern to an NAIA national championship.
What he currently has at MSU is a group that has put together quite a run over the last 24 games. During that span, the Bulldogs have a collective ERA of 1.58 – 39 earned runs over 2212/3 innings.
“I don’t see how we’re doing it, and that’s just me being honest,” Thompson said. “I’m impressed. They never give in.”
With an offense still trying to find its way, pitching is largely what’s carried MSU to a strong finish, which included the SEC Tournament championship on Sunday. State played six games in as many days, with its pitchers working 55 innings and recording a 1.96 ERA.
“People talk a lot, we all talk,” said Thompson. “We throw our little feelings and thoughts out there, and that was an executed demonstration of defining what pitching depth is at the college level.”
From starter Chris Stratton (11-1, 2.21 ERA), who is expected to be a first-round draft pick next week, to untouchable freshman closer Jonathan Holder (0.00 ERA, nine saves), MSU has assembled a staff that has Thompson’s stamp on it. He worked the same sort of magic at previous stops, but the job he tackled at MSU, he said, has been “one of the toughest ones I’ve been a part of.”
When Thompson joined head coach John Cohen in 2009, he inherited a pitching staff that had posted a 6.82 ERA the year before. This year, it’s 2.58.
“It’s kind of like if you work in your garage and you build something, and you take a lot of pride and you keep your head down, keep going, keep building, and it’s pretty neat,” Thompson said. “I guess that’s who I am. I like the building part of it.”
There were signs in the fall that MSU might have a special group on its hands.
Most of the staff returned intact. Stratton, after sputtering to a finish in 2011 and losing his starting spot, was finally tapping all that potential. It began coming together as MSU got into the season, and now it’s taken off.
“He’s a guy that cares about you not only on the field but off the field,” Stratton said of Thompson. “It’s finally showing through our pitching. He really takes extra time and effort and puts it into us. Time he could be spending maybe doing something else or hanging out with his family, he’s really made us his family, and I really appreciate all he’s done for me.”
MSU will take its hot arms into the Tallahassee Regional, opening against a strong-hitting Samford club. Stratton is expected to start that game Friday, and Thompson hopes junior Kendall Graveman (4-4, 2.92) can throw the second game.
Graveman has been slowed by a groin injury his last two starts. If he’s unable to go, MSU should be OK. Thompson has built this staff to overcome such obstacles.
“When you can’t pitch, kill the pitching coach, and when you can pitch, praise the pitching coach. And I think all that’s hogwash,” he said. “I think it’s just a mature group that’s had a little bit of experience.
“They’ve kind of failed their way to success, and they’re reaping the rewards.”