By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
OMAHA, Neb. – Butch Thompson was nudging Chad Girodo in a certain direction, but he wasn’t going to force anything.
Eventually, Girodo figured it out. As a result, opposing hitters have had a devil of a time figuring out Girodo, whose sweeping slider has made him a huge factor during Mississippi State’s deep postseason run.
The senior left-hander should play a big role this week when MSU (51-18) battles UCLA (47-17) in the College World Series finals, a best-of-three series that starts tonight at 7 on ESPN.
In fact, there’s a good chance Girodo, who’s 9-1 with a 1.56 ERA, will be the first man out of the bullpen tonight. He’s taken on a key long relief role, and it’s due in large part to changing his delivery prior to the season.
Through his first three years at MSU, Girodo had a 6.70 ERA, his innings decreasing steadily each year – from 482⁄3 as a freshman to 292⁄3 to just 72⁄3 last season.
“He went three years, and he was working those first three years to try to find something, too,” said Thompson, MSU’s pitching coach. “You know, he went ahead and tried the 150th thing that we tried, and it finally stuck.”
Over a three-week span during the offseason, Thompson had Girodo – who threw over the top – finish his bullpen sessions by throwing an assortment of five pitches from a sidearm angle. He wasn’t going to make Girodo change his arm slot, but he thought it might make him better.
“To be honest, I wasn’t on board with it right off, and I think Coach T kind of knew that,” Girodo said. “So he didn’t really push it upon me; he kind of let me do it on my own. I kind of experimented with it a little bit, and I realized I actually liked it.”
Thompson also suggested Girodo start throwing a slider, and it quickly developed into his best pitch. It’s been his out pitch, and suddenly Girodo has been missing a lot of bats.
After averaging 0.73 strikeouts per inning his first three years, Girodo is averaging 1.4 per inning this season, and they’ve been piling up lately. In four NCAA postseason appearances, he’s fanned 34 over 191⁄3 innings, going 3-0 with a 2.33 ERA in the process.
“It’s unreal,” catcher Nick Ammirati said. “It moves about four feet, and he can put it where he wants it.”
Thompson admits he didn’t see Girodo becoming so good at getting swings-and-misses, but he describes what he’s seen the past few weeks as “an auto-pilot experience.”
That is, Girodo is locked in a zone, and everything has clicked into place.
What’s ironic, though, is that Girodo actually pitched very well last summer in the California Collegiate League, recording a 0.99 ERA and 44 strikeouts in 271⁄3 innings. And that carried over into MSU’s fall workouts.
Try, try again
But as the season neared, he began to struggle again. That’s when Girodo changed his arm slot, deciding that he’d try it and, if it didn’t work, he’d go back to the old form.
“I just kind of jumped off a cliff,” he said.
Girodo’s improvement caught the eyes of major league scouts, and the Toronto Blue Jays drafted him in the ninth round earlier this month. Thompson said he recently got a text from former MSU player Jay Powell, who told him, “That guy’s going to pitch in the big leagues.”
Thompson is widely considered one of the best pitching coaches in the nation, and Girodo is just another example of why. The way Thompson guided Girodo to the right place, without forcing it, led to the blossoming of a dominant pitcher.
Thompson and Cohen try to take that approach with all their players.
“If they take ownership of it and it’s their idea and they’re part of the process,” Thompson said, “they’re much more willing to jump off the cliff for you than if you’re dictating (that) you’re going to do this.”