By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
HOOVER, Ala. – Mississippi State has won games a certain way all season, and that way led to a championship on Sunday.
The Bulldogs scored early and then let the pitching – mainly Ross Mitchell – do the rest in a 3-0 victory over Vanderbilt to capture the SEC Tournament title at Regions Park.
It’s the seventh tourney championship for MSU and first since 2005. State had to play six games in six days to claim the trophy, and the run ended in front of 12,526 fans, most of them wearing maroon.
“Coaching’s overrated. Players’ toughness is the whole thing,” fourth-year coach John Cohen said. “These guys showed tremendous resiliency.”
The 24th-ranked Bulldogs (39-22) entered this tournament as the No. 7 seed and came in on a roll. They’ve now won eight of their last nine games and 16 of their last 21 against SEC competition.
Vanderbilt (33-26) was also hot, having won nine in a row before Sunday. But MSU’s pitching staff, the best in the league, blocked all routes to the Commodores scoring. Mitchell, a soft-throwing left-hander, earned the win with five-plus innings of shutout relief.
He got a couple of big strikeouts in the seventh and eighth innings. The first victim was Vandy leadoff man Tony Kemp, who left two men in scoring position.
“I wasn’t going to try to hide away from the strike zone,” Mitchell said. “I just came in with a fastball in, and if I hit him, I hit him, but I was going to make sure I got that ball in.”
The next inning, Mitchell fanned Spencer Navin with a man on second.
Mitchell (2-0) allowed five hits, struck out three and walked two.
Starter Brandon Woodruff threw three innings. After Mitchell left the game in the ninth with two men on, Caleb Reed got a double play, and weekend starter Chris Stratton recorded the final out to get the save.
A dogpile ensued near the pitcher’s mound, and it was a celebration of pitching as much as anything. For the tournament, MSU’s pitching staff had an ERA of 1.96, and the Bulldogs allowed only one run over their final 26 innings of play.
The long week was a testament to MSU’s pitching depth.
“We still had a lot of guys fresh, ready to go,” Mitchell said. “They had faith in me, and I appreciate the coaches.”
MSU had seven hits on Sunday, but none of them knocked in a run. A bases-loaded wild pitch by Vandy starter Tyler Beede (1-5) brought home Adam Frazier for a 1-0 State lead in the third inning.
The bases were loaded again in the fourth, and then a walk to Frazier and a sac fly by Brent Brownlee added two more runs.
“That’s how we play, and that’s what we need to get runs in sometimes, and that’s how we’re going to do it,” said Frazier, who was named tournament MVP after going 12 of 23 at the plate. “Three runs up for our pitching staff, I felt pretty comfortable.”
Vandy had six hits, and a day after setting a tourney record with six stolen bases, it had none Sunday.
“It always comes down to situational and clutch hitting, and today those hits just didn’t fall,” said Vanderbilt center fielder Connor Harrell.
MSU and Vandy now await their NCAA regionals destination, as the full 64-team field will be announced today. The regionals don’t start until Friday, so the Bulldogs will be able to savor this championship for a little bit.
“This is a thrill for me, because this is something that’s tangible,” said Cohen, who became the first man to win this tournament as both a player and a coach. “A lot of times in life you can make a lot of progress, but a trophy is tangible.
“For the kids to be able to touch it and say, ‘We’re the champions,’ even if it’s just one week of work, it’s very beneficial for us.”