By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Every now and then, John Cohen is reminded that Chris Stratton really is just a freshman.
Take Mississippi State’s game at Florida on Saturday. Runners at first and third, one out, and a sharp ground ball is hit to Stratton, a right-hander from Tupelo. Instead of whirling toward second base to start a double play, he throws to first base.
Inning still alive.
Stratton escaped the jam, and he wound up with a very strong SEC debut. In six innings, he yielded four hits while striking out seven and walking three, receiving a no-decision in the 5-4 loss.
Stratton is 2-2 with a 2.63 ERA for the Bulldogs (12-9, 0-3 SEC). He’ll start Saturday in this weekend’s home series versus Georgia (8-13, 0-3) with a 2 p.m. first pitch. Today’s series opener starts at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday’s game time is 1:30 p.m.
“He has velocity, he has a nice breaking ball. But he is a freshman – and he is doing a great job for us – but at the same time, you know the game at this level early on at times is going to punch him,” Cohen said. “But what he’s been able to do is when things have not gone great for him, he’s been able to take a deep breath, and he’s a very mature kid, and he’s able to kind of right the wrong pretty quickly.”
For all his tools, including a 92-mph fastball and a big, slow curveball, maturity is what has served Stratton best this season. On a team chock full of newcomers, it’s set him apart as a rising star.
While Stratton has good stuff, his focus since coming to Starkville has been something a real estate agent could identify with: location, location, location.
That was a strength of his at Tupelo High, and it’s serving him well now.
“I’ve seen so many freshmen over my time who go out there and throw the ball 92 mph, and they feel really good about that,” Cohen said. “Well, they’re not throwing it to a location, and they’re behind everybody, and they start getting bludgeoned.
“Chris already, as a young guy, gets that location is everything. … He can throw two different pitches where he wants, for the most part.”
Stratton understands he can’t get by on fastballs like he could in high school. It’s about not just location, but movement.
“It’s just like you’re facing the 1, 2 and 3 (hitters) of every team, so you really can’t just throw all fastballs for one batter,” Stratton said. “You’ve got to work every single batter like he’s the best one.”
Smart and athletic
Stratton has also helped himself by being a quick learner. Of that blown double play chance, he said, “You can’t get caught up in the moment, the surroundings. You’ve got to constantly be talking to your infielders, make sure where you’re going with the ball.”
“He is a brilliant kid,” said Cohen. “They don’t come any sharper than Chris Stratton.”
Stratton, who stands 6-foot-3, 186 pounds, is also aided by his athleticism. He could have been a star for Tupelo’s basketball team, which his father, Lee, once coached.
But Stratton decided to focus on baseball, and that’s paid off. His athleticism is apparent on the diamond, especially in how he controls the running game.
Against Florida, he picked off Kamm Washington, who’s stolen four bases in five attempts.
“To be able to control your body through space and make the baseball do what you want it to do takes a lot of athleticism,” Cohen said. “He also controls the running game like a guy who’s a junior, not a freshman.”
Butch Thompson, MSU’s pitching coach, and sophomore pitcher Nick Routt, an SEC All-Freshman pick last season, have helped guide Stratton.
“I know I’ve told him a lot of things. how to handle stuff, and I guess kind of try to mentor him,” Routt said. “But he’s done a great job on his own, really just gone out there and pitched great, and he’s got a great attitude towards the game of baseball.”
With Routt out at least the next two weekends with an arm injury, a greater spotlight will shine on Stratton. He appears well-equipped for it, though.
“Against Florida his curveball wasn’t working, and he had to go to his changeup,” Routt said. “He’s got a promising career ahead of him.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friday: Georgia RHP Jeff Walters (0-2, 9.58) vs. Mississippi State RHP Kendall Graveman (1-1, 4.98)
Saturday: Georgia RHP Justin Grimm (1-2, 5.16) vs. Mississippi State RHP Chris Stratton (2-2, 2.63)
Sunday: Georgia RHP Michael Palazzone (3-2, 9.15) vs. Mississippi State TBA