MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Tuesday night’s evening matinee at AutoZone Park was another to a mid-week sequel for No. 16 Mississippi State University baseball team.
The plot arch again went as follows: the Bulldogs starting pitcher struggles, sophomore left-handed pitcher Ross Mitchell cleans up the mess and MSU came away with another victory. The Bulldogs (33-10) rode the consistency of the soft-tossing southpaw and the power bat of Hunter Renfroe to a 12-1 victory.
The win marked a 10th straight mid-week victory of the 2013 season and the third in a game played in a minor league ballpark. The Bulldogs swept both games played this season at Trustmark Park in Pearl, and Tuesday completed its fifth straight road win.
“When I first came to Mississippi State, I said having older kids that have had success is the key in our league,” MSU coach John Cohen said. “You look in our dugout and you see kids that have had success, had success in postseason and that means so much in mid-week games where you have to gut it out.”
In seven of their mid-week victories this season, the MSU starting pitcher has failed to get through the fifth innings but every time the bullpen has saved the Bulldogs from further trouble.
MSU gave another starting opportunity to junior righty Evan Mitchell one month after the Marietta, Ga., native was booted from the Bulldogs starting rotation a month ago. Mitchell was unable to get out of the first inning on March 23 in a loss at the University of Kentucky and threatened to go down that road again against Memphis. Mitchell walked the bases loaded in a 29-pitch inning after MSU gave him a 1-0 lead but worked his way out of trouble.
Once the 6-foot-2 hard-throwing prospect, who MLB scouts have been constantly wanting to see pitch again before the 2013 draft in June, walked the leadoff batter to start the second MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson had seen enough. Mitchell threw just 13 strikes in 33 pitches as he missed the plate by large margins again with his fastball and curveball Tuesday night.
“I feel so bad for Evan because he is just not capturing the strike zone like he can (but) he will be that guy,” Cohen said. “Does it happen next week, next year or in professional baseball you just never know. The stuff is there. I hope we can get him back out there again because he’s just too talented not to.”
Ross Mitchell (8-0) immediately recorded 13 consecutive outs to elevate the stress on the MSU bullpen before giving way to Trevor Fitts and Chad Girodo in the seventh frame.
“When you only get to face him one time through the order its really difficult because he’s a different kind of guy on the mound,” Cohen said.
The sophomore finished the game with a six-inning effort that included allowing just one run on three hits. The single run by the Tigers (25-17) stopped a 16-inning scoreless streak for Ross Mitchell, who was pitching in his home state.
“I just feel like there’s a lot of players on this team that could do the exact same thing as me right now,” Ross Mitchell said. “I’ve just been getting opportunities to do it. They still have faith in me and I’m fine with it (because) I like pitching all the time.”
Hunter Renfroe gave the Bulldogs a comfortable 5-0 lead on one swing as he took the home run lead back in the Southeastern Conference with a three-run shot just over the left field wall. Renfroe’s 14th home run, which park officials estimated traveled 327 feet, was a line drive shot immediately after Memphis made its first pitching change to righty Jon Reed.
“They tried to even pitch around me still (in that at-bat) by throwing two split-finger fastballs and he just left one over the plate,” Renfroe said. “To hit a ball like that I need fastballs with advantage counts and I just haven’t been getting those lately. When teams pitch to me, I usually hit the ball pretty hard.”
Each of Renfroe’s last seven home runs before Tuesday’s blast were solo home runs as the highly touted draft prospect scored twice and now has an SEC-leading 118 total bases this season.
While hitting behind Renfroe in the MSU order, junior Brett Pirtle went 4 for 5 with two RBIs and two runs scored. In his 12th start in the cleanup spot, Pirtle didn’t make it easy for opponents to pitch to Renfroe by reaching base in his 16 straight contest. Tuesday night marked his first career four-hit performance and just the fourth by a MSU pitcher this season.
“Lately I’ve really been swinging good and when it’s an out, it’s just right at people,” Pirtle said. “I am just seeing a lot of fastballs and trying to adjust on the fly to change ups by staying up the middle with my approach.”
After winning six of its last seven games against SEC opponent’s this season, Memphis’ pitching couldn’t handle the MSU lineup as three of the first four Tigers hurlers gave up a run and every bullpen arm that coach Daron Schoenrock turned to got themselves into trouble.
MSU will return to the Volunteer state this weekend to face No. 2 Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn., and try to take its first road series against the current Eastern Division leader since 2002.
First pitch of that SEC series will be at 6:30 p.m. Friday. The Saturday contest is at noon on CSS.
In other MSU baseball news, sophomore relief ace Jonathan Holder has been named to the midseason watch list for the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association’s Stopper of the Year Award, the NCBWA announced Tuesday.
Holder (1-0, 1.61), from Gulfport, Miss., shares the SEC lead with 12 saves and in two seasons has piled up 21 saves, tying for third-most in Mississippi State history.
He one of eight relief specialists from the SEC included on the 51-player mid-season watch list.
The national saves leader at the end of the 2013 regular season the national saves leader and four other bullpen aces will be announced June 5 as finalists for the award, with the winner announced during the NCAA College World Series in Omaha.
Holder has recorded 52 strikeouts in 28 innings and begins the week with a 3-1 career record and a 0.96 earned run average in 43 relief appearances.