OMAHA, Neb. — Ross Mitchell was 6 years old the last time the Mississippi State University baseball team won a College World Series game in 1998.
Even 15 years ago, there’s a good chance Mitchell was forming behavior that would be perfect for the Bulldogs.
“I think the word that best deserves what I provide to this baseball team is goofy,” Mitchell said Saturday after he pitched 2 2/3 innings in a 5-4 victory against No. 3 national seed Oregon State University in game one of the CWS on Saturday at TD Ameritrade Park. “When I’m not pitching, my job is to be the guy that people turn to for a laugh and to stay loose. When I’m on the mound, I’m the guy that is supposed to make people turn and look to say, ‘Is this guy really trying to get me out with that stuff?’ ”
Mitchell kept MSU (49-18) in the game from the fifth to the eighth inning after taking over for starting pitcher Kendall Graveman. Not only does Mitchell’s soft-tossing, left-handed ways confuse hitters and help him take a different approach to getting outs, his repertoire sometimes makes teammates like the hard-nosed Graveman shake his head.
“I know him now, but yeah, there’s times last year where I’d see him drinking down Mountain Dew in the dugout after pitching a inning, eating candy, and cracking jokes and just thought, ‘Is this guy for real?’ ” Graveman said. “Now I’ve realized, like the coaching staff, that how else is somebody supposed to get outs if they’re not allowed to be themselves.”
By completing 2 2/3 innings of scoreless relief, Mitchell (13-0) moved into a tie with Jeff Brantley (1984) for fifth on the school’s all-time list for victories in a season. Mitchell is five wins short of Brantley’s 18 wins in 1985. He has the most pitching victories since Bobby Reed had 15 in 1990.
When asked to reflect on the impact of what he is doing, the Smyrna, Tenn., native deflected the attention to MSU closer Jonathan Holder. It was a perfect example of MSU’s attitude that the next pitcher on the mound is the team’s best pitcher.
“I wouldn’t be 13-0 right now without Jonathan Holder,” Mitchell said. “I just kept hoping we’d score some runs, and sure enough God answered my prayers. Nobody was more excited to see us take the lead than myself.”
Mitchell, a third-year sophomore, has repeatedly said after flawless outings, similar to the one he had Saturday against the Pacific-12 Conference champions, that “anybody could do what he does.”
His coaching staff disagrees with that assessment.
“What a great thing for somebody to say about their teammates,” MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson said in April. “Second of all, he’s completely wrong. Not everybody can do what Ross Mitchell has done for us.”
The fact that not everybody can do what Mitchell does for the bullpen, which is easily the strength of the team, comes through in the number of times Thompson has turned to him (32) this season to take over for the Bulldogs’ starters.
“It’s part of our identity, and boy, I know I use that word a lot,” MSU coach John Cohen said. “We don’t think, we know Ross will be a factor. He just does such a great job being a vivid contrast to the guy in front of him.”
Graveman, who allowed just two earned runs in 4 2/3 innings, was hitting 91-92 mph and using a power sinker to get 10 ground ball outs. OSU (50-12) then had to adapt to Mitchell’s unusual delivery and his radar-eluding 72-75 mph arsenal.
“It takes a club a least one time through the order to adjust to him, and I think when I come off the mound that the opponent has no idea what they’re about to see for a while,” Graveman said. “I always want to laugh coming off the mound because Ross is about to make some really good hitters look foolish.”
Mitchell gave way to Holder for the final five outs. The Beavers again were off balance trying to time Holder’s fastball and 12-to-6 curveball.
Despite a heart-stopping final out off the bat of first baseman Danny Hayes, Holder earned his 19th save of the season, which tied him for fourth in the country. Holder also is one save short of the school’s all-time record.
“(Ross Mitchell) is a huge reason for my success, and I’m not ashamed or embarrassed to say that,” Holder said. “He is already getting people moving in the box and flustered. Even when I’m not locating well, guys are swinging because they’re used to Ross throwing strikes and asking them to make contact.”
Since MSU doesn’t have to play until 7 p.m. Monday against the winner of the Indiana University-University of Louisville game, MSU’s bullpen will have a day of rest. Those 24 hours could prove to be extremely valuable for Mitchell, Holder, and fresh arms like senior left-hander Chad Girodo and junior right-hander Ben Bracewell as MSU attempts to win its first two games in the College World Series for the first time since 1985.
“Knowing Holder has that one day allowed us to extend him out a bit today,” Cohen said after winning his first CWS game as a coach. “If we’re playing (Sunday), Ross would unavailable short of it being a national championship game.”