HOOVER, Ala. — Asked how he suddenly managed to become a significant pitching factor for Mississippi State and Lucas Laster just smiles.
The Bulldogs left-hander proved how valuable he can possibly be to a postseason run over the next few weeks, Laster left to a standing ovation Tuesday night from the MSU contingent that made the trip to Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. Everything in Laster’s pitching line from the 5-4 victory over Georgia in the first round of the Southeastern Conference tournament was a career high. Laster went 117 pitches over 8 1/3 innings where he only allowed one inning to give him trouble.
“You really can’t say enough about what he did for us tonight to get us off to the start we needed,” MSU freshman catcher Gavin Collins said. “We kept pounding fastball-change all night on them and it never stopped working.”
With an understanding of how much of a radical shift his college career has changed, Laster’s explanation is summed up with a concise belief in fate.
“I honestly believe it just wasn’t my time to shine until now,” Laster said.
Count even MSU coach John Cohen as one of those early detractors that doubted Laster’s ability to have his moment for this program after a fall season where he was nearly cut by the MSU coaching staff.
“Our pitching coach Butch Thompson kept believing in him and telling me that we needed to start giving him some opportunities,” Cohen said. “I would just look at Butch and shake my head thinking ‘we’re going to continue going with that kid?'”
In the later innings, after MSU (36-20) regained a lead, Laster found the bottom of the plate once again to induce several of his 16 ground ball outs.
“He came to me in the dugout after the seventh inning probably knowing he was starting to get tired and told me he didn’t want to change the plan at all,” Collins said. “He told me ‘let’s just keep pounding the zone with fastballs and changeups because that has gotten me this far’.”
Despite having a no decision in his eighth appearance and third start of the 2014 season, Laster walked away from his first SEC tournament game knowing he’d gotten MSU off to another potential postseason run again.
“As long as we keep winning ball games where I pitch, I could care less who gets the win in the box score,” Laster said. “My job is give my team a chance to win and that’s what I thought I did tonight. I think I did my job. If I personally get a win, who cares?”
Montgomery likely to start for South Carolina against Bulldogs tonight: South Carolina is going to use the advantage of day of rest from their first round bye to run their ace starting pitcher to the mound Wednesday night.
The 15th-ranked Gamecocks (42-14) will likely start left-hander Jordan Montgomery against MSU tonight in the final game of the double elimination opening round. South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook said Monday in his media conference he would have little problem giving the team’s first start in Hoover to its Friday night ace on five days of rest.
“If he’s healthy, says he wants the baseball and I don’t have any reservations about the whole thing, it would be really hard to not hand the baseball to Jordan Montgomery,” Holbrook said.
Montgomery, a 6-foot-5 left-hander, has struck out a team-high 85 batters in 88 1/3 innings this season where he’s accumulated a 7-4 record and 3.26 ERA.
The last time Montgomery saw MSU was when he allowed three runs, all unearned, on five hits in 7 2/3 innings with two walks and eight strikeouts to earn a no-decision in 5-3 win at Mississippi State on May 17, 2013 at Dudy Noble Field.
Cohen said he wasn’t completely sure who the Bulldogs would counter with opposite of Montgomery but suggested junior right-hander Trevor Fitts would be the logical choice. Fitts (4-3, 2.59), who grew up just 15 minutes away from Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in Pelham, Alabama, has been the Friday night starter for MSU in each of the last five SEC weekend series.
With Laster going 8 1/3 innings and MSU using only two pitchers in the elimination game Tuesday night against Georgia, Thompson has a relatively fresh bullpen to utilize against a Gamecocks team that actually had less extra-base hits than MSU earned in SEC play this season. South Carolina, who is currently sitting at No. 8 in the latest Rating Percentage Index, is trying to secure a national seed in the NCAA Tournament while likely battling with fellow SEC leader Ole Miss for such an honor. Hosting bids will be announced Sunday while the NCAA bracket and national seeds will be reveled Monday morning.
“Clearly our season doesn’t end if we lose two straight in Hoover but we understand this season more than others is a situation where we feel we have a lot to play for,” Holbrook said. “Our kids understand getting as good a seed or draw in the NCAA Tournament can only help you get to Omaha.”
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.