STARKVILLE — Chris Lemonis’ first NCAA tournament loss in his Mississippi State career wasn’t fun for anyone supporting the Maroon and White.
After Tanner Allen got Rowdey Jordan home on a sacrifice fly after Jordan tripled to lead off the game, you could pretty much sleep through the remaining nine innings in Notre Dame’s 9-1 Super Regional victory over the Bulldogs on Sunday night at Dudy Noble Field.
“We have to flush it, man,” MSU outfielder Tanner Allen said. “They can swing the bat, but we’re already looking forward to tomorrow. No matter what happens, we have to keep playing.”
After reaching Super Regionals largely in part because of the success of MSU’s one-two starting pitcher combo, neither Will Bednar or Christian MacLeod delivered in pressure-filled spots. Bednar couldn’t make it past three innings Saturday, but a combination of uncharacteristic sloppy defensive play from Notre Dame and timely hitting from MSU let the Bulldogs steal Game 1 from the Irish. MacLeod was given a 1-0 lead in the first Sunday, but poor defensive play and too many hanging breaking balls ended his night prematurely.
An Achilles heel all season for MSU has been the desperate attempt to find a consistent third starting pitcher. With the Bulldogs’ season and a third straight trip to the College World Series on the line at 6 p.m. Monday night, Lemonis and company are still waiting. But with a massive game quickly approaching, he and pitching coach Scott Foxhall undoubtedly spent the remainder of their evening theory crafting a pitching plan.
Following Sunday’s rout, Lemonis was predictably coy when asked which pitcher would earn the start.
“I’ll meet with the coaches and figure all that out,” Lemonis said. “Our bullpen will be available.”
The smart money says left-hander Houston Harding will earn the nod.
Harding was magic in MSU’s regional-clinching win against Campbell, striking out 10 batters in five innings of work in relief. The Bulldogs originally trotted out freshman Jackson Fristoe first in that same game, but he only retired one batter before getting pulled, so it’s unlikely they will go that route again.
Of course, Lemonis could do the unexpected and start standout closer Landon Sims, whose longest outing of the year actually came in his first contest of the season (four innings against Texas). Maybe Lemonis goes that route and essentially tries to buy his offense four or so innings to build a lead and hope the remainder of his bullpen arms can perform under pressure.
Two SEC teams tried that same strategy Sunday, with Arkansas and Ole Miss providing contradicting arguments for starting your closer in a must-win game. Kevin Kopps, the SEC Pitcher of the Year who seemingly isn’t human, threw eight lights-out innings for the No. 1 seeded Razorbacks and gave his team a fighting chance until the end. Albeit, his outing resulted in a losing effort, as Kopps was left in one inning too long and yielded the go-ahead home run that cost Arkansas the Super Regional on his 118th pitch.
On the other hand, forcing his closer into a unique spot backfired on Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco, as Tanner Broadway gave up six runs in three innings against Arizona.
In short, nobody except Lemonis knows anything for sure, except that Sims will pitch at some point in Monday’s winner-take-all affair. That’s practically a guarantee. The question is, when, and for how long? Two innings? Three? Dare we say four? Longer?
It is a winner-take-all contest, so nothing can be discounted.
Notre Dame’s starting pitcher will be less of a mystery, as Fighting Irish coach Link Jarrett said he’s leaning toward handing the ball to Will Mercer (4-2 record, 4.53 ERA in 17 appearances).
Even though Notre Dame pitcher Aidan Tyrell saved the majority of his team’s bullpen with 7.1 inning effort, Jarrett said the Fighting Irish isn’t “in great shape in the pen, but they’ll manage it and piece it together.”
They still could be without relief ace Tanner Kohlhepp, who threw 77 pitches in Saturday’s loss.
“We’re not going to run anything out there that’s going to be completely out of left field for them,” Jarrett said.
But after a 9-1 shellacking of the Bulldogs, the Fighting Irish head into Monday with supreme confidence.
“(Our fans are) hungry for it,” Jarrett said. “People are hungry to see us play on this stage.”
Hodge is the former sports editor for The Dispatch.