When Mississippi State head coach Chris Lemonis and pitching coach Scott Foxhall got together Monday, they knew what had to be done.
The Bulldogs’ decision-makers didn’t have to sweat out the call with their first game in the Starkville Regional looming four days away. When Foxhall raised the idea, Lemonis wholeheartedly agreed.
Will Bednar was going to start.
The Bulldogs will turn to the sophomore right-hander at 2 p.m. Friday against Samford (35-12) in the regional opener at Dudy Noble Field.
“Our motto of our team is ‘Right here, right now,’” Lemonis said Thursday. “It’s about our first game, and we feel like Will gives us the best matchup in that first game. I don’t want to play for down the road or anything like that. I’ve got too much respect for the teams in this tourney.”
Against a Samford lineup featuring eight right-handed starters, it’s only natural that Mississippi State will turn to its reliable right-handed weekend starter to get the host Bulldogs off to a good start. Left-hander Christian MacLeod will pitch MSU’s second game of the weekend, with the rest of the weekend’s innings likely to be filled by committee.
Certainly, not every regional host starts with its top two weekend starters right off the bat. But not every team is Mississippi State, with two top-tier pitchers rested and ready and not much reliability beyond.
“We need to get off to a good start,” Lemonis said. “We need to have great momentum.”
Bednar will offer his team a chance at securing that impetus in their second crack at Samford this season. Mississippi State came out on top in that March 16 battle of Bulldogs, scoring six runs in the sixth in a 10-2.
But both Lemonis and Samford coach Casey Dunn know MSU’s foes will give a better effort Friday afternoon. When the two teams first met, Samford was recovering from a long drive to College Station, Texas, where the Aggies swept the Bulldogs for their trouble. In the matchup the following Tuesday at Dudy Noble, the Southern Conference champions were down three starters on offense and didn’t throw any of the pitchers Mississippi State can expect to see Friday.
“We got them at a time when they were a little down,” Lemonis said. “They’re playing great ball. They had a great SoCon tournament. It’ll be a great matchup tomorrow.”
MSU, too, will have a different look. After Houston Harding, Brandon Smith and Parker Stinnett combined to pitch the first six innings, Lemonis turned to little-used relievers Xavier Lovett, Dylan Carmouche and KC Hunt before Stone Simmons finished it out. With Bednar on the hill, it’s unlikely the Bulldogs will need seven pitchers to get through Friday’s contest.
Neither will Samford, Dunn hopes. He’ll give the ball to senior left-hander Samuel Strickland, who has a 5.07 ERA and 69 strikeouts in 76.1 innings. Strickland has postseason experience: He beat No. 4 overall seed Florida State in the Tallahassee Regional in 2018 before — guess who — Mississippi State eventually won the four-team tournament.
“It’s kind of comforting to know that we’ve got a guy who’s not only pitched in the big moment but excelled in the big moment,” Dunn said.
To beat the Bulldogs, Strickland said he plans to trust his stuff and his experience. He’s not the only veteran Samford player, either; shortstop Taylor Garris, center fielder Max Pinto and right fielder Ryan Crockett were all part of the 2018 squad.
But Dunn wishes he could add a few more players to the roster.
Six years prior, in 2012, Samford and Mississippi State found themselves in Florida State’s regional together for the first time. Samford tattooed MSU ace Chris Stratton and won both meetings to eliminate its fellow Bulldogs.
“There may not be a bigger pivotal moment for our program than that year,” Dunn said.
Dunn said he’d like to bring back stars like Brandon Miller and Saxon Butler to compete in Starkville, but he’ll settle for hitters like first baseman Sonny DiChiara and designated hitter Tyler McManus. Lemonis said while Samford has a couple players with speed on the bases, its batting order is well engineered to crush mistakes.
“It’s a powerful lineup,” he said. “It’s right-handed hitters who, if you make a mistake, they’re trying to get it in the air and get it out of the ballpark.”
The Bulldogs saw that happen time after time last week in Hoover as they got bounced from the Southeastern Conference tournament in just two games. Lemonis gave his team two days away from the game — weightlifting aside — to flush the bad memories, and his players have bounced back, knowing what’s at stake.
“It’s do or die right here,” reliever Landon Sims said. “We know what we can do, and we know if we play to our best ability that we’re a really tough team to beat.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.