ATLANTA — For the first time in four years, Mississippi State is coming home with an NCAA Regional championship trophy.
The Bulldogs swept all three opponents of the Atlanta Regional and finished with a dominating 7-3 victory over host Georgia Tech Sunday night.
“This is a big step for our baseball program,” Mississippi State head coach John Cohen said. “This game really unfolded exactly the way we wanted it to. That’s unusual in our game.”
The Bulldogs earned themselves a three-game Southeastern Conference series rematch with No. 2 overall seed Florida after the Gators swept through a Regional at home this weekend. The Gators took two out of three from MSU on April 8-10 this season. Florida also defeated Mississippi State in the first round of the SEC Tournament.
“I say let’s do it, it’s going to be exciting and I’m looking forward to it,” freshman outfielder C.T. Bradford said about Super Regional appearance in his home state. “We’re all going to be ready to go to play I promise.”
An opening three-inning offensive explosion literally began and ended with Bradford as the 2011 All-Freshman Team selection had four RBIs against Tech pitching. Bradford, whose dad Mike lettered for State between 1982-83, pocketed the Regional Most Outstanding Player honor after finishing the weekend 7-for-13 at the plate with five RBIs and three runs scored.
Bradford had a pair of singles and an RBI-double in the first three innings of play that saw MSU (37-23) jump out to a commanding 6-0 lead. During that part in the game, the MSU fans that made up a majority at Russ Chandler Stadium started a “let’s go State” chant that was heard throughout the ballpark.
“The support was unbelievable and that’s why you come from a Kentucky to a Mississippi State because our fans get it,” Cohen said. “I will always be indebted to our fans as a player and now as a coach.”
Mississippi State moved its record to 27-1 when they score six runs or more and 21-3 when they put up at least one run in the first inning.
The 5-foot-8 outfielder also had a run scored and a stolen base during that period of nothing but positive momentum for the Bulldogs.
“I am seeing it well and had a great time with it,” Bradford said. “I have gone up there with the mindset that I’m going to make them throw me as many pitches as I can.”
Senior cleanup hitter Nick Vickerson drove in MSU’s first-inning run on an RBI-single to right field but had two leave the game in a scary situation in the fourth inning after a pitch hit him in the ear hole of the helmet.
Cohen told the media after the contest that the Bulldogs second baseman may have sustained a concussion and would be monitored throughout Sunday evening at the team hotel.
Seven Mississippi State players were selected for the Atlanta Regional All-Tournament Team including seniors Cody Freeman, Vickerson, Jaron Shepherd alongside juniors Brent Brownlee and Nick Routt with freshman Bradford and Evan Mitchell.
“We don’t call it scrappy because these guys are talented,” Cohen said. “It is not scrap when they are flying into the gaps and making unbelievable plays. That is not scrap – that is hard work and skill.”
Mississippi State replicated this performance in similar fashion during its last NCAA appearance when the 2007 squad won all three games at Florida State on their way to their eighth College World Series trip. This weekend marked the first postseason victories for everybody on the MSU roster except the coaching staff but represented Cohen’s first NCAA wins since taking the job in Starkville three years ago.
In his third season as a head coach at Kentucky, Cohen won the SEC regular season championship and his third season in Starkville produced similar results that culminated with the 11th NCAA Regional Championship in school history.
“Since I’ve done this before, there’s something in year three and I can’t put my finger on it,” Cohen said. “There’s a level of mental toughness that you can see rising to the top. The SEC doesn’t allow for quick change – it’s too good.”
Mississippi State got its third quality start in as many appearances with the final mound performance coming from the southpaw Routt. More than a week after being roughed up by Arkansas at the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Hoover, Ala., the junior was barely touched after three perfect frames to open the contest and finished with his fifth career complete game allowing just three runs and striking out Yellow Jackets hitters in 114 pitches.
Georgia Tech scored one and had the tying run on deck in the ninth inning with MSU junior closer Caleb Reed warming up in the bullpen. Cohen joked with the media he made the wrong move and it worked out.
“(Mississippi State pitching coach) Butch (Thompson) really wanted to go to Caleb and that’s absolutely the right move but I just felt like Nick was going to throw strikes,” Cohen said. “I felt like it could be a springboard for them and a win for them to get Nick out of the game. I would not have hesitated three weeks ago.”
The outing was the longest for Routt since the ulnar replacement surgery on his elbow last spring and the last time the southpaw went all nine innings was April 4, 2009 at home against Auburn.
“It really feels good to get it done and get to a Super Regional,” Routt said. “This is what I signed to Mississippi State to do – to go on and play in the postseason.”
This NCAA Regional sweep represented the first time Mississippi State got three quality starts in a weekend since Devin Jones, Chris Stratton and Evan Mitchell accomplished the feat on Feb. 25-27 against Belmont.
“When our kids came back (last week) from two full days off, I thought we were a different club,” Cohen said. “We were energized and I said at that moment ‘man, we’re going to play well in this Regional.'"
Georgia Tech (42-21), which was considered for a national seed up until the final week of the 2011 season, simply ran out of superior pitching when they met MSU as Yellow Jackets head coach Danny Hall was forced to ask a true freshman to make his first career start on the mound.
Mississippi State pounded right-handed starter DeAndre Smelter, a 14th-round pick out of high school by the Minnesota Twins in the 2010 Major League Baseball Draft, for six runs (only one of them earned) over just 2 1/3 innings.
The Yellow Jackets didn’t help their inexperienced pitchers by making five errors in the field and allowing six unearned runs to cross home plate throughout the evening.
“That’s really what did us in was our miscues in the field,” Hall said. “I didn’t feel like the first two (pitchers) did a bad job but we made mistakes and caused them to try and make pitches they just couldn’t execute.”
Georgia Tech was left with a thin pitching rotation after the injury to right-handed ace Mark Pope in the opening night upset loss to Austin Peay Friday. Pope, who was named a finalist for the 2011 Golden Spikes Award given to the best college baseball player in the country, suffered an oblique strain and was not able to return to the mound this weekend.
“I’ll tell you straight up that I wish Mark Pope hadn’t gotten hurt and could’ve pitched Friday night,” Hall said. “It might have been a different outcome from then on.”
It is the third straight time Georgia Tech has had their season end at an NCAA Regional they were hosting.
“I don’t care when your season ends, when it ends – you’re going to be disappointed and it hurts,” Hall said. “I probably won’t be over it until we start practice again in the fall.”
The last time Mississippi State went on the road and made it to the College World Series was 1998 when the Bulldogs won four games at Texas A&M to qualify for Omaha.