By MATTHEW STEVENS
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Mississippi State has seen the way Evan Mitchell looked on the mound in the opening inning Friday afternoon.
The freshman right-hander that the Bulldogs coaching staff had so much confidence in after producing back-to-back solid outings in the postseason failed to once again find the strike zone and was dominated by a Florida squad that’s capitalized all season on young, indecisive pitching.
The Marietta, Ga., native once again couldn’t keep his pitch count down early and allowed the Gators (48-19) extra opportunities on walks leading to his early dismissal.
“When you have big misses two things happen – you’re not engaging the umpire and you’re not engaging the hitter,” Mississippi State head coach John Cohen said. “Then you have the marginal miss and you’ll never get that call.”
Mitchell (6-2) threw only 43 pitches in this outing but had 18 of them out of the strike zone leading to two opening-inning walks that would eventually come around to score in a four-run first inning.
“The difference between good teams and great teams, and Florida is one of the best teams in the country at this, is the ability to take marginal pitches for balls instead of reaching out of the zone,” Cohen said.
The problems for Mitchell in the 2011 season, which would eventually lead him to being removed from the rotation in the middle of the season, are first-inning troubles with command.
In his last five starts, the right-hander has had an average of 18 pitches in the opening frame with an earned run average of 13.49 in his first inning of work.
“I don’t think there’s a book (on Mitchell) but I think we did a really good job of laying off some breaking balls,” Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “He’s got a really good arm and he’s going to be a really good pitcher in this league.”
Mitchell showcased a strikeout to begin the second inning but was unable to build on the momentum after walking the No. 9 hitter in the Florida lineup (Cody Dent, hitting .186) which was immediately followed up by a two-run home run to make it an early 6-0 lead for the Gators.
“You don’t walk out to the mound and say ‘Evan – don’t walk these guys,” Cohen said. “It’s like telling a golfer you probably ought to put this six-foot putt in the hole. He’s got great stuff and with that, it’s a little more difficult to shove the ball in the strike zone.”
After providing eight innings shutting down Austin Peay last weekend leading him to be selected for the Atlanta Regional All-Tournament team, Mitchell said the Super Regional stage wasn’t what hurt him. It was simply his inability to find strikes.
“I felt fine going out there,” Mitchell said. “I just got behind to every hitter because I simply couldn’t throw any of my pitches for strikes at all.”
Once State went to middle relief for the first time in NCAA play, Florida sophomore catcher Mike Zunino took no sympathy on Mississippi State, taking the second pitch he saw from junior Devin Jones over the left field wall.
Zunino is now 10-for-21 against Mississippi State with 18 total bases, nine runs scored and nine RBIs. Jones, the ninth-round selection of the Baltimore Orioles in the 2011 MLB Draft, gave up a pair of earned runs and two walks in two innings that lasted 41 pitches.
Friday marked the first game of the 2011 season that Mississippi State had given up three home runs in a game.
Mississippi State (37-24) will try to keep playing in the 2011 season when they bring back junior left-hander Nick Routt (3-3, 3.78) and the last time the Silver Springs, Md., native pitched in an elimination game situation he was lit up for five runs in just 3 1/3 innings against Arkansas in the second day of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
On April 10, Routt managed to scatter six hits and one run over five innings against Florida at Dudy Noble Field less than a day after the Gators had destroyed Mississippi State 18-0.
“He is very excited about pitching tomorrow and in fact we contemplated letting him start today but we wanted him to have the extra rest,” Cohen said. “I’d be shocked if he doesn’t throw well tomorrow.”