By MATTHEW STEVENS
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – It’s a nine-and-a-half-hour trip from Starkville, Miss., to the campus of the University of Florida.
In that 538-mile road trip, the Mississippi State baseball team lost all its momentum from last weekend’s Atlanta Regional sweep in an 11-1 loss Friday afternoon in Game 1 of the Super Regional round against Florida.
“This time of year it’s all about momentum,” Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “How you handle momentum and how you gain momentum and hang on to it.”
That three-day grace period of powerful starting pitching ended for the Bulldogs when for the second time in a row freshman right-hander Evan Mitchell failed to find the strike zone against Florida (49-16).
Mitchell, who was one of three pitchers on the Atlanta Regional All-Tournament Team last weekend, got off to a horrid start, allowing the first four Gators hitters to reach base and score in the opening inning.
“The thing we have to do against a really good club like Florida is we got to throw the ball in the strike zone immediately,” Mississippi State head coach John Cohen said. “If you give up solo home runs, it’s not going to kill you but when walks are behind that, it’s just not going to win for you.”
Mitchell (6-2) allowed a career-high seven earned runs off five hits along with three walks and was pulled after two innings of work.
“I definitely missed most of my pitches were up, probably half of them were up and you can’t win when you’re doing that,” Mitchell said. “Especially when you get behind in counts, they’re going to hit the ball hard like they did today.”
Florida got another quality start from its ace right-hander Hudson Randall as the sophomore redeemed himself from the pounding he took on April 8 in Starkville. Randall (10-3) tied a career-high with eight innings of work and set a personal record with 115 pitches in the outing allowing the Gators an opportunity to conserve its stellar bullpen depth for the final two games of this best-of-three series.
Randall had allowed six earned runs off nine hits in just 2 1/3 innings at Dudy Noble Field in his only other start against Mississippi State this season.
“I was a little more anxious coming out,” Randall said. “They tattooed me over in Starkville and I was really excited to give it another go.”
The only time O’Sullivan had to even go out to chat with his pitcher was when MSU got the first two batters on base in the sixth inning when Florida was already up 10-0.
“When I went out to the mound, it basically was ‘try to get pitch count as low as possible so we don’t have to use one of our guys we’ve used an awful lot out of the pen,” O’Sullivan said. “He pitched like it was a one-run game.”
Randall didn’t allow a Mississippi State runner to reach past second base until senior Jarrod Parks scored in the sixth. Only four MSU runners got themselves in scoring position throughout the afternoon.
“Last time I was just leaving the ball up too much,” Randall said. “I’m a sinkerball pitcher so my ability to keep the ball down helped me locate better today.”
The sophomore had his 93 mile-per-hour fastball working and got a season-high eight strikeouts mostly on a hard-breaking slider that cut away from MSU right-handed hitting.
Florida, who has outscored opponents 33-1 in the first three innings during NCAA Tournament play, had the middle of the order go a combined 7-for-17 against MSU pitching.
“It might have been one of our better offensive days in a while,” O’Sullivan said. “I know we’ve been swinging the bat well but to not have any giveaway innings, I thought we were just outstanding.”
The offensive output was without two starters in the lineup as sophomore Austin Maddox didn’t dress for the contest and was wearing a cast on his foot while designated hitter Brian Johnson sat out another game while dealing with concussion symptoms.
Gators sophomore catcher Mike Zunino contributed a 2-for-4 effort at the plate that included a two-run single in the opening inning and a solo home run in his first two at-bats.
“I just tried to get my job down early (in the first inning), I would’ve traded an out for a run there,” Zunino said. “We were looking for fastballs early and I just put a good swing on it for a home run.”
Before taking a first-pitch fastball from Devin Jones deep over the left field wall, Zunino, the 2011 Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, also threw out Mississippi State freshman C.T. Bradford trying to steal second base.
Mississippi State’s only consistent offensive production came from Parks after the senior third baseman got a pair of singles up the middle.
Friday marked the sixth time Mississippi State (37-24) has given up a double-digit run total in a game but have won the following game twice in a row after such a performance.
“You just have to forget about it as soon as you leave the park,” Parks said. “The preparation for this next game starts as soon as we leave here.”
Florida will try to clinch its seventh College World Series appearance in school history and first-ever back-to-back trip when they send freshman right-hander Karsten Whitson (8-0, 2.42) on the mound Saturday. The 19-year-old turned down $2 million last year from the San Diego Padres after they selected him with the ninth pick in the 2010 Major League Baseball Draft.
Mississippi State will attempt to salvage its season by turning to junior left-hander Nick Routt (3-3, 3.78) for a similar effort to the complete game he pitched at Georgia Tech Sunday.
“He can pitch off his fastball (and) he’s got to throw it in the strike zone,” Cohen said. “Strike one has got to be our friend.”