HOOVER, Ala. – For this weekend’s Southeastern Conference Baseball Tournament, the league’s motto was the “Road Begins in Hoover.”
People quickly found out that road was paved with maroon bricks.
A team hotter than the weather, Mississippi State shut out Vanderbilt 3-0 Sunday afternoon to claim the school’s seventh conference tournament championship before a Maroon-dominated 12,526 cowbell-clanging fans at Regions Park.
Playing six afternoon games in the tournament’s new 10-team format, MSU won five tournament games for the first time. The Bulldogs won the tournament title for a fourth time in this stadium and by shut out for the first time. MSU’s tournament title was the first since a 4-1 win against Ole Miss to grab the 2005 championship.
“I can not tell you what Bulldog nation meant to these players today,” said MSU head coach John Cohen, who became the first person to ever win the SEC tournament as both a player and coach. Cohen played on championship teams at MSU in 1987 and 1990. “It was an incredible effort by a great group of kids. They did what they have done all year. They keep battling. They battle every at-bat, every inning, every game.”
Sunday afternoon, the Bulldogs (39-22) threw their sixth shutout in similar fashion to many others throughout the year. Four different MSU pitchers stepped up and made critical pitch after critical pitch to keep the opponents handcuffed and frustrated.
Freshman Ross Mitchell (2-0) earned the win with a career-best five innings of work, in relief of starter Brandon Woodruff. In the ninth inning, Caleb Reed entered and got the Bulldogs’ 68th double play ball of the season, before Chris Stratton recorded the final out for his first career save.
“We really believe in one another,” Mitchell said. “This is an incredible feeling right now. This is what being a team is all about. This is what being a champion is all about. My job was simply to go out there, throw strikes, hoping to give our team a chance.”
The pitching quartet held Vanderbilt to six hits, while striking out five and walking four. Vanderbilt (33-26) stranded 10 base runners and failed to get the timely hit on numerous occasions.
For the tournament, a total of 11 different MSU hurlers saw mound time. The Bulldogs posted a 1.96 earned run average by allowing 47 hits and 12 earned runs in 55 innings of work. Pace by four appearances from Reed, Mitchell and Holder, the Bulldogs struck out 41 and walked 16 in the tournament.
Winners of 16 of their last 21 against conference opposition, MSU scored a single run in the third inning and expanded the lead with two scores in the fourth inning.
“The kids always believed,” Cohen said. “It is a great group of kids. They bought in from what we were doing on day one. You can win championships when you have the right kids in the dugout. I will go into battle with this group of players any time. They know the mind-set and mental toughness you have to have to win a championship.”
In the MSU third inning, tournament MVP Adam Frazier started things with a one-out single. After a groundout by Brent Brownlee, a walk to Trey Porter and infield single by Hunter Renfroe loaded the bases. A wild pitch brought Frazier home with the game’s first run.
In the MSU fourth inning, Mitch Slauter started things with a leadoff single. After a lineout and walk to Sam Frost, Daryl Norris reached as a hit batsman to load the bases. A bases-loaded walk to Frazier scored one run, while a sacrifice-fly by Brownlee scored the other.
For the tournament, Frazier finished with 12 hits in 23 at-bats. The 12 hits ranks fourth all-time in SEC tournament history, as the slugging Bulldog sophomore missed matching the all-time tournament mark by two hits. Frazier was joined on the all-tournament team by Demarcus Henderson and Jonathan Holder.
“I am so proud of this team,” Frazier said. “A lot of people counted us out earlier in the year, but we never quit believing. This is where hard work pays off. Even though they were not regulars, a lot of guys were here for the super regional run last season. They know what it is to like to play in great atmospheres and compete for championships.”
The Bulldogs finished with seven hits, including multi-hit games by Hunter Renfroe and Mitch Slauter.
Starting VU pitcher Tyler Beede (1-5) was lifted with one out in the fourth inning and took the loss. Seeing a nine-game win streak snapped, the Commodores had no multiple hittters.