OMAHA—Two hours before first pitch, Mississippi State still had not named a starting pitcher for Monday night’s College World Series winner’s bracket game against Indiana.
Who could blame senior lefthander Chad Girodo—who has started just five games in his career, and none since 2011—for briefly indulging every middle reliever’s fantasy, that maybe he’d get the start? He wouldn’t be the first pitcher to begin the season as a left-on-left specialist, then make his first start of the season in Omaha. And it worked out pretty well for South Carolina’s Michael Roth three years ago.
“They didn’t name the starter for a while,” Girodo said, “and I was hoping maybe they’d go me, but I was like, ‘Ahh, I know they won’t.’ But I knew I would get the ball at some point in time, whether it was the second, third, seventh inning, I knew I was pitching at some point tonight.
“We’re definitely not the normal, you know, starter goes seven, closer comes in. We’re definitely not traditional, but everybody knows their own role, and we just work together and do our job when our number is called. If not, somebody is behind you is just as good.”
As any Bulldog will tell you, every player on the Mississippi State roster has embraced his role, and it’s a big reason why MSU’s unorthodox formula has been so successful. So even though the Bulldogs started sophomore righty Trevor Fitts, everyone in the ballpark knew his job was simply to get through two or three innings before handing off to Girodo, who would shoulder the bulk of the load. Fitts did his job, allowing two runs over 2 1/3 innings, and Girodo did his job spectacularly, striking out 10 over 6 1/3 riveting frames to lead the Bulldogs to an exciting, come-from-behind 5-4 win.
|Game At A Glance|
|Turning Point: Indiana was clinging to a 3-2 lead in the eighth inning when DeMarcus Henderson came to the plate with men on the corners and one out. Henderson battled through a seven-pitch at-bat against Indiana stopper Ryan Halstead and served an RBI single into right field, tying the game at 3-3.
“I thought Henderson’s at-bat was probably the best at-bat of the night, both clubs,” IU coach Tracy Smith said. “And I thought that was the key to them winning, because I thought Ryan was making some good pitches. He kept fighting them off, and once they got the tying hit there, you’ve got a little momentum going there.”
Two batters later, Trey Porter—who had entered as a pinch-hitter in the sixth and flown out to the warning track with the bases loaded—ripped a two-run single to right-center, putting MSU ahead to stay, 5-3.
The Hero: Chad Girodo used his sweeping slider to escape jam after jam, preventing the Hoosiers from extending their lead and allowing Mississippi State to surge ahead in the eighth. He struck out 10 over 6 2/3 innings of relief before handing off to Jonathan Holder, who stranded the tying run at third base to end it.
You Might Have Missed: Wes Rea’s sterling postseason continued Monday. The MSU first baseman hit an RBI single in the sixth to pull MSU within a run, then singled and scored the tying run in the eighth. And he saved the game in the bottom of the ninth. With the tying run at third and two outs in the ninth, Holder got Michael Basil to hit a tapper in front of the mound. Holder fielded it cleanly with plenty of time, but his throw bounced near the edge of the grass and dirt, forcing Rea to adjust the position of his hands and field it on a tough hop. He made the play, ending the game.
“I really felt like Trevor came out and just gave us a quality start,” said MSU coach John Cohen. “He knows what’s coming in behind him. He absolutely knows that Girodo is going to come in behind him. But I thought he just did a masterful job of getting us off to a pretty good start.
“But I just thought the story of the game is Chad . . . just battling and battling and battling.”
It wasn’t smooth sailing from start to finish for Girodo—far from it. He entered with the game tied 1-1 and a runner on first base in the third inning, and he allowed four of the next five batters to reach, allowing two runs to score. But he minimized the damage by striking out Casey Smith to strand the bases loaded. That would become a recurring theme.
He struck out the side in the fourth, stranding a runner at first base. He stranded men at the corners in the fifth by striking out Smith again. He stranded runners at second and third in the seventh by striking out Dustin DeMuth. That kept Indiana from adding to its lead, which shrunk to one run in the sixth, then disappeared altogether in MSU’s three-run eighth.
The Hoosiers struck out 14 times on the night, and Girodo had 10 of them. They left 10 runners on base, including six in scoring position.
“The problem we had tonight is we didn’t put balls in play, left plenty of runners on base,” Indiana coach Tracy Smith said. “I was just a little upset about our lack of competitiveness in the batter’s box, and that’s taking absolutely nothing away from Girodo. He’s good—he’s really good. But, he’s not Sandy Koufax, and we’ve got to do a better job of digging in there and simply put balls in play.”
All of Girodo’s strikeouts came on his sweeping 75-78 mph slider, which was just as effective against Indiana’s fearsome lefties as it was against righties thanks to his ability to back-door it or throw it to a righty’s back foot.
“At the beginning (of the season), when I first started facing righties with (my slider), I knew it was running into their bats, so I was kind of iffy on throwing it,” Girodo said. “Then one day I was like, ‘It’s my best pitch, I’m going to go with it,’ and I did. I try to just keep them off balance with it, then sneak a fastball in there every once in a while.”
Embracing the slider against righties and lefties alike helped Girodo take off as a senior, and so did dropping his arm slot a week or two before the season began.
“It was a backup plan from the get-go, but I liked it, I liked the way hitters reacted to it,” Girodo said of his switch to a low three-quarters slot. “The drop in my arm slot and the slider, being able to put it in the zone for a strike, I think that was the real gamechanger for me. I’m a totally different pitcher than I was last year and the year before.”
He posted a 5.87 ERA in just 7 2/3 innings over 11 short appearances a year ago, and had a 5.76 ERA in 30 innings as a sophomore in 2011. He pitched more as a freshman, working 49 innings but posting a 7.40 ERA.
But on Monday, he improved to 9-1, 1.56 with a dazzling 73-17 strikeout-walk mark in 52 innings over 35 relief appearances. He threw one inning or less in 18 of his first 23 appearances this year, but as Girodo put it, “one day something kind of clicked,” and the Bulldogs started using him for longer stints starting in May. His fastball is firm from that low slot, sitting at 88-90, helping him get drafted in the ninth round by the Blue Jays. He threw 2 2/3 scoreless innings on May 5, then 2 1/3 innings of one-hit, scoreless relief on May 14, and 2 2/3 scoreless on May 21. Those outings helped Girodo earn the unwavering trust of the coaching staff, who have leaned upon him heavily in the postseason.
Girodo never threw more than three innings in a regular-season outing, but he dealt for 6 2/3 innings in the regional clincher against Central Arkansas, striking out 12. A week later in the Charlottesville Super Regional, Girodo fanned 10 over 4 2/3 innings to pick up the win in the clincher again.
In the NCAA tournament, he is 3-0, 2.33 with 34 strikeouts and five walks in 19 innings. The strikeout numbers are, well, Koufaxian, but Girodo said he didn’t realize just how many Hoosiers he was ringing up Monday.
“I really had no clue—it didn’t even feel like I had five or six,” Girodo said. “I just try to get in a zone, not worry about anything. It’s been going well for me.”
And having Girodo come out of the bullpen has been going well for the Bulldogs, so don’t expect them to mess with it now. That’s just fine with Girodo; daydreams about championships trump fantasies about starting any day. And Mississippi State is now just one win away from the CWS Finals.