OMAHA, Neb. -- Life is good when Chad Girodo is in your corner. Just ask Mississippi State right-handed pitcher Trevor Fitts.
On the grandest stage in college baseball, the 6-foot-2, 212-pound, sophomore from Helena, Ala., made just his fifth start of the season against Indiana, which happens to possess one of the nation's most potent offensive lineups.
Fitts certainly wanted to put together a good start for his team. But the big key? Just throw strikes. After all, even if he gets into trouble a couple of times through the Hoosiers batting order, the Bulldogs certainly had plenty of quality arms to go to, namely Chad Girodo.
Fitts didn't have the best start of his career, but he struck out two batters in the first inning, allowed just one run in the second inning, and was then lifted in the third inning when Indiana went back to the top of its batting order with Will Nolden smacking a leadoff single.
As has been the case so many times this season, the Bulldogs decided to rely on a reliever. This time it was Girodo, and once again, the decision paid off as Mississippi State captured a thrilling 5-4 win over Indiana to advance to Friday's bracket championship game against either Indiana or Oregon State.
"Chad was just battling, battling, battling. He had 2nd and 3rd with one out in the fifth, and they didn't score," Mississippi State coach John Cohen said. "That was the story of the ballgame. That was just huge to slam the door shut there."
While Girodo took control of the Hoosiers in the middle frames, the Bulldogs eventually got into a groove offensively down 3-1 heading into the sixth inning. Then, after a single from Brett Pirtle and a wild pitch, Wes Rea smacked an RBI single to cut the IU lead to 3-2.
That mini-rally in the sixth led to an even more productive eighth inning, which included an outstanding at-bat from outfielder DeMarcus Henderson, whose seven-pitch showdown resulted in an RBI single to tie the game, the biggest hit of the game coming two batters later when designated hitter Trey Porter, who's battling an eye faction, slammed a two-RBI single into right-center field to give the Bulldogs a 5-3 lead.
"I wasn't really imagining myself being in that situation. You setup to play at the top level in college baseball, but you don't really ever see it happening," Porter said. "I got into a hitter's count, and put myself in good counts. I know [Adam] Frazier is behind me, so they're not going to throw to him, so I knew I had a pretty good chance to see a fastball. I just put the barrel on it to see what would happen."
Porter's clutch hit proved to be the haymaker for the Bulldogs, but the crippling punch came much earlier in the game when the Bulldogs turned to Girodo.
Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson's management of the pitching staff is rather unique. Instead of putting their front-line arms in starting roles, the Bulldogs tend to keep guys like Girodo, Holder, and others in relief roles. So, when it looked like Fitts might get into some trouble in the third, they had zero hesitation, it was Girodo time.
The senior left-hander couldn't have been better against Indiana -- a story line we've seen play out with this team many times before.
Until Monday, Girodo's two longest relief performances of the year had come the past two weekends against Central Arkansas and Virginia. Against UCA, the lefty struck out 12, walked two and allowed just a run on five hits in 6 2/3 innings of work. Then, against the hard-hitting Cavaliers, he struck out 10 and allowed two runs on five hits in 4 2/3 innings.
It was very much the same story against the Hoosiers. Girodo didn't feel like he was throwing strikes with his slider earlier in his outing, but he got into a groove as the game progressed, and resorted back to using that slider as a wipeout pitch.
"He was mixing up his pitches really well, and spotting things up," Indiana designated hitter Scott Donley said after the game. "He was keeping us off balance, and he was able to locate and keep the ball down in the zone."
The tale of the tape on Girodo is quite impressive. The senior struck out 10, walked one and allowed two runs on seven hits in 6 1/3 innings of work. And amazingly, Girodo now has 19 innings pitched in the NCAA postseason, along with 34 strikeouts and five walks.
With how dominant Girodo has been down the stretch this season, some might wonder why the Bulldogs haven't decided at some point to throw him in the starting rotation. But as has been the case the entire season, the Bulldogs enjoy their unorthodox ways -- they love relying heavily on their bullpen, a formula inspired by South Carolina's runs through Omaha over the years.
"I really think South Carolina and Ray Tanner showed the map for getting to Omaha and having success. Your bullpen is really important, and Ray showed that. Butch and I created a plan in the fall to take some of our best guys, and have those guys coming out of the bullpen. We structured our entire fall out of telling Chad your'e going to come in during the middle of the game, and you're going to do this and that.
"Everything we did in the fall was situational to what we're doing now," he continued. "I think there's a feeling at some point of wanting to make him a starter, but you have to take into account the comfort level of the kid, and he and Ross [Mitchell] are more comfortable in these roles. It was that way in the fall, and it has continued to be that way this spring."
Mississippi State has one of the more unorthodox approaches we've seen in the CWS the past few seasons. The Bulldogs don't have a dominant starting pitcher, something that typically is a staple of a team in their current situation.
But through two games, that simply hasn't mattered.
A couple of days ago it was Ross Mitchell and others. Now Girodo dominated on the biggest stage, leading an effort that resulted in Indiana striking out 14 times.
MSU just seems to have that feeling.
"Anytime you're on a team on a run with certain things happening, it feels special and you feel like good things are bound to happen," Cohen said. "But I'd like to just say with it. I really wish we could just play tomorrow instead of waiting 3 or 4 days to play again.
"I feel pretty good right now."
CWS snapshot: Breaking down Mississippi State-Indiana
Player of the game: LHP Chad Girodo, Mississippi State -- Girodo, the exceptional left-handed pitcher, has been fantastic the past few weeks for the Bulldogs, and once again put together an impressive performance out of the bullpen in the win over Indiana. Girodo struck out 10 batters, walked one and allowed just two runs on seven hits in 6 1/3 innings of work. The appearance was Girodo's 35th of the season.
Turning point: Mississippi State entered the eighth inning down 3-2 to Indiana, but that's when the offense finally got rolling against Indiana reliever Ryan Halstead. Brett Pirtle and Wes Rea began the inning with singles, while C.T. Bradford struck out. Then, DeMarcus Henderson, who has really risen to the occasion at times in the postseason, had an RBI single in a seven-pitch at-bat to tie the game at 3-3. The Bulldogs took the lead in the eighth inning on pinch-hitter Trey Porter's two-RBI single to the gap in right-center field. MSU had a 5-3 lead and never looked back, though, there were some tense moments in the IU half of the ninth inning.
What they said: "For sure. If you see in the 2-0 count, a swung for a fastball, another slider in the batters box. Was going to take my chances. I know Frazier is behind me so they're not going to throw to him. He's one of the best hitters in college baseball, so I knew I had a pretty good chance of getting a fastball, so I was just going to get the barrel out there and see what could happen." -- MSU's Trey Porter on his two-RBI single in the 8th inning.
What's next: There's no doubt at this point Mississippi State is in the driver's seat in its side of the bracket, now getting three days off before facing the winner of the Oregon State-Indiana contest on Wednesday. The Bulldogs will have plenty of starting options at that point. Meanwhile, Indiana is actually not in bad shape with imposing 6-foot-10, right-handed pitcher Aaron Slegers still having not pitches here in Omaha. Slegers has a 2.93 ERA in 15 1/3 innings of work in the NCAA postseason, but has had an even more dominant overall campaign. The bout between he and Oregon State's Matt Boyd ought to be a dandy.