HOOVER, Ala. — If Wednesday’s Southeastern Conference tournament opener served as an audition to find Mississippi State’s Regional Game 1 starter, not many Maroon and White pitchers that took the mound against the Florida Gators are likely to get a callback.
A 13-1 seven-inning, run-rule shallacking at the hands of Florida will do that to you.
“We have talented arms,” MSU coach Chris Lemonis said. “They just have to pitch in the right roles.”
While preserving MSU’s top two arms in lieu of holding impromptu pitching tryouts in the double-elimination tournament likely was the main reasoning behind Mississippi State’s pitching choices, it’s also not fathomable Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis just flat out gave up on trying to win the conference tournament. Lemonis turned to Brandon Smith to make his first start since Feb. 24, likely with the mindset that if MSU could win a bullpen game against a Florida pitching staff that already played one day prior, it could ride top starters Christian MacLeod and Will Bednar to a pair of wins and an SEC championship appearance Sunday. While the end result was poor, turning to the 6-foot-3 junior right-hander boasting a 2.76 ERA on the year entering the contest made sense. Smith’s previous experience in the conference tournament is fondly remembered by the MSU faithful, most notably when he pitched into the fifth inning in the Bulldogs’ wild 17-inning victory against LSU in the first round in 2019.
After falling behind hitter after hitter the first two innings, Smith’s previous SEC tournament success wasn’t replicated. Utilizing a fastball ranging from 91-95 miles per hour, Smith saw several Gator hitters drill 2-0 heaters into all different kinds of gaps at the Hoover Metropolitan Complex. While he pulled a tightrope act in the first and only allowed one run to score after allowing the first three batters to reach base, he couldn’t escape further damage in the second. Three more runs crossed that put MSU in an early 4-1 hole and it only got worse from there. Lemonis rode with Smith to start the third, but he only recorded one out after Sterlin Thompson drilled a pitch over the Tennessee logo in right center field to give Florida a 5-1 lead. Smith was charged with six runs after allowing eight hits and only striking out one in two-plus innings of work.
“It’s really frustrating,” Lemonis said of Smith’s outing. “I was really hoping to get out there and give us a great start so we could have him as a starter in the regional. He still could do that. They did a good job staying on him, fought off some tough pitches in two-strike counts early in that game, and then they extended some innings. He had some good stuff. His stuff was good. He just didn’t pitch great.”
Cam Tullar didn’t fare much better in relief, allowing an inherited run to score and three more runs of his own in one inning of work. In three innings, the Gators had more than double the hits (12) than they did in their 4-1 Tuesday win against Kentucky (five).
Cade Smith turned in the best performance by far out of MSU’s relievers, delivering two scoreless innings without allowing a hit.
Eric Cerantola, was, well, Eric Cerantola. He pitched an inning, walked a batter and allowed a hit, needed 27 pitches to complete the frame but showcased terrific movement on his pitches in a scoreless inning.
KC Hunt was given mop-up duty in the seventh, and mostly only delivered center-cut fastballs en route to allowing four more runs (two earned) to cross.
Maybe all Wednesday proved is Lemonis would be best served starting the regional against the presumed No. 4 seed with a combination of Jackson Fristoe and Houston Harding then piggybacking MacLeod and Bednar in succession instead of relying on lesser known commodities.
“Obviously, you’d love to have a third guy,” Lemonis said about his starting rotation. “In this day and age, I can have an opener and let some guys pitch. We’ve played well on Sundays just trying to let somebody get one time through the lineup and letting our bullpen work. So that’s probably what we’re going to have to do as this goes forward, but maybe somebody will jump out there. Something could happen this week as you get playing in games, and somebody has to get out there and get hot.”
Thursday brings another bright and early 9:30 a.m. first pitch against the loser of Alabama and Tennessee with normal Friday starter MacLeod getting the nod. While MSU conceivably could still be a top eight seed should it lose Thursday, Lemonis and company would breathe a lot easier with a win.
“Yeah, we want to win tomorrow,” Lemonis said. “… We want to get that bad taste out of our mouth from today. Play good baseball, feel good about our ball club. The last thing you want to do is go home.”