OMAHA, Neb. — Shortly after Mississippi State’s Game 4 win over Texas on Sunday night, the team bus drove a half-mile from TD Ameritrade Park to the Hilton Omaha. When the Bulldogs arrived, there were hundreds of maroon-wearing, cowbell-ringing, #HailState hashtagging fans waiting to greet their conquering winners’ bracket heroes. They really wanted to see one hero in particular.
“Man, that lobby, that was crazy,” said he who was being yelled at, Mississippi State righty Will Bednar. “I have been playing baseball my whole life. I play at The Dude [State’s uber-rowdy ballpark]. My brother plays in the big leagues [Pittsburgh Pirates reliever David Bednar]. But I have never seen anything like that in that hotel lobby on Sunday night.”
No one at any College World Series game had seen anything like what Bednar had just done in 25 years. Over six innings, he faced 21 Longhorns and struck out 15, the most by a CWS pitcher since Clemson’s Kris Benson also had 15 against Miami in 1996. He was relieved by closer Landon Sims, who struck out six in three innings’ work. Their 21 K’s broke a team CWS single-game record set by Ohio State in 1968.
With every punchout, Bednar, Sims and Mississippi moved another rung up the CWS record book and another rung higher in the national-sports consciousness. To the millions who watch college baseball only during these two weeks in Omaha, the performance was a shocker. To those who follow the game all season, State’s K assembly line was nothing new. It was just a performance spike in a process that has been this incredibly deep staff’s modus operandi.
When the Bulldogs arrived in Omaha, they were already on pace to set the NCAA record for strikeouts per nine innings for a season at 12.4. Now that number is 12.5. Bednar and teammate Christian MacLeod own 128 and 113 K’s, respectively. Sims has 91. All added up, the MSU roster is tied with Ole Miss for the Division I single-season record with 765 strikeouts, but the Bulldogs have as many as six games still to play.
During this still-new baseball age of hyper-focus around pitching spin rates, a lack of focus on small-ball swings at the plate and an overall lack of fundamental sharpness because of the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season, strikeouts have skyrocketed throughout college baseball. But even during this era of piled-up K’s (a half-dozen teams are above the pre-2021 K-per-9-inning record), Mississippi State is still way out ahead of everyone else.
“It’s really been like a couple of waves, I suppose is the best way to describe it when I think about why so many strikeouts from these guys this season,” said pitching coach Scott Foxhall, in just his second season in Starkville after stints at NC State, Auburn and College of Charleston.
Thanks to the NCAA’s decision to permit all players an extra year of eligibility, Foxhall found himself entering 2021 with an overstuffed staff, a handful of guys who had made it to Omaha in 2018 and ’19 joined by blue-chip recruits who hadn’t played a full season, such as Bednar.
“The first part of the season,” he said, “we used a lot of different guys, so we never overused anybody, and if you’re a hitter, that’s a lot of different looks from a lot of elite talent used only in short stints. It’s hard to get a hit like that.”
The second wave came in May, when the headliners finally took center stage, just in time for a postseason push.
“The last month you’ve seen a lot of strikeouts because our top guys, starters and relievers both, have been fresh-armed,” he said. “And give credit to [head coach] Chris Lemonis for that. He is a master game manager and a real big-picture guy. When people might’ve been wondering in April, ‘Now, why aren’t they leaving this guy out there on the mound longer?’ Chris had a plan in mind, and he stuck with it.”
The spring was a study in both chemistry and sociology. While Foxhall preached his self-described “Lord’s Prayer broken record” mantra of “command your fastball and throw your off-speed pitches aggressively for strikes,” Lemonis, hitting coach Jake Gautreau and catcher/slugger/captain Logan Tanner kept an eye out for any bruised egos or hurt feelings. The natural rhythm of roster construction was altered by COVID-19, but as stars like Bednar emerged, the reaction from those who would’ve likely been pitching more, or even starting at another school, turned out to be all backing without any backstabbing.
“We have guys on this pitching staff that I think are going to have great careers, a real chance to be major leaguers, and we’ll look back and see that they didn’t really pitch much for us in 2021,” Foxhall said. “No one has sulked. No one has complained. If anything, they have gotten closer. I think I’m most proud of that.”
“When people might’ve been wondering in April, ‘Now, why aren’t they leaving this guy out there on the mound longer?’ Chris [Lemonis, head coach] had a plan in mind, and he stuck with it.”
Pitching coach Scott Foxhall
“At our practice just now, you saw that like I see it all the time,” Tanner said agreeingly on Monday afternoon following a Mississippi State workout at nearby Creighton University. “Our pitchers are always together, no matter where we are, you know, just being weird. Because they’re pitchers.”
Thanks to the rotate-and-rest approach, the weirdos helped lead the Dogs on an 11-3 run to end the regular season. After stumbling 0-2 in the SEC tournament, they’ve posted a record of 6-1 in the NCAAs. Because of the early SEC tourney exit, they arrived in Omaha a bit overshadowed. Despite being a No. 7 national seed, very little of the national pre-CWS pitching buzz was about the boys from Starkville. It was all about the arsenal of All-Big 12 arms from Texas and the one-two pitching punch of Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter of a foe that’s very familiar to Mississippi State: SEC rival Vanderbilt.
But Texas lost to State (though it must be noted that UT added 12 K’s of its own) while Rocker struggled in his opening day outing against Arizona. Two days later, Leiter looked great but ultimately took the L from unranked NC State.
In the middle of it all, Bednar rewrote the Omaha pitching headline in six innings. Sims sent that headline to the printer. Now MacLeod will try to add to the story on Tuesday night when the lefty All-American toes the rubber against Virginia. Just don’t try to frame those headlines up as a chip-on-the-shoulder team motivated by national disrespect.
“We don’t really look too deep into that kind of stuff,” Bednar said in reply to a sportswriter’s attempt to do just that. (OK, yes, it was me.) “The buzz is cool and everything, but it doesn’t really matter if you don’t go out and perform, so that’s what I focus on. That’s what we all focus on.”
Maintaining that focus won’t be easy if the Bulldogs keep the strikeouts and wins coming in Omaha. Their buzz will become a full-on roar if they can end the program’s 12th CWS appearance by finally earning the program’s long elusive first College World Series title.
“I can’t even imagine what that will be like,” Bednar said. “And I really can’t imagine what the lobby of our hotel would be like.”