Every championship story has to start somewhere. Only time will tell where the 2021 season will wind up for Mississippi State, but facing some of the nation's premier competition – and doing so without two of the team's top three starting arms – the Bulldogs certainly came out of the State Farm College Showdown looking like the national title contender many believe they'll be.
No. 7 MSU took down No. 3 Texas Tech by a final score of 11-5 on Monday. It was the Bulldogs' second win over a Top-10 team in the last three days after also taking down No. 9 Texas on Saturday. Yes, State took a one-run loss to No. 10 TCU in between, but to come out of this season-opening event with a winning record given MSU's circumstances, down two starting pitchers and several other bullpen arms? You bet the Bulldogs will take it.
"I think it just shows we're a bunch of hard-nosed, gritty players who love playing the game each and every day," State's Luke Hancock said.
The Bulldogs benefitted from their guts and guile to pull off Monday's win. Freshman Jackson Fristoe made his first career start on the mound, filling one of the two starting rotation holes with Will Bednar and Eric Cerantola both battling ailments this weekend. All Fristoe did was hurl three scoreless, hitless innings while striking out four. He did walk three and hit a couple of batters, but nonetheless gave MSU a major lift.
Perhaps Fristoe could've gone longer, but MSU head coach Chris Lemonis said he thought Fristoe was showing signs of fatigue and so State opted to go to the bullpen in the fourth.
"We wanted (Fristoe) to come off the field and feel like it was a successful first outing," Lemonis said.
Fristoe exited with a 1-0 lead that was given to MSU on an RBI single by Brad Cumbest in the second inning. By the fifth, the Bulldogs led 3-1. After Texas Tech had tied things up off of State reliever Cameron Tullar in the fourth, Rowdey Jordan gave the Bulldogs a two-run single in the top of the fifth.
Things got hairy for the Bulldogs in the home half of the frame. Tullar and fellow MSU reliever Carlisle Koestler each battled control issues and the free passes to Texas Tech hitters fueled a three-run rally. The Red Raiders jumped in front 4-3. But in another sign of State's resiliency, the Bulldogs bounced right back into the lead in the sixth on a two-run home run by Hancock. MSU never trailed again.
The Bulldogs took a 6-5 advantage to the ninth inning and scored five more times to put the game away. It put a lid on a challenging few days for State that showed off the club's depth, talent and potential.
Questions about MSU's offense this year? The Bulldogs averaged seven runs a game over the course of the event. Will State have enough power in 2021? Hancock and Rowdey Jordan each blasted a pair of homers over the three days and it seems like a safe bet that guys like Tanner Allen and Josh Hatcher will soon be providing pop of their own. Is the pitching staff really as deep as advertised? It sure looked like there were talented options aplenty and the pitching staff as a whole exited the weekend with a 3.33 earned run average. That despite no Cerantola, no Bednar and a bunch of first-year players climbing the mound.
"The one thing (the adversity) let us do is learn a little more about our team than in a normal weekend," Lemonis said. "(We saw) some different guys in different situations – Jackson Fristoe earlier (Monday) and (pitcher) K.C. Hunt late...We were down a bunch of arms this weekend being here. It’s the year we’re going to have. We’ve kind of sold it to our guys (like), 'Embrace it. It’s a next-man-up mentality.' I give our guys a lot of credit. Coming in here with all our guys and (winning) two out of three, I’m happy with. I liked the way we played. We didn’t play perfect, we have a lot of room to improve, but we played tough. Our guys stay engaged, they stay in the moment and they play hard. That’s what I like about them."
MSU's journey is just getting started. But there are certainly early signs there is the potential to reach a joyous destination.