STARKVILLE, Miss. — Mississippi State’s chess play at the NCAA Lafayette Regional won’t begin until the bullpen door swings open.
The Bulldogs (37-22) will try to replicate their 2013 postseason run to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, by trying to hand the baseball to their best pitcher as soon as possible. Normally, a staff’s best pitcher is a dominant starter — but MSU’s trump card is arguably the best left-handed reliever in the country, junior Jacob Lindgren.
Mississippi State will go to a new site for its 34th NCAA tournament appearance. The Bulldogs’ first game is at 1 p.m. Friday against Mountain West Conference tournament champion San Diego State (42-19).
Lindgren, a former 12th-round pick by the Chicago Cubs out of St. Stanislaus High in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, has been extremely efficient in a specialized reliever role after struggling as a starter last season. Lindgren was MSU’s only representative on the All-Southeastern Conference first team and the only relief pitcher in the group.
“I really don’t think there’s a better relief pitcher in all of college baseball than Jacob Lindgren,” MSU starter Ross Mitchell said Monday. “You would have to show me multiple outings from somebody else before I’m convinced otherwise.”
Perfect Game named Lindgren the 45th-best prospect in the 2014 Major League Baseball draft. In addition, Lindgren was named a finalist for the C Spire Ferriss Trophy, which is given to the top collegiate player in the state of Mississippi. MLB.com draft analyst Jonathan Mayor named Lindgren the 41st-best prospect in the draft, saying it’s unlikely that he’ll last past the second round.
“We’re just past the point of me being surprised when Jacob comes in a game and dominates like he has all season,” MSU coach John Cohen said.
Normally a closer is given the nod by the SEC coaches for that one reliever spot on the all-conference team — but Lindgren (6-1) has held opponents scoreless over his past 21.1 innings. Lindgren, who’s been called upon as early as the third inning this season by MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson, now has a razor-thin 0.88 ERA.
“I think if you’d have told me that’s what my ERA was going to be in the middle of May, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Lindgren said. “Why would’ve I believed that?”
Lindgren leads all relief pitchers nationally in strikeouts thanks to a overpowering fastball-slider combination, and he leads all pitchers overall with a 16.8 strikeouts per nine innings.
“I think Lindgren is a guy where he gets so much swing-and-miss that he can be difficult to catch with that slider,” MSU closer Jonathan Holder said. “It gets to a point where, when I come into a game, it feels like I’m throwing nothing but off-speed stuff out there.”
The MSU staff will have to decide whether to use Lindgren in the opening game Friday or try to save him for a possible matchup against the No. 6 overall seed, Louisiana-Lafayette.
Lindgren’s professional three-pitch arsenal could be a strong counter to UL-Lafayette’s offense, which is rated one of the most offenses in college baseball. The Ragin’ Cajuns hit .317 as a team, ranking second in the country. The Ragin’ Cajuns were second in the country in doubles, home runs and runs scored.
MSU co-captain Wes Rea — who grew up with Lindgren in the Gulfport area and is familiar with M.L. “Tigue” Moore Field — has seen the left-hander get in a similar groove on the mound when playing summer travel baseball together. Rea and Lindgren both said they’ve played at UL-Lafayette’s home park during their summers playing travel ball.
“I’ve seen dominance for a very long time from (Jacob), and then you get to college and things start getting faster — but this year, he’s slowed the game down to do what he’s done his whole life,” Rea said. “He’s unbelievable when he’s on like that.”