Normally Evan Mitchell’s family would have to get in the car before the sun gets up and drive to make an afternoon game in Starkville.
They can sleep in a little bit this weekend because the 6-foot-3 right-hander from Marietta, Ga., will be making his first NCAA Regional appearance a little over 20 minutes from home.
Once the NCAA Regional pairings were announced Sunday that matched up Southern Mississippi and Mississippi State
“I think being that close to home and having so many people there to support me will be pretty cool,” Mitchell said Tuesday. “We’ve all been told to be ready at any point so you could see any our arms at any point this weekend. We have to all be focused when we go there.”
Less than 12 months after deciding to leave his home state to play college baseball at Mississippi State, Mitchell could be on the mound while Georgia Tech coaches, who never recruited him out of a high school just 15 miles north of the Atlanta campus, watch in the stands or in the opposing dugout.
“Everybody on our staff wants to pitch and help our team at some point this weekend,” Mitchell said. “All of our pitchers are going to contribute at some point so we need to be ready for any situation.” Mitchell, who could be an option in relief Friday or be given another start later on this weekend, was impressive in his first start this May last week in the Bulldogs opening game of the Southeastern Conference Tournament against Florida.
After some gamesmanship between the two head coaches, Mississippi State handed the ball first to Mitchell (5-1, 3.49) for his first start in May and fifth career start in his college career.
“I think it got to the point where Evan was taken out of the rotation because his breaking ball wasn’t very good and he’s worked harder to throw that curve ball harder,” MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson said last week. “He’s been there and he’s grown and that’s exactly how you want to use a freshman.”
Many people wondered how the freshman would react to the big stage of Regions Park against a high quality lineup like the Gators. They may have just needed to call his high school coach like Thompson did two years ago.
“Butch and I talked at a classic tournament and to be fully honest once he mentioned Evan – that’s where I wanted him to go and learn,” Dave McDonald, former head baseball coach of Wheeler High School, said. “Evan has always thought he was good, always carried himself that way and had that attitude verified against some of the best high school talent in America right here in Georgia.”
McDonald was a former baseball player at Mississippi State under Paul Gregory and is a decorated Vietnam War hero that in 1995 was presented with a bronze star and purple heart from then-United States President Bill Clinton.
McDonald described Mitchell as the best athlete on the Wheeler High School baseball team that “could’ve played any of the nine positions on the field if I asked him to” but was getting overlooked by scouts’ admiration for highly-touted outfielder Dale Carey. Carey is now the centerfielder for Miami (Fla.) as they head to the Gainesville Regional as the two-seed and could actually face Mississippi State in a Super Regional in two weeks if both teams advance.
“Evan was fortunate because Division 1 coaches would come to see three or four of my kids at the same time and the first thing they’d notice about Evan is his electric arm,” McDonald said.
Despite having a love and affection for Mississippi State, a school McDonald graduated from in 1970, McDonald attempted to contact the recruiters at Georgia and Georgia Tech but got no response.
“I sent stuff and made calls to Georgia and Georgia Tech but just nothing came of it,” McDonald said. “His parents knew nothing about Mississippi State but were willing to listen when I told them how much I thought Evan would fit nicely there.”
Mitchell then suffered an injury during his final season and all the big-time programs walked away from him except Thompson.
The Bulldogs right-hander just smiles and says he’s not looking to show the Yellow Jackets staff this weekend what they’re missing by not pursuing the home state product but just survive and advance in this tournament format.
“What’s important is I’m at Mississippi State and I couldn’t be happier,” Mitchell said. “I’m not too worried about the outside things but we know we could lose two games and our season is over.”
In his first season of college baseball, Mitchell has found himself on a roller coaster in and out of the MSU rotation but once he found his curve ball was able to hold No. 3 Florida to just two earned runs over five innings in a game he says he struggled to find the strike zone.
“I actually think I was getting behind in counts and that led to my high pitch count and inability to go longer in the game,” Mitchell said.
After his start against Florida, Mitchell has the faith of everybody on the MSU roster that they believe the freshman can navigate through some of the most impressive lineups in the country.
“Evan gave us a great start last week,” MSU sophomore left-hander Luis Pollorena said. “He should have gotten the win and there’s no reason he can’t keep pitching like that again.”
Mitchell describes the gameplan going forward and, for him going home, as a very simple formula as an underdog three-seed.
“How about win three games?” Mitchell asked as he shrugged his shoulders. “In any way, I think winning the games no matter how we do it would leave us in a good spot.”