In May of 2012, the Mississippi State baseball team was playing its biggest game of the year. The Bulldogs were in the SEC Tournament Championship Game against Vanderbilt, but they had to face the Commodores without their ace and season MVP. Eventual first round draft pick Chris Stratton had done the work to get MSU this far, but his arm wasn’t ready for another start so soon.
In fact, at this point in the season and after so many recent games, the biggest start of the year came down to a freshman – Brandon Woodruff.
The first-year hurler had done enough to impress his coaches and earn their trust in this game, so he took the mound and went three innings deep, only allowing one hit over the stretch.
Just as much as they enjoyed Woodruff setting up the eventual win, fans watching were excited for his future. They saw how hard this freshman threw, noticed how he worked his way onto the mound as the season wound on, and couldn’t wait to see what he would do the next year.
That was his last appearance in a season ending in Tallahassee the following weekend and injuries kept his follow-up campaign from ever properly taking off. Now, there’s something Woodruff wants to emulate from that game at the end of his freshman season as he enters his junior year as the opening day starter.
It was nothing he did, though. It’s what that year’s star accomplished. While Stratton wasn’t able to start in that championship, he was the one who eventually secured the win. Having exhausted most of his bullpen, John Cohen brought in his ace with only one out left. Stratton sat the final batter down, his only out recorded in the game and the only save of his career at MSU.
When the team dogpiled on top of Stratton at the mound after the final pitch, it was the high point of one of the best seasons by a pitcher in Bulldog history.
Injuries have put the promise Woodruff showed two years ago on hold, but for the first time he’s fully healthy and he’s hoping to have a third season similar to the one Stratton had with records, wins and, if he’s lucky, a few dogpiles.
“It’s funny you mention him,” Cohen said Monday, “because Chris and Brandon were just together and they were talking pitching. It was kind of neat to see.”
In fact, just before MSU’s media day started, Woodruff was throwing a session in the pen while Stratton watched and offered tips. Just little things, Woodruff said. Nothing wild, but things he’ll use. The types of a little things pitchers love.
Once they became teammates, the young Bulldog immediately looked up to the unassuming star.
“Oh man, I just remember freshman year watching Chris, and that was a guy who I really wanted to model myself after,” Woodruff said. “Every chance I got to speak to him, I did. We were good friends. He kind of just took me under and showed me everything. Everything he would do, I would just try to pick up on. I think toward the end of my freshman year, it really started to show when I got a start in the SEC Tournament Championship. I really just tried to be more like him, because that guy, he was so good that year.”
Stratton, like Woodruff, had showed promise in his first couple years, but it never really came together until that award-laden junior season when he leapt from a name in the hat to the top pitcher in the SEC.
“I think Brandon’s already made a huge jump,” Cohen continued when asked about the comparison. “I think he is unbelievably talented. I think he does some things better than Chris Stratton. He’s got a little bit more on his fastball. I think Brandon has a chance to be that guy you’re describing, that guy who makes a third-year jump.”
If Woody, as he’s called, wants to make that jump, then who better to talk to than the guy who did it?
In fact, over the holidays Woodruff was quietly posted up in a tree stand and texting Stratton, who was off in Arizona training for his next season.
“Just about anything,” Woodruff remembered. “Grips, what he does, his mental side, stuff like that. I try to talk to him as much as I can.”
The mental side Woodruff mentions may be the most important to note. Even more so than Stratton, the biggest influence in Woody’s development has been MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson.
Every day this past summer, Woodruff said, he would go to Thompson’s office and talk. And talk, and talk and talk. They would go over game film, see catchers, batters and pitchers on TV, discuss conversations Thompson had had with other coaches and players. It was the natural follow up to a sophomore season riddled with injury when Woodruff had to learn by watching, not by doing.
“Once I got hurt, Coach Thompson wouldn’t let me get away from the mental side of baseball. He had me focused on everything and I think that’s where I’ve really grown,” he said. “From freshman year to now, the mental side and how I approach things is so much different.”
Woodruff is hoping he can be next in the list of those who breakout on the big stage of college baseball.
“It’s been fun to watch his development,” Cohen said of his junior pitcher, “and of course a big part of that is his relationship with Coach Thompson. You see where he was when he got here and where he is now – it’s pretty eye opening to see his development at Mississippi State.”
While Woodruff has put in the work on the field, in the bullpen and in the weight and film rooms, that day in a tree stand may be the best indicator of what’s to come.
Patience is an asset in the woods, as is the mental fortitude needed while a hunter waits to strike in freezing temperatures, keeping a keen eye and steady hands underneath layers of camouflaged clothing – not unlike the capacities required on the mound by baseball’s premier pitchers, tuning out the periphery and viewing a narrow strip of the world through tunnel vision, all while placidly waiting to erupt and strike the calculated, pinpointed blow.
“He’s matured so much,” Cohen said of Woodruff, “that you really believe he’s gonna make big pitches when it matters.”
After what can feel like a lifetime of waiting, the moments in the woods or on the field come quicker than any expect. And when it hits, you better be ready.
“He’s earned it,” Thompson said. “He deserves it.”