Evan Mitchell’s homecoming didn’t happen at Wheeler High School, his alma mater, but at Russ Chandler Stadium when his Mississippi State baseball team took on Austin Peay in the NCAA baseball tournament's Atlanta Regional on Saturday night.
Mitchell, a freshman pitcher, led the Bulldogs into the championship game Sunday by allowing just five hits and three runs in 7 2/3 innings, the longest outing of his college career. The Bulldogs won, 8-3. (Check out the video highlights from the NCAA.)
Just last year Mitchell was pitching in East Cobb for Wheeler. That made it easy for his friends and family to attend the game on Georgia Tech’s campus, just 16.5 miles from Wheeler. And attend the game in droves they did.
About 150 of Mitchell’s friends and family attended the game Saturday, including his high school coach, David McDonald. McDonald has moved on to Mount Paran Christian School but wasn’t going to miss seeing a former player pitch on such an important stage.
“I was just thrilled for him and his family,” said McDonald, who played baseball for Mississippi State in the 1960s. “There were a lot of his friends here from Wheeler High School, and I just thought it was fantastic for him to have that experience to come back here.”
Mitchell acknowledged paying a little bit of attention to the calls from his friends in the stands, but he said he wanted to treat this start like any other start at any other location. After his teammates scored seven runs in the fourth inning, Mitchell was able to settle in, focus on Austin Peay hitters and enjoy the moment.
"It's definitely nice to get to pitch in front of friends and family," Mitchell said, "but I didn't want to get too caught up in that. I wanted to treat it like another day, another outing. There were some people that surprised me at the end, and it was kind of nice to see them. But once in a while when I got in the dugout, I heard my friends yell, and I tried to kind of tune it out."
Bulldogs coach John Cohen wasn’t sure how Mitchell would handle pitching in front of so many people he knew. In Cohen’s experience, appearing in front of a hometown crowd can help or hurt a young player.
"When kids go home, you can be really concerned about it or go out there and do your thing," Cohen said. "There's no doubt Evan was locked in tonight and just did a super job throwing in front of his home folks."
Mitchell has done a great job of late, allowing just five earned runs in his past three starts and striking out 17 batters in 17 1/3 innings.
According to McDonald, Mitchell almost didn’t get a chance to play at Mississippi State.
While playing shortstop at Wheeler during his senior year, Mitchell took a ground ball to the eye and fractured his orbital socket. McDonald said Mitchell missed more than half the season, and coaches at Mississippi State were worried he wouldn’t be able to recover in time to contribute as a freshman.
“When Coach Cohen and Coach (Butch) Thompson recruit a player, they want him to make a contribution as a freshman, and I think he did,” McDonald said. “I think he made a solid contribution.”
Mitchell was able to recover, McDonald said, because of an work ethic and athletic ability. He worked out all spring with McDonald and well into the summer to get himself into playing shape for his freshman year with the Bulldogs.
Work ethic and talent aside, McDonald said the true determining factor in Mitchell’s recovery was his character. “He’s a winner in everything he’s ever done, and he works hard at his craft, which is pitching.”
Mitchell increased his record to 6-1 with the win Saturday and put his team within one victory over Georgia Tech of winning the Atlanta Regional and moving on to a Super Regional against Florida or Miami. Playing Miami would give Mitchell a chance to pitch to Wheeler classmate Dale Carey, a freshman outfielder for the Hurricanes. (Update at 7:35 p.m.: Florida beat Miami, 11-4, so the winner of the Atlanta Regional will go to Gainesville for a best-of-three series against the Gators. Update at 10 p.m.: Mississippi State defeated Georgia Tech, 7-3, to advance to the Super Regional against Florida.)