Starkville, Miss.--Mississippi State's Joseph McCaskill entered this weekend's play with only 14 runs batted in this season but on Saturday he exploded for five RBI in the first two innings as the Bulldogs jumped on top of Auburn 8-0 and never looked back on the way to an 11-6 victory. The win improves the Bulldogs to 30-12 overall and 12-9 in SEC play while Auburn falls to 28-21, 7-16 in conference action. The loss keeps Auburn in last place in the SEC and now puts them in dire need of an almost perfect finish if they hope to have any chance of playing in the postseason.
With just seven games left in the regular season, three against the powerful Vanderbilt Commodores, Auburn needs to win at least six games to have any chance of seeing the postseason. The chances of that happening are becoming slimmer with each passing day, especially if the Tigers continue to start games like they did Saturday in a loss to Mississippi State.
With true freshman Taylor Thompson on the hill, Auburn fell behind 8-0 after two innings and 10-1 after five before rallying to give themselves a slim chance late in the contest. Defensive problems cost Thompson early on a night when he didn't have his best stuff anyway. In four and two/thirds innings he gave up 10 runs (six earned) on 10 hits and took the loss to fall to 4-2 on the season. Coach Tommy Slater says the story was once again the first few innings of poor play that put his team in a hole too deep to dig out of.
"We just had really shoddy and poor defense there early," Slater says. "We had routine balls and we don't make the plays. We get out of the first inning unscathed if we catch a ground ball. We did a poor job early of catching the baseball but to the credit of our players, from the fourth inning on, we talked about trying to win some innings and from the fourth inning on we did that. We scored some runs but we've got to do a better job earlier in the game. Those were some routine balls that we've just got to make plays on."
The early struggles in the field brought an unusual sight as Slater made a visit to the mound in the second inning to talk to Thompson and the entire Auburn infield. He says he just wanted to settle his team down and get them back in the game but unfortunately it was too late on this night.
"That inning was unraveling on us pretty quickly," Slater says. "The balls that we were missing were routine, that's the bottom line. I just wanted to remind the guys not to let things snowball on them. We had a kid (Thompson) on the mound who was throwing the ball very well. He had good stuff tonight. He felt like he was commanding things well with their hitters and there weren't a ton of balls hit hard off him. I just wanted to remind the guys to get their heads up and slow the game down because it looked like it was speeding up on us."
Just like the problems for much of the last three weeks for the Tigers, Saturday Auburn couldn't get out of the first two innings without giving up a ton of runs to the Bulldogs and were forced to play catch up the rest of the way. In the first it was a defensive mistake that doomed Thompson and the Tigers as the Bulldogs capitalized with three runs to jump on top early.
Leading off the game, Jeffrey Rea doubled to right field to set the tone for the Bulldogs but he was cut down on a ground ball from Jet Butler trying to reach third. With one out, Edward Easley was hit by a pitch but Thompson got Mitch Moreland on strikes for out number two with Brian LaNinfa coming to the plate. Getting him to hit a ground ball to the right side, Thompson appeared to be out of the trouble but Joseph Sanders couldn't make the play at first and the bases were loaded for McCaskill. Getting a pitch to drive, he lined a double into left field to clear the bases and put the Bulldogs up 3-0.
With Mississippi State starter Justin Pigott cruising on the mound after striking out the side in the second, the Bulldogs came back for more in the second and once again the leadoff man would reach as Conner Powers singled up the middle to get things going. He was the first of 10 batters that would come to the plate before the inning was done as Mississippi State added five runs off Thompson. The big blow again came from McCaskill as his one-out double on a 0-2 count drove home the final two runs of the inning. Leading handily 8-0, Mississippi State put things on cruise control the rest of the way as the Tigers made a run but just didn't have enough offense to get back in the game completely.
Josh Donaldson had three hits and scored three times in the Auburn loss.
Auburn's finally got on the board in the top of the fourth as back-to-back one-out singles by Josh Donaldson and Joseph Sanders got the Tigers started. Following a fly ball to right by Robert Brooks for out number two, Ross Smith singled to center field to score Donaldson and cut the lead to seven. Unfortunately for the Tigers, Mississippi State came back to score single runs in both the fourth and fifth to push the lead out to 10-1 before Auburn made a late run at Pigott and the Bulldogs.
In the sixth it was again Donaldson that got the Tigers going with a one-out single up the middle to bring Sanders to the plate. Getting a pitch to pull, Sanders drove a double deep to left field that scored Donaldson all the way from first and the freshman moved to third on the throw to the plate. A Brooks ground ball to third base scored Sanders to cut the Mississippi State lead back to 10-3.
With Blake pitching well after coming on in the fifth, the Tigers had another chance to cut into the lead in the seventh as Ryan Jenkins singled to start the frame for Auburn. Back-to-back strikeouts by the Tigers left things looking bleak but senior Bruce Edwards came up big with a triple to right field that scored Jenkins to cut the lead to six with Greinke coming to the plate. Hitless in his last four games, Greinke lifted a fly ball to right to end the inning and leave another runner in scoring position for the Tigers.
Auburn's biggest opportunity to get back in the game came in the top of the eighth as Donaldson again got it going with a single up the middle for his third hit of the night. Following a Sanders strikeout, Donaldson moved to second on a wild pitch and then to third when a Brooks' grounder was thrown away at first. With runners on second and third and just one out, the Tigers would manage just one run as Donaldson scored on swinging strike three to Jenkins that got by the catcher. A ground ball by Justin Bristow to Rea at second put an end to the Auburn rally with the Tigers now trailing just 10-5.
The Bulldogs got the run back in the bottom of the eighth to extend the lead back to six off Auburn freshman reliever Scott Shuman. Making his first appearance in nearly a month after struggling with control problems, Shuman struck out the first man he faced but gave up a double to Powers to give the Bulldogs a runner in scoring position. A ground ball moved Powers to third with two outs and that's when the control problems again came back to haunt Shuman as a wild pitch made the score 11-5. Auburn added a single run in the ninth on a Sanders single but that would be it as the Bulldogs walked away with the victory to give them the series victory.
Auburn will try to avoid the sweep on Sunday and keep its faint hopes alive for the SEC Tournament as sophomore Bryan Woodall gets the call for the Tigers against Josh Johnson for Mississippi State. The game is scheduled for a 1:30 p.m. start.