Stratton Dominates As State Beats Bruins 5-3

His 100th official pitch wasn't just a strikeout. It was the 13th fanning of Chris Stratton's day, and a fitting opportunity to allow a well-won bow before Mississippi State concluded a 5-3 victory over Belmont. So how did he describe his second win and seven-plus more scoreless innings on his early season? "Just out here, having fun," said Stratton. "Just playing ball."

If this is ‘just playing ball' then one wonders what Mississippi State's sophomore righthander would consider an exceptional outing. Belmont's Bruins certainly don't want to see any more of Stratton after a 7.2 Saturday stint of no runs, four hits, and those 13 strikeouts. A Ks-total that was last achieved by a Bulldog moundsmen when Todd Doolittle fanned 13 South Carolinans in the 2005 SEC Tournament.

It gave Stratton his second win in as many starts this second State season after he went six scoreless innings a week ago against Lamar. For his 13.2 total frames to-date he has struck out 23 with one walk. Interestingly, none in the Diamond Dog dugout is surprised at this early 2011 prowess.

"Oh, I watched it all last year, and he's gotten even better this year," said SS Jonathan Odgen, also the MSU offensive star Saturday. "It's extremely fun playing behind Stratton because he'll fill it up and is gonna get ground balls, and is gonna get a win for us."

The win evened this weekend series at a game apiece with Sunday's rubber match at 1:30. Mississippi State is 6-1 while Belmont is 3-4. Friday's 2-1 loss, with both Bruin scores coming on a ninth-inning, inside-park homer, had stung the Bulldogs more than most such setbacks and Stratton admitted there was a chip-on-shoulder approach to Saturday. Not to mention his own personal approach of taking it right at Bruin batters every time-up.

The result was an outstanding ratio not just of strikes to balls, which midway of the afternoon was 39 to 12; but of first-pitch strikes called or whiffed at. "Overall with all my pitches I felt like I had better command. Pretty much everything worked today," Stratton said, comparing it to his first outing. "Last time I struggled getting the fastball in there but today I was really focused to get it in there first and for a strike."

"He was throwing for strike-one," agreed the coach. "He was good with his breaking ball, good with his cutter, his curveball, his changeup was good to the lefthanders even though they didn't have that many in their lineup. It was exciting to watch and we really needed that from Chris."

Freshman Luis Pollorena took the starter's place for two outs and a hit; then fellow rookie Victor Diaz entered an out into the ninth. It was the righthander who was allowed the three-run homer to Tim Eggerton that snapped the shutout, before he ended the afternoon on a ground-out.

Nate Woods (0-2) took the loss for Belmont on 5.2 innings with six hits and all five State runs charged. He walked three and struck out two.

In fact it was Woods' three walks that spoiled an otherwise sound outing, because he opened three innings with a free pass. Those were the frames State scored all their runs, beginning in the second turn. C Cody Freeman worked a walk, and with one out Ogden grounded hard to third base. Bruin Zac Mitchell fielded cleanly but threw way high of second base; with rightfielder Egerton compounding it on a high throw of his own to third base that let Ogden take second. Woods limited the damage to a single run as 1B Ryan Collins grounded to shortstop for Freeman to come home.

Another leadoff walk in the fourth set up the second State score. DH Daryl Norris was passed to first and was bunted over to second by Freeman. CF Jaron Shepherd's base hit went straight to the leftfielder so Norris stopped at second, but Bruin Derek Hamblen smartly was already throwing to the middle bag in case Shepherd was stretching it. He was, and was out.

Still the Bulldogs managed the run as Ogden smacked one low and hard to third base. The unlucky Mitchell went down for the stop, to the line-side; and didn't get the ball out cleanly. The late throw gave Norris plenty time to make home.

Even with Stratton's dominance a 2-0 lead wasn't comfortable enough, considering how Friday had played out. So a leadoff walk of Parks in the sixth was a welcome stage-setter. Pitcher Woods had to protect himself on a wicked Norris Hopper, which worked as well as a Bulldog bunt. Even better was Woods' ensuing wild pitch advancing Parks to third base.

With two outs Shepherd drove one long and straight, until just a bit of breeze carried it far enough beyond the centerfielder's reach for a double and easy RBI. That wind was also a factor as Ogden lifted one much higher, with the Belmont leftfielder watching the drive drift just over the fence for a two-run homer (third of season) and 5-0 lead.

"I didn't have any idea that ball would leave the park, I didn't hit it well and it looked like he almost had a chance of robbing it," Ogden said. "It just missed his glove."

For his part Stratton had overcome a two-out double in the second inning with singles in the third, fifth, and seventh. He had one strikeout every inning and more often two, and that two-bagger in the second came the same frame he shot down three batters. He retired two in the eight, the last on that 13th strikeout of the #9 batter, before Cohen left the dugout.

"We felt like Chris was right on the edge, even though he was dying to finish the thing out. But he was dominant today." Besides, the top of Belmont's order was up again. "We wanted Pollorena to face two lefthanders, that's what he's going to do in a relief role once we get into conference play."

Pollorena got one of the southpaws to end the eighth, but an out (a righty) into the ninth was hit by Friday hero Dylan Craig. That gave a chance to put Diaz under late-game pressure; he walked one, struck out another, before Egerton unloaded over left field. Fortunately there was more than enough margin built to withstand this ninth-inning assault.

"We finished up pretty sloppy," Cohen said, "but (last year) we had 35 starts of what you saw from him; somebody who is going to be very good. But the tempo wasn't there." Dalton Bell took care of the last 2.1 innings of Belmont pitching with three hits and a strikeout.

Ogden was 3-of-4 with three RBI and the longball. His only non-hit of the day still got him on base via an error. "I've been feeling good at the plate, been working out a lot of things and Coach Cohen has done a lot of things with me. And everything has been working." Shepherd and RF Brent Brownlee both had a pair of hits, while Egerton was 3-of-4 for Belmont with his second homer of the season.

Evening the series was as welcome as the much warmer weather after a chilly and frustrating Friday. For all Stratton's talk of a ‘chip' on State shoulders though the Diamond Dogs weren't questioning themselves following the first loss of the year.

"Not at all," said Ogden. "Yesterday, that kind of stuff happens. We hit the ball right at people, hard. Coach Cohen talked to us and said we're not going to change anything, we're playing well and the team chemistry is good."

Cohen and Coach Butch Thompson had not picked Sunday's starter as of interview time. "We're inclined to go left-handed but they don't have a left-handed lineup," Cohen said. If it is a southpaw then either Chad Girodo or Tim Statz would get the call; on the right side Evan Mitchell and Kendall Graveman would be equal options. There are others who need the work at some point, such as freshman outfielder Bradford who has yet to toe the rubber in a late-relief role projected for him.

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