"The only reason I got the hit was I didn't want to come back out and catch!"
So though replay showed Freeman had not gotten to the second stop before Frost crossed the plate, well, what mattered was Mississippi State starting the first home SEC series successfully. The Bulldogs, who let an early 4-0 lead evaporate and trailed 5-4 in the sixth inning, came back behind well-chose relief pitching and just enough timely hitting. In the process they evened their league record at 2-2 and are 16-6 overall.
Auburn is 14-8 and 2-2 as well.
"It's priceless," said LHP Chad Girodo, the winning reliever and hero-play equivalent of Freeman. "To sweep you have to win Friday night, you know." The Bulldogs are obviously still very far from any such thing, but outlasting #20-ranked Auburn was a big step in a direction that began when State salvaged a split at #2 Vanderbilt last Sunday with a 9-8 comeback victory.
"When you get used to winning one-run games there's a confidence that comes with that," said Coach John Cohen.
This one run had to come in the final regular half-inning, too. The Tigers had re-tied things 6-6 in the top of the seventh with a leadoff home run by Justin Fradejas, off MSU reliever Luis Pollorena. Two outs and a runner later Caleb Reed entered to end the inning with a strikeout, then after he put a pair on with one out and the top of Auburn's order up Girodo got the call. Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson's thinking was obvious, given three of the next four potential Tigers were lefthanders.
Moreover, after a rocky outing three Sundays ago Girodo improved his repertoire, adding a slider. He put it on immediate display, even when Auburn changed tacks with righthanded Brooks Beisner. The pinch hitter went down on three sharp sliders. "I came in with runners on first and second and was just trying to get the ground ball," Girodo said. "I ended up getting a strikeout, but I had to get the next guy to keep us in the game." He did that with an easy fly ball."
Auburn's ninth was three-and-through with two more strikeouts. The bottom of MSU's order was up in the bottom of the ninth, but there was no subbing for C Wes Thigpen after his clutch two-run homer in the sixth inning to erase Auburn's brief lead. The senior came through with a single to rightfield, and runner Frost was bunted over by LF Jaron Shepherd.
Blatt did get 2B Nick Vickerson to ground out to third base, facing a Freeman who was 0-of-3 with a plunking up to then. And speaking of sliders, the DH saw three in a row. "I hadn't proved I could hit it all night so I was sitting on it," he said. Blatt obliged and Freeman made him pay.
"That was awesome, I can't explain it right now. I'm still shaking."
Girodo (2-0) earned the victory on 1.2 hitless innings with three strikeouts. Blatt (1-2) was the loser for just the one run on four hits and a strikeout. He worked the last 2.2 official innings in relief of starter Corey Luckie who lasted 6.0 despite six runs on eight hits, as he fanned six Dogs without a walk.
Early on though it was State starter Devin Jones who seemed in control, posting two scoreless innings with just a walk. By the time he returned for the third turn it was with a 4-0 lead after his offense jumped on Luckie. Shepherd and Vickerson rapped consecutive two-run singles after two were down, and the inning ended on a verrrrry close out call at first of Freeman on a grounder.
But junior righthander Jones couldn't keep a healthy margin provided by the offense, ultimately yielding four runs on three hits with a walk and four strikeouts. He also had two costly wild pitches, a plunking, and a passed ball that got Auburn's offense in gear. Their first score came on a swinging strikeout/wild pitch, the second on another dirtball.
There was more in the Tiger fourth with a leadoff triple from Dan Gamache and RBI-single via Wes Gilmer. That finished Jones for lefty Tim Statz, but a plunking, single, and fly ball were sufficient to tie things up as Gilmer scored. And in the top of the fifth after a one-out wild pitch put Casey McElroy in scoring position it was a two out double by Tony Caldwell, off Pollorena, that gave Auburn their lead.
It lasted into the bottom of the sixth when Thigpen came up, two down and C.T. Bradford on base. The catcher looked at a strike before hammering it high, long, and just inside the left foul pole. "He had a plan, he stayed on the breaking ball and hit it out of the park," said Cohen. "And he had a good plan at the end to serve that ball into rigthfield."
The best planning was the mixing-and-matching State's Thompson pulled off against a left-side swinging Auburn order. And, a Tiger team that swung very well indeed with more well-struck Friday fly balls than the Dogs saw all last weekend. Five of Auburn's eight hits went for extra bases.
"They fly-ball you to death," said Girodo. "But our park is a little bigger than theirs so they're out of luck tonight." It took more than luck to keep the Tigers down for most of the last four frames, though.
"I'm just so proud of all the guys that came in and contributed on the mound. That's the strength of our club, we have so many good matchup opportunities in the bullpen," Cohen said.
"This is why we invested in so many arms, for these types of Friday nights. If it doesn't happen for our starters we have other guys that can step in." As for Jones, the head coach still has faith his veteran stuff will pay off as this SEC season progresses.
Though just four games and two wins into league play, the Bulldogs are gaining faith that they can step in and perform. "I think it shows a lot of character in our clubhouse," said Freeman, about how unlike in years past blowing an early lead didn't rattle this squad. "Everybody was calm, actually. The last game at Vanderbilt we came back and won, and today everybody stayed calm and we came back and won."
At the same time Cohen and State have only begun a series, not finished it, and Auburn's bats will be back for more hacks over the weekend. Righthander Chris Stratton (3-1, 2.38) will start game-two while the Tigers have listed righty Will Irvin (3-0, 3.70). Saturday's forecast isn't promising with rain expected early, and the Bulldogs had to stop their celebrating to tarp the field for overnight.