"It's frustrating," admitted relief pitcher Caleb Reed. "It's hard for us. Tomorrow is a big day for us and we can't get down and out. We can still turn this thing around, I really believe we can."
Perhaps so, since Mississippi State (24-18, 7-13 SEC) technically remains just where they were coming into Saturday. They are still fifth in the West and ninth SEC and a single weekend behind the Division leaders. But emotionally, dropping this particular pair to a West rival that the Bulldogs believed they matched up well with had to leave everyone ill.
Everyone but an Alabama team that, with many players still shaking off the shock of the week's storms, just jumped into a tie for the West lead at 28-18, 10-10. Just as in the opening game, the Crimson Tide scattered just enough State hits to prevent any big breakouts, or innings. And when given a late-inning chance against the best Bulldog relievers, they came through with clutch hits.
In the nightcap's case, from the two-three hole hitters in the eighth inning. With Alabama trailing 4-3 after MSU pushed a pair across in the seventh inning, catcher Brock Bennett tied things up on a single off Luis Pollorena. Then it was shortstop Jared Reaves delivering the go-ahead and eventual winner as he greeted Reed with a base hit to leftfield.
That one hurt Reed about as much as the solo home run he gave up in the tenth inning of game-one to take the loss. Reed had thrown 36 pitches earlier but with another one on the line he wanted the ball again. "I felt good, my arm felt good, and I thought my stuff was good, too, probably better than the first game I thought."
Pollorena (5-3) took the loss on his 0.0 official innings against the top of Alabama's order, as he hit the other batter-faced. Chad Girodo threw a scoreless top of the ninth.
But he couldn't hit the ball. Other Bulldogs did and struck it well in the last chance, just as they did much of the evening and for that matter day. State got a tying man on as LF Brent Brownlee was hit only to have RB Ryan Collins ground out to second. That, too, was a painful reprise of sorts because one turn earlier Collins crushed a shot to the right side that second-sacker Josh Sanders came down with on a hard stab to his off-side.
The out, which ended the MSU seventh, left bases full with a one-run led that didn't hold up; and came right as the Bulldogs had regained a lead on RBI-singles from substitute SS Adam Frazier and C Wes Thigpen. Too typically of the whole day, though, the inning wasn't quite big enough to give the home team control.
Jonathan Smart, the winning pitcher in relief for game-one, this time got a save (8) on his ninth inning after Nathan Kennedy's eight-inning stint to strand a pair. He did so by striking out 2B Nick Vickerson who had previously doubled in one run, homered, and scored again. The winning decision went to Trey Pilkington (2-3) on a single inning as well. Despite giving up the lead in the seventh, with a run on two hits and a walk, he was on-record at the right time.
Adam Morgan worked the first 6.0 for Alabama with three runs, five hits, four walks, and four strikeouts.
Having already used Pollorena and Reed in the opener, State hoped to get a little more from starter Nick Routt. The lefthander did look good initially with three scoreless innings, and would strike out six. But he also allowed two runs in the top of the fourth, finishing with five hits and a walk. Devin Jones threw 2.0 with a go-ahead, for a while, run in Alabama's seventh on two hits and three walks.
State got on the board in their first inning as 3B Jarrod Parks walks, and Vickerson got around on Morgan with a ground ball that the third baseman couldn't stab. It went on into the leftfield corner for a double, but instead of stopping as everyone expected—including the Tide relay man—Parks kept chugging and made home with a face-first slide.
The 1-0 margin held into the fourth, though State would regret not padding it after one-out singles from CF C.T. Bradford and DH Cody Freeman. On a ground ball to the left side Bradford was automatically supposed to go and did; after some back-and-forth he very nearly even got a hand on the plate before Morgan tagged him from behind.
Real trouble arrived in the fourth, partially self-inflicted. Andrew Miller singled with one out, and made second on a pitch bounced past the catcher's mitt. Brett Booth took a full-count pitch up the middle for the RBI single, and kept going on the throw-in that was correctly cut by 1B Daryl Norris. A better relay might have gotten the out and at least held the runner at second. Instead the freshman skipped it and SS Jonathan Ogden had to stop it with his face, breaking the nose and advancing Booth one more stop.
Routt wild-pitched him on in for the Alabama lead. An out into the fifth he allowed Bennett a double and Jones got the ball on a 1-2 count. He even got credit for the strikeout, and after both runners were allowed to steal grounded game-one hero Brett Whitaker back to the mound. A two-out triple and walk, with a steal conceded, did no sixth-inning harm thanks to Parks. He robbed Taylor Dugas on a rip to the base-side to keep the Bulldogs within one.
Getting that took one big swing by Vickerson as he cleared left field. Two outs later a pair more reached on an errored grounder (Brownlee) and walk (Collins). A fly ball left them unscored. Given the 2-2 tie, Jones was greeted by a single. Bennett was bunted over, and after twice Thigpen saved wild pitches before a purpose-walk the pitching change was made. It wasn't Taylor Stark's fault the run scored when Alabama took the double-steal chance; Thigpen's throw to third was off the mark. Stark kept it 3-2 with a strikeout and fly-out.
Walking Bradford to start State's seventh ended Morgan's evening with Pilkington inheriting the runner. And, putting Freeman on via balls himself. With no outs Cohen played percentages and bunted league-leading batter Parks to successfully advance both teammates, and give hot hand Vickerson his chance. He grounded to the third baseman and Bradford was easily tagged at home, leaving it up to substitute shortstop Adam Frazier.
The kid came through with a single to centerfield. Only one run (Freeman) scored due to the previous out, but that didn't matter when Thigpen bounced a grounder up the middle that went off a glove. Vickerson came home safely for the Bulldog lead. A plunking later, Collins cranked it right on the nose…and Alabama second sacker Sanders made his game-saving stab.
"He hits the hardest ball I've ever seen him hit, with topspin, at the second baseman," said Cohen. "I don't know what to say." He would have to repeat that last item often after what happened the rest of the way, with a one-run margin that wasn't going to hold up. Stark was one out into the eighth when he hit Brandt Hendricks in the helmet. State caught a break for out-two as Stark deflected a hot hopper from Sanders that Vickerson caught and threw to first. But the top of the order was up again. Pollorena was handed his second jam in as many games facing the two top sticks.
He plunked Dugas in the back, and Bennett lined a single through the left side for the 4-4 tie. And, another mound-move with Reed to take the critical hit.
"It's tough to do what he did, but Alabama did the same thing with Smart at the end," said Cohen. "He's done it for us all year long." Just not this dangerous day.
Acknowledging that by then Alabama batters had a read on his stuff, "That's still no excuse," Reed said. "You've got to make pitches. We just have to keep making pitches."
Or, getting that one more base hit to make pitching a little easier. Not that Cohen was complaining about nine hits given the sort of contact his order made. State played game-two without OF Jaron Shepherd, who'd slugged two home runs in the opener. The senior took himself out of the lineup just before game time with a hurting toe that had been hit by a pitch.
The only breakdowns Cohen could point to were a couple of Thigpen throws, one to second and the damaging try of third that wasn't really there. Otherwise… "I don't know what to say. I've been doing this for twenty years and I've never seen any of this happen the way it's happening to us right now," he coach said. "Alabama, God bless them, the ball is finding holes for them. But we're killing balls right at people."
In a day with so many bizarre twists—Shepherd's homers, the game-one shot by a batter without a hit all season and off shut-down reliever Reed at that, Parks going first-to-third, and more—there was one more strange circumstance. Losses by Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Auburn meant the Bulldogs did not lose much if any real ground in the standings. Though, LSU's completion of a sweep of lowly Kentucky—the one SEC squad State does not play this year—did give them seven wins as well.
By the same measure, a sweep could be fatal to hopes of Hoover. Not mathematically, as much as emotionally.
"We're in a must-win situation," Reed said. "But we put ourselves there. We need to come out tomorrow and compete and play hard, and I really believe we will."
State will probably start righthander Kendall Graveman in game-three, while Alabama had not named a starter.