Dogs Drop Series But Win SEC Tourney Berth

They didn't win the game, nor the series for that matter. What Mississippi State did win Saturday afternoon though was a season-long contest to achieve the postseason goal. Thanks to their own dramatic Friday comeback win, and a series of dominos falling favorably, the Bulldogs earned a berth in next week's SEC Tournament along with an expected NCAA bid.

Not that they knew it for sure until following a 6-3 loss to Louisiana State in the rubber game of their schedule-ending series. "I found out just now, after the game!" said senior 2B Nick Vickerson. Fans were already aware that by virtue of Tennessee's comeback win over Auburn, the Bulldogs would benefit from the right tiebreak combinations. For that matter Coach John Cohen had to be convinced himself that Mississippi State (34-21, 14-16 SEC) was safely booked for the conference Tournament.

"Well, I still don't know that," he said, still cautious with a couple of league games yet to finish. "I'm hearing that, but I'm going to have to see it for myself!" Which the coach did once the other finals came through, and the SEC made it official. They also informed Cohen and club that they will be playing in Wednesday's second game, to start a half-hour after the 9:30 morning contest, against Florida.

So there weren't as many bruised feelings over dropping the game and series to the rival Tigers. "We sure would have liked to have got that one," Vickerson said. "But at the end of the day we're happy to be going to Hoover, and happy to have a shot to play in the postseason." Particularly seniors such as Vickerson, because no current Bulldog has played in either a SEC or NCAA tournament.

The loss did LSU (36-20, 13-17) no good SEC-wise as they were eliminated the previous evening when State rallied for a 6-5 victory. Still the Tigers are optimistic about an at-large NCAA offer of their own, particularly with a couple of conference kin needing big SEC Tournament runs just to finish over .500 and qualify for the national tourney. They got an unofficial vote from the other dugout after taking this series.

"I know the (selection) committee has a tough job," said Cohen. "But if that's not one of the best 64 teams in the country I'll eat this piece of paper."

The coach might have wanted to take a bite out of the box score he was holding anyway, after LSU punched out 13 hits off a pair of Bulldog pitchers. They made short work of starter Chris Stratton than Mississippi State certainly hoped. The righthander who made a splash exactly one year ago by shutting down LSU to win in Baton Rouge wasn't on his game this time.

Stratton (5-7) lasted two batters into the third inning and was charged with the first two runs on four hits, with a couple of strikeouts. He walked none, but wished he had missed the dish more in that third inning. He was replaced with two on and no outs by usual closer Caleb Reed, who surrendered the actual run-scoring hits himself. Reed remained on the mound for the rest of the afternoon, completing a career-longest 7.0 innings with four runs on nine hits, four walks, and six strikeouts.

Naturally Cohen wanted to hold Reed back as long as practical, though he had planned on having the righthander ready early anyway. But even as Stratton survived the first two turns, it was with three solid hits and runners twice left in scoring positions. Good defense kept it scoreless more than anything, until the decisive inning.

State had a good clue it was coming, too. "We were counting the amount of barrel contact. And when he hit the kid in the head I felt he lost command." That would be leadoff and order-topper Tiger Jacoby Jones taking the plunking. DH Raph Rhymes executed the run-and-hit for runners on corners and the best of the order still in store. "His fastball was good, his breaking ball was good at times," Cohen said. "But the whole game was in that third inning, we had to have our best guy when the game mattered most." That was Reed, an 11-game saver so far but thrust into essentially a re-starting job. A strikeout and careful walk loaded the bases for the double-play that didn't come.

Instead Austin Nola and Mike Lowery rapped consecutive singles for a three-run lead that had State playing from behind the rest of the way. They did knock out, literally, a quick pair of runs in the fourth as RF Jaron Shepherd singled and Vickerson smacked his sixth homer of the season. Tying runner 1B Ryan Collins got as far as second and SS Jonathan Ogden hit it on the nose…right to the third baseman.

Nola's bloop single in the top of the fifth scored Mikie Mahtook, and State matched that one as CF C.T. Bradford doubled and eventually came home on a fly ball by 3B Jarrod Parks. Reed gutted through a bases-loaded LSU sixth, fanning Nola to end that threat, and stranded one in the seventh as well.

Tiger righthander Ryan Eades minimized damage through his 6.0 innings with the three runs on seven hits, a walk and two strikeouts. But LSU wasn't taking chances with the lead and ran out Ben Alsup for the MSU seventh. Two outs in he walked Bradford and DH Cody Freeman singled. Parks appeared to have evened the score with a nubber down the third base line, sliding head-first and seemingly safe as the throw was a bit wide of first base.

Ump Tony Walsh did not see things thus, which had a frustrated Parks smacking his helmet to the bag…and earning a thumb. Cohen had to argue the out-case. "When a guy is running that hard and feel he's safe, I just asked the umpire what he said. I guess that (the helmet) makes him ejectable." Cohen would visit Walsh twice more on other inauspicious calls.

The umpiring gaffe hurt worse after LSU stroked two more across. Jones reached on a wide throw by Parks, and Rhymes lined a shot over leftfield for the final 6-3 margin. "I'd have liked to have done a little better job to keep our team closer, we had that one-run lead going to the eighth and I gave up the two-run home run," Reed said. "I didn't make very many bad pitches but that was one I left across the plate and he hit it well."

This time there was no late-game comeback as Alsup got the Dogs in-order the last two innings…though LF Trey Johnson's fly ball came out of the centerfielder's glove as the ‘out' was being signaled. Useless argument changed nothing. Eades (4-1) got the win while Alsup's 3.0 scoreless and one-hit innings earned his first save of the season.

"What Caleb did today was really heroic, our kids played really hard," Cohen said. "We just didn't take quality swings for the most part, I think that was because our kids were trying too hard. We had so many bang-bang plays at first base, running our heart out. It just didn't happen for us today."

Rhymes was 3-of-5 with two RBI and two runs for LSU, while Nola and Lowery added three hits of their own. Freeman was the only multi-hit Bulldog. However, for all his series struggles Parks ended the regular season two-thousandths of an average point ahead of LSU's Mahtook in the SEC batting race, .385 to .381. Post-season stats count so this duel isn't done.

Word of Tennessee's win and the secured Hoover slot circulated the stadium during the fifth inning, and was completely confirmed by the SEC's published bracket. "It's big for us," said Reed. "I've never been there, I think it's been 2007 since we've been. So it's still a great accomplishment for us. But we'd have loved to get that win and get the SEC West."

A nice long stay in the SEC Tournament will soothe any lingering hurt feelings though, as will the NCAA bid the Bulldogs are looking to receive a week from Monday. Not, however, that Cohen is yet sold on such.

"I like the RPI, our strength of schedule, all the other statistics," he said. "But we have to keep competing and not take anything for granted."


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