"Pollorena and Caleb pitched brilliantly I thought," said MSU Coach John Cohen. "(Todd) McInnis pitched very well, too. I thought it was a very well-pitched game all around."
The Southern Mississippi starter did indeed pitch well, sufficiently so to win most any other day. Just not this one, as Bulldog batters put together just enough offense in a couple of scoring innings to gain the modest advantage. Given how Pollorena and Reed worked, it was plenty.
"We got some big hits when it mattered," Cohen said. "And we did what we had to do, we defended and we pitched and attacked the strike zone."
‘Attack' was the key. Though playing in a smallish park, and matched with an Eagle order that was beating up the walls in batting practice, MSU's moundsmen didn't play cautious. They came after batters and won, just as State had almost two months earlier in a 5-4 win over Southern Mississippi. Never mind that Russ Chandler Field was much more compact than the April 5 meeting at AA-size Pearl, said Pollorena.
"Pretty much we used the same thing we did last time, early contact. And our defense was unbelievable." He was right, with errorless fielding and plenty of big plays that kept anything serious from developing. By the same token though Pollorena (7-5) himself tossed a tough-to-believe outing, scattering—even shaking off—five hits and three walks to strike out three.
And, of course, keep hanging zeroes on the Eagle half of the scoreboard. Which was exactly what Pollorena had done in 5.2 scoreless relief innings against USM the first time. But this was in a starting role where the southpaw intended to set the tone.
"Luis knew he was going to get the ball today and his preparation was outstanding," said Cohen. "He said if you're going to beat me, you're going to beat me through contact." The Eagles couldn't. Nor did they get much done against Reed, who completed the blanking with three hits, a walk and four strikeouts. In the process he earned the 12th save of this season, following Pollorena's gameplan from the right side of the mound.
"We believe there is a direct correlation between great defense and early contact," said Cohen. "That's what Luis got us, and Caleb too. That is what has escaped us in recent weeks and we got right back to that."
Victory came despite a superb effort from McInnis, who more than lived up to his Eagle ace reputation with a complete nine-inning outing. The righthanded senior did not overpower anyone, but was able to work the plate and the count and keep his team in contention.
"You score three off him and your guys are pitching their tail off, you feel pretty good about it," said Cohen after McInnis (8-3) struck out six and walked just two with the three State runs coming on seven hits. He would likely have gone the distance anyway as USM lost their second and third starters to grades just as tournament season began. As their weekend leader McInnis had not thrown in the regular-season game, but Bulldog batters knew what they were facing and how they had to try—try—to handle him.
"We wanted to be aggressive," said 2B Nick Vickerson. "He throws a lot of pitches in the zone and you don't want to get picky with him because he throws it all for strikes."
This plan worked, too, and more to the point it worked immediately as CF C.T. Bradford was able to work a walk. He was forced on a bunt but State still had a runner on the first base with two outs. Vickerson had just watched 3B Jarrod Parks almost drop a double in the left-centerfield gap; he went one better with a drive in that same direction that rolled to the warning track for a RBI-double scoring 1B Ryan Collins all the way around.
"I felt it was a good start, especially to get one in the first," Vickerson said, adding "I didn't think we wouldn't get another until later." Much later as McInnis survived six more baserunners through the fifth inning. As close as the Dogs came to adding a run was on a long, high fly to leftfield by DH Cody Freeman that the prevailing wind—more on this later—kept in for a ground-rule double. At the same time Pollorena was coping with the contact and a fair number of reachers himself.
"I was trying to get to both sides of the plate, staying low. Sometimes I missed but the wind helped us out with chasing balls down." Eagle right-siders were frustrated a few times by that wind, none more so than Mark Ellis. In the same fourth inning when Freeman was denied, Southern Mississippi put a pair on bases with one out. Pollorena struck out Isaac Rodriguez, then saw a shot leap off Ellis' bat headed for leftfield and surely outward bound.
"I just looked at the ball and saw Brent (Brownlee) running, and felt the wind. I was like ‘wind, please stop! Please stop!" He got a sharp sinking feeling when Brownlee checked up, only to see the ball fade right into the leftfielder's glove. "It was just a great play running to the wind." So instead of a 3-1 deficit Pollorena still had a 1-0 lead.
He had another challenge the next inning as well, when Bradford unwisely dove at a sinking single and turned it into a leadoff double for Chase Fowler. A one-out hit by Kameron Brunty had Eagles on opposing corners and the best of their order up. That being Tyler Koelling, who hit it on a string to SS Jonathan Ogden for one out and the relay—and very close call at first—for another to keep the lead.
Which soon expanded to 3-0. With Vickerson on via walking RF Jaron Shepherd couldn't get a bunt down but on 0-2 whipped a single off the end of his stick through shortstop. Freeman did execute his bunt, almost reaching ahead of the delayed throw in fact, for a successful sacrifice and game-changing chance to Brownlee who had replaced starting LF Trey Johnson just in time for that prior big catch.
"It was funny how the game finds you," he said. "I come in and they hit a ball in the gap, and I come up to bat then." With McKinnis hoping just to escape with maybe one run, he made Brownlee look bad on a slider away at first. "I knew he wasn't going to try to come in," Brownlee said. "I swung at the bad slider but I thought he'd come back to it and he left it up and I was able to go the other way."
His sharp shot sliced just beyond the pitcher's glove and past the second baseman for the two decisive runs that made MSU pitching decisions easier. Pollorena returned to strand one in his sixth. "Even though I got up to 120 pitches (officially 118) it worked to our advantage," he said. Because it meant after State had warmed up Devin Jones and Chad Girodo for mid-relief, now Pollorena could give Reed the ball with a three-run lead and three innings to go.
He walked the first batter faced, then stranded him with a strikeout of Brunty. The eighth was much more stressful though as a couple of one-out singles had trouble brewing. After a fly-out, Southern went matchup with lefthander Adam Doleac pinch-batting. Just not hitting, as Reed rolled him to shortstop for an easy force. An out into the last Eagle chance he did walk switch-swinger Fowler but sat another pinch-hitter and for good measure order-topper Brunty to end the afternoon.
Southern Mississippi had one more base hit, eight to seven, and a meaningless error. But their fielding just wasn't as sharp, something State had seen in the first meeting. And when it mattered most their dangerous bats failed to produce.
"We were our own worst enemy," said Coach Scott Berry. "Not to take anything away from Mississippi State, they played sound defense and got the big hits when they needed to. We've got to play better baseball than we did today."
Not that Berry could ask more than McInnis gave him. Mississippi State's advantage was not having to stake all their postseason pot on a lone ace. "I thought Luis was very good because he got to both sides of the plate with his fastball," said Cohen. "Then Caleb just did a great job running that slider away from righthanders and getting in on lefthanders."
The Bulldogs advanced to a 7:00et meeting with the winner of Friday evening's matchup of host and #1 seed Georgia Tech and fourth-seed Austin Peay. Southern Mississippi (39-18) dropped into the loser's bracket and will be back on the field at 3:00 Saturday. Not only will the Eagles be battling for their postseason life but looking to snap an extended scoreless streak of almost three full games now.
Cohen was already looking ahead and said Saturday's starter would be set after the evening game. At the same time, his first NCAA win in three seasons at the alma mater clearly impacted the coach. "Obviously we're really proud of our kids," he said. Especially those kids who endured the transition and tough times and are finally earning some real rewards.
"We just keep trying to take steps. This is anther step forward. But every step this program makes helps. We've got a whole lot of freshmen watching what's going on get to experience because of these older guys is huge. That's how you build and move forward."