This time though Coach John Cohen came with a curveball of sorts. And not just to cross-up Kansas either. "Coach told me when C.T. was up to bat if he gets on we're hit-and-running," Rea reported. The freshman was hitless heading into the ninth with two strikeouts and a plunking in the seventh, and had been looping after Jayhawk pitches. "He thought my swing was getting too long."
Cohen also trusted Rea to handle the responsibility. "Wes has such tremendous baseball instincts. And I told him we wanted bunt-type body language when he walked to the plate. It's hard to bunt a guy 6-6 and 290 pounds but he's done it before and is good at it! But I really felt we were going to get a fastball early up in the zone, and fortunately that's what happened. And when you turn C.T. loose he's in scoring position from first base."
All State strategy should work so well. Kansas came at Rea with the same sort of fastball-in that had worked before and would offer the best chance to throw out the lead runner. Instead Rea made a textbook compact cut and those 290 pounds did the rest, driving a line-shot that seemed sure to clear the fence.
It didn't, and Rea admitted worrying it might become a ground-rule double. "But C.T. was in motion." And the ball stayed inside anyway with Bradford easily outrunning the throw home. The Diamond Dogs didn't let Rea get away unscathed, either. "They were still giving me heck about not getting it over the fence! But I'm happy with the win."
Poppe (0-1) took the relief loss on 1.1 innings with the one run and one hit, having walked and struck out a Bulldog in the eighth after entrance. The real hard-luck loser was Jayhawk starter Wes Benjamin, after a superb performance in only his second college appearance. The freshman worked 6.1 scoreless innings with four hits, six strikeouts, and no walks at all though he did plunk a pair.
"He's a freshman, we didn't have much film on him but he pitched a heck of a game," said Rea, twice a Benjamin strikeout victim himself. Robert Kahana got an out in the seventh but walked the bases full too meaning Poppe had to enter a little earlier than hoped.
The winner was State's Chris Stratton (2-0), who took over early himself in relief of struggling starter Ben Bracewell. Taking over for the fourth inning junior Stratton dominated Kansas, allowing a lone hit and walk over six full frames while striking out eight. He was only once threatened seriously, after a leadoff double in the seventh inning, but struck out three-straight to strand that Jayhawk and preserve the combined shutout.
"Brace's pitch count got up pretty quick so they told me go get loose, and whenever I got called on I was ready," Stratton said. "They really like the inside, so it was just stay away from them." But stay close enough to get outside strike calls or even better flailing swings-and-misses, which Stratton did nicely.
"Chris was spectacular," said Cohen. "He's turned the corner in so many ways." Bracewell's second career start was more of a scuffle as the sophomore had to strand six Jayhawks who reached on two this and four walks, with four of them in scoring positions.
"Ben didn't have his best stuff tonight and didn't command the ball we wanted to," Cohen said. "Though a lot of his misses were not big misses. He battled through it and Ben brings that competiveness. He'll be better than that in the future."
Bracewell had issues early, notably from left-handed hitters in the Kansas order, and two of them reached in the first inning only to be stranded by a strikeout. The second inning was setting up even worse as three walks loaded the bases. Bracewell went full-count before lefty Kevin Kuntz grounded out to first base. Those two turns required 49 pitches which had Stratton getting loose so soon.
So when Bracewell left the leadoff runner on second base to end the third, and with the bottom of the order coming up, State went ahead with the move. Stratton sat the side in the fourth and fifth, and got an timely twin-killing in the sixth after the only walk. Zac Elgie was running as Michael Suiter struck out swinging and getting in catcher Mitch Slauter's way in the process.
The big Stratton test came in the seventh when Jordan Dreiling pulled an inside offering down the rightfield line catching chalk for a double. "Slauter wishes he could have had that one back and I did too!" Stratton said. Stratton bowed-up to get Ka'iana Eldredge on a two-strike bunt that was fouled off, then fanned the ninth and leadoff batters. That was KU's last chance to score.
"We just competed," Stratton said. "They made great plays behind me all night so I didn't have to do it myself."
But the Bulldogs had blown their own chances. Leadoff runners in the first three innings, twice by hit batsmen, netted nothing. Nor did a one-out double in the fourth by DH Trey Porter as consecutive ground balls stranded him. In the sixth 3B Daryl Norris one-out double also came to nought on a check-swing stikeout of Porter, which also ended Benjamin's evening at 86 pitches.
Poppe entered with one on in the MSU, Bradford ironically, but this time the centerfielder wasn't scoring despite getting to third as Rea (further irony) was plunked and SS Matthew Britton walked. A fly ball to left stranded everyone.
Home fans were having flashbacks to last Sunday when State was taken to overtime by Washington State after failing to win it outright in regulation. Happily Bradford and Rea spared all the late night with the perfectly executed hit-and-run.
"Thank goodness we didn't have to play 13 innings tonight, we got it done in the ninth," quipped Cohen.
The Bulldogs still must be back at the ballyard early Saturday for the first of two games. Mississippi State (3-1) hosts Mississippi Valley State (0-3) in a noon game before a 4:00 rematch with Kansas (4-1). The Jayhawks beat the Delta Devils 9-2 in Friday's first game, five of the runs scored in the last three innings.
Cohen said righthander Kendall Graveman will start the first game and lefthander Nick Routt the second.