The home team can go for a sweep thanks in large part to freshman righthander Gaines. Entering in the third inning with a 4-3 lead in jeopardy, Gaines left a couple of runners on bases and took charge from there to pick up his first career win on 4.2 scoreless innings.
This affirmed Mississippi State's faith in the former walk-on who is showing how he earned a spot on the varsity roster. "We've always loved the arm, it was just waiting for the command to show up," Coach John Cohen said. "And boy, tonight he was in rhythm and the breaking ball was good. And we needed him tonight to get us through this game."
That was because State starter C.T. Bradford was struggling in his first pitching appearance of the sophomore season. Using the full-time centerfielder to open this non-conference matchup was taking a chance, Cohen admitted, though not so much as using him in relief as that would cause late-game gambles with the designated hitter slot.
Still, "We needed to get C.T. out there," said Cohen, though this also flew in the face of scouting reports that showed Penn State's batters are best confronted by a righthander. "But the guys who haven't pitched are left-handed," Cohen reminded. Pitching coach Butch Thompson covered the bases, so to speak, by sending Gaines to the bullpen so early where he could be primed for instant use.
"I couldn't see too good, but I knew they could hit pretty well!" Gaines cracked. He could afford the humor, having ended the dangerous third inning with a strikeout and then retiring nine in a row and 14 of the 16 officially faced. He would "My breaking ball was really working good for me tonight, and my fastball. I think I threw one changeup, everything else was fastball/breaking ball." The Lions could do nothing with Gaines, striking out six times with two walks and no hits at all.
Bradford went the first 2.2 innings with the three PSU runs on five hits, though his real trouble came on three walks. He struck out two, and did well to strand four runners in the first two frames to limit Lion damage.
"He just didn't have the command, he was rusty his first time out," said Cohen. Even the sure-handed centerfielder's defense was a bit off in the infield. After walking his first batter-up, Bradford bobbled one bunt and wasn't able to throw a second sacrifice to third ahead of the runner. With bases loaded and no outs Bradford passed a major gut-check by rolling a double-play off Joey DeBernardis for one run and two key outs. A fly ball kept the deficit to 1-0 before the Bulldogs came to bat.
And, took a lead they wouldn't lose. PSU starter Mike Franklin had an even rougher evening, getting the MSU offense going with a plunking—of Bradford ironically enough—and walk. Lion leftfielder Sean Deegan robbed 3B Daryl Norris of a double preventing two runs with a running grab in the gap. But 1B Wes Rea did double, dropping one in left for the tying RBI as runner SS Adam Frazier was held at third base.
He got to score anyway on a bases-loaded ground ball, with C Mitch Slauter outrunning a relay to prevent a double-play.
Base hits by the seventh and eighth batters and a one-out walk loaded the sacks again for Penn State. This time it was State's leftfielder, Taylor Stark, doing the robbing to prevent a big innings by running down a sinker. Elliot Searer drew a full-count walk for free run before Bradford left three on posts with a called strikeout of Deegan.
And, again, the Bulldogs doubled-down in the bottom of the second. RF Demarcus Henderson singled his way on and Frazier joined him with a two-out walk. Both advanced on wild pitches before Norris also got to base on balls. Rea made a bid to clear the paths with a huge high drive that curled foul but ended up in the trees behind leftfield. Way, way behind leftfield.
The sight may have rattled Franklin though, because he unloaded consecutive wild pitches scoring Henderson and Frazier. Rea struck out but probably deserved a pair of RBI. "I'd like to think that was on me!" he agreed. "But our baserunners did a good job."
Bradford's third turn began like the other two with a pair of Lions reaching, again on hits. He got two outs on fly balls before catcher Ryan Clark singled in the third Penn State run. Gaines took over with a pair in scoring positions and stranded them with a swinging strikeout of nine-batter Zach Ell. He would retire the next eight-straight and leave a runner stranded in the sixth.
"I was really getting my breaking ball over for a first-pitch strike. That was my main thing, trying to stay ahead."
Going to the bullpen paid off for Penn State, too. Franklin was two outs and two on, via walks, in the Bulldog fourth when lefthander Joe Kurrasch was called on to face Rea. He got that out and many more, holding State scoreless another three turns. "He did a really good job," said Rea. "He had a lot of run to his ball, it was a totally different pitch even though they were both lefties."
It was interesting in the MSU seventh as Rea walked and Renfroe reached on an error, and both advanced on a wild pitch. But Slauter's ground ball went all of six inches in front of the plate, staying fair somehow, for an easy out at first with frozen runners. On full count Stark flew out to right.
Gaines was an out into the eighth when he walked Luis Montesinos, then got to 2-2 on designated hitter JJ White. That's when Thompson came to the mound. Gaines said he was tiring on the walk, and not insulted to be lifted mid-count. "Any time he brings Caleb in, that's OK." It worked out even better than State could have planned.
Because before Reed threw a pitch Montesinos jumped early on the slow stretch. Reed threw him out at second base, then went to the dish for a called-strikeout to end the threat. He returned with a much healthier lead, though Karrasch did get the bottom two in State's order out quickly enough.
But Bradford and Frazier both singled, and Norris came through with the base hit that he legged into a double for one RBI. The aggressive running paid off as Rea singled to left to score both teammates for the margin of MSU's victory. "It was a curveball, I kind of guessed it was coming and shortened up and got my hands through it."
Reed ended the evening on two grounders and a called strikeout for his third save. Franklin (0-1) took the loss with four runs on two hits, six walks, and three strikeouts, while Kurrasch had three runs on five hits, a walk and four strikeouts in his 4.1 innings.
The late assault allowed State to out-hit the Lions seven to five. Only Rea had multiple knocks, and drove in three of the Bulldog runs. Five Lions accounted for their five singles with RBI by Searer and Ryan Clark.
Gaines got the usual reward for the first win, a face full of shaving cream that ended post-game interviews abruptly. "They tried to get me last time but couldn't find the shaving cream," said a watching Rea. Or more likely didn't want to in his case.
Cohen would like to get more lefties work this midweek as Luis Pollorena and Jacob Lingren haven't thrown enough pre-SEC season innings. But that will have to wait, as he will begin with freshman righty Will Cox for the rematch.
"We're going to start Cox and it will be a bunch of guys, we'll see if Will can get us underway and we'll move on. But this is a club that takes really good swings against left-handed pitching and that is a little bit of a concern to us."