For Bulldog batters to muster just five total hits in an evening was nothing out of the ordinary this season. But to drive a pair of balls over the fence, the same leftfield fence at that? This was a most welcome change of things for a State squad used to manufacturing more than mashing. MSU had just 15 homers in the previous 40 games.
Not only that, they were swinging in a AA-size park even larger than Dudy Noble Field. But as Coach John Cohen said, "Compared to our yard this place is inviting! It's such a relief for our guys to see a ball disappear out of a ballpark off their bat, because it makes you feel things are going your way."
Or as winning pitcher Nick Routt said, "To get out of this park you have to crush a ball. And Mitch and Hunter crushed those balls."
Did they ever, and both at the expense of Eagle reliever Jay Myrick. In the fourth inning with 1B Wes Rea standing on first base via plunking and two outs Slauter saw a first pitch to his liking. "I squared it up, that's all. I got it up-and-in and squared it up." And, deposited the drive in the Bulldog bullpen for his second homer of the season and a 3-0 lead.
That might well have been enough margin for MSU victory given how Bulldog pitching was having their way. But Renfroe offered some welcome insurance in the fifth frame, again with two outs. This time DH Trey Porter was on the paths after a leadoff walk. Renfroe came back from two strikes for full-count and out-guessed Myrick.
"I battled with him but I figured a fastball was coming and I was going to try to be early or battle off a curveball or slider." It was a heater, or the best Myrick could come with it, and left a lot faster than it came. "That was a line-drive shot but no doubt it was gone," Renfroe said of his third longball this year.
That was quite enough scoring to support starter Brandon Woodruff and Routt, who entered in the fifth inning and put in 3.0 frames of middle-relief. He allowed a hit, a walk, and a strikeout and, by rule, got the decision to improve to 2-4. He also needed just 42 pitches to retire eleven Eagles.
"Fastball/changeup was pretty much all I was working with," Routt said. "I got a lot of early ground balls, I dropped down to the side and got a little more movement and I think's that's what caused that." Seven of his batters put the ball on the ground in fact.
Woodruff went the first full-four with four hits and two walks, but struck out four Eagles and left everyone stranded. It was close a couple of times; he had two in scoring positions with two outs in the first inning and needed a called strikeout of Mason Robbins to escape. In the top of the fourth a pair of one-out singles and a two-out walk meant all bases were loaded.
Number-nine batter Chase Fowler grounded to second to end that threat. Southern Mississippi would muster six hits all evening with only one going for more than a single base. That was a one-out double in the ninth by pinch-hitter Joe Martin and he got no farther.
"Every pitcher was exceptionally good, they all threw well and did their job," said Slauter. He included Ross Mitchell after taking care of the last two turns, though not in a save situation.
As neither club came to the big park with much of an offensive resume, a low-scoring contest was forecast. Woodruff and Southern starter Boomer Scarborough (1-2) did their parts for two innings, though both also had their pitch counts pile up early due to a lot of fouled-off balls. Scarborough also had some fine defensive help to stay in the game the first two turns as in each inning State had runners in scoring positions and well-struck balls.
Both lined right into gloves. In the first with with SS Adam Frazier on second base Porter's shot was hauled down by the leaping shortstop. It was even more frustrating in the second after CF C.T. Bradford walked and Renfroe was plunked trying to bunt. With both advanced on a wild pitch and one out 2B Matthew Britton stroked the ball nicely only to have the second baseman go up and get it.
Even the first Bulldog run, in the bottom of the third, wasn't satisfying because so much more was available. Consecutive walks leading off finished Scarborough with righthander Myrick inheriting the no-out runners. He advanced them with a wild pitch before walking Porter to load all bases with still no outs. On 2-2 3B Daryl Norris grounded to his counterpart, who stepped on the bag for one out.
But doing so meant he took the force off at home allowing an untagged Frazier to score while Norris got to first ahead of another relay. Bradford grounded into a double-play to end it with just one run scored.
"Early in the game we had so many opportunities we didn't take advantage of," Cohen said. "Eventually you're going wow, what is it going to take for one of balls to fall? We needed something good to happen, and when a ball left the yard it helped."
Two balls leaving the yard were even better. And in-between came the game's key defensive play as Routt gave a one-out walk in the top of the fifth with Kameron Brunty reaching on a seeing-eye single. With runners on corners Routt fielded a come-backer by Blake Brown.
"It was a lefthander, I was turning anyway to get to the ball," Routt said. "Mitch was doing a good job yelling two-two-two so I turned and fired to Matt." Britton caught at second base, then rifled to first for a very, very close out call and double-play. USM fury became frustration when Renfroe went yard for all the scoring that would be needed.
State had one error charged, as substitute 3B Sam Frost mishandled an in-betweener in the seventh. All Frost did was come back and end the inning with an even tougher play of the similar sort. The Eagles ran themselves out of the seventh as Dillon Day began to steal and tried to come back, failing in each direction.
"You can't throw a shutout without a good defense," Routt said. And pitching, as Mitchell had three strikeouts against one hit in his closing stint. The three hurlers combined for eight fannings and three walks, compared to six walks given Bulldog batters and three plunkings to boot. Not coincidentally, three of the MSU runs scored were Dogs who reached without swinging their stick.
As for Eagles, they looked ground-down by scoreless inning after inning. "Woludn't you?" Slauter said. "Yeah, they were getting frustrated, I was talking to their catcher tonight and he said they were all getting frustrated with the approach."
A week ago it was State feeling the frustration after a 6-3 loss on this field to Ole Miss, after which Cohen had a serious talk with the team in the outfield. "I can't tell y'all what he said last week but it wasn't pretty!" related Renfroe. Now after a SEC sweep of Vanderbilt and taking care of a non-conference rival, the Bulldogs are on a four-win streak just in time for a rematch with the Rebels. The arch-foes collide at Dudy Noble Field this weekend in a league series.
And, "This one counts big-time," said Renfroe. "We need to at least take two of three from Ole Miss, it's a big weekend and we really need this one for a chance of getting back in a regional."