Stratton had come tantalizingly close to completion in other series this season, including a 9.0-inning outing a week ago against Tennessee that needed two extra innings to conclude. But with a four-run margin to work with, and about 90 pitches thrown going into this ninth inning, not even having to face the top of Ole Miss' order was going to knock State's ace off the mound.
Nor when the Rebels had a pair of men on base via singles and one out. That was when Coach John Cohen came out with his query…though he knew the answer. "I said hey, how much do we have left in the tank? He said…‘I'm fine' like one of my daughters telling me to leave her room! There was a lot of force in his voice to say ‘I've got this'."
Cohen didn't need much convincing anyway. Even as he topped 100 pitches Stratton really did have gas left, and he used it. "He threw a two-seamer to one of their lefthanded hitters at 90 miles an hour in the last inning!" Cohen reported. The 104th pitch, Stratton said, had more adrenalin than gas on it as he rolled a grounder off the bat of Rebel slugger matt snyder that was turned into a game-ending double-play.
Stratton (8-0) remained unbeaten and is the first SEC pitcher with eight wins so far. He allowed just five hits, walked one batter and struck out seven. "I know he didn't have a lot of strikeouts," said Cohen. "He only had seven--only at seven!—but they are an early contact club and weren't going to get to two strikes. Against Stratton it is probably a good play."
Ole Miss figured they knew how to play him because a year ago their order, arranged to be left-handed dominant especially towards the top, knocked him out in just two-thirds of an inning with six runs and five hits. Not this year, though. Even with a south-side swinging lineup Stratton had their numbers.
"The changeup was huge today, we threw a lot more of them than we have in the past. Mitch (Slauter) did a great job all night and I was just throwing what he put down." Which would be fastballs of 91-to-94 spotted on corners, and the change that just kept missing Rebel bats. Stratton rolled 14 ground balls for outs, or twice for two, and only once did a Ole Miss runner make as far as third base.
Stratton picked a fine night to be on top of his game because Rebel ace Bobby Wahl was throwing real gas. The righthander worked 95 mph fastballs with changes and off-speeds dropping as low as 77. He would last 6.0 full innings with just four hits, two walks, and seven strikeouts as well. But, Wahl (5-1) also ended up with three runs to his account, just one of them earned, and take his first loss.
The Rebels knew exactly how they wanted to pitch the Bulldogs. Ten days earlier, Ole Miss got 16 strikeouts of State swingers in a 6-3 Governor's Cup victory in Pearl. They did it with a lot of movement in the moderate-speed pitches, as well as putting balls an inch or two outside the zone that Bulldogs just could not lay off. What worked a week ago, though, wasn't as effective a second time-around.
Not for Wahl, anyway. "He has a lot of big misses," C Slauter said. "He can be in-and-out of the zone, we just wanted to do a good job of taking those big misses and hitting pitches in the strike zone."
Slauter was Exhibit A. He had one official base hit for a RBI, as well as a grounder mishandled by the Rebel defense to score State's first run. The winning one, as it turned out.
The trick, Cohen said, was to just keep Wahl tossing. "Our goal was to get him to the 100-pitch mark as quickly as possible. We were very fortunate, we had some balls fall for us that haven't been."
That took a while, though. Both aces had first-inning walks with no harm and no base hits at all allowed until State SS Adam Frazier knocked a two-out single into leftfield in the bottom of the third. Repeated picks kept him from stealing, but Wahl hurt himself with a wild pitch that advanced Frazier all the way to third base. This mattered because Slauter was only able to send a slow roller towards the UM shortstop.
"I told myself I wasn't going to get beat with two strikes, I was just going to put a ball in play and put pressure on them." Austin Anderson errored the ball as Frazier came home. Then DH Trey Porter kept the inning going with a single to rightfield, Slauter holding up at third base. 3B Daryl Norris cashed in the RBI opportunity with a blooped base hit behind second base.
Stratton lost his no-hitter in the fourth on a wicked-hop grounder by Alex Yarbrough that skipped over big 1B Wes Rea for a double. The runner was left stranded on a grounder and line-out that got the Bulldogs back in with a 2-0 lead…and some serious confidence.
"Our kids feel as soon as Stratton gets a lead we're going to win the ball game," Cohen said. The pitcher punctuated such faith with a five-pitch fifth inning, then a six-pitch sixth aided by excellent defensive plays on the infield. Yes, Stratton said, he was motivated for this match.
"It's just going against Ole Miss in general, it's a huge rivalry and Wahl is an unbelievable pitcher. He pitched really good a couple of innings there." But his count reached 80, including foul-offs, before the half-way point meaning MSU's strategy was working. The offense was able to chip out another run in their fifth, too. 2B Sam Frost worked a full-count walk and was bunted over by Frazier. Using the team's leading batter to sacrifice probably baffled a few fans, but Slauter made it pay off with a soft single to rightfield for the RBI and 3-0 scoreboard.
The meat in UM's order was up for a third time in the sixth inning and Yarbrough began with a single to rightfield. The 50th double-play of State's season erased him and Will Allen struck out. By the time Stratton returned it was with more margin.
Righthander Aaron Greenwood took over after the stretch and ran into instant issues. Renfroe reached as third baseman Andrew Mistone bobbled and literally kicked a grounder. He made second on a balk call at the plate. New RF Brent Brownlee really did try to bunt, but Greenwood wouldn't give him anything to dump. So on full count and with Renfroe moving Brownlee lifted a deep drive that fell in left-centerfield for a double, RBI, and 4-0 score that held up.
Not that Stratton was going to exit for anything but disaster, and that wasn't happening. With two outs and one on in the eighth, Bradford left the running runner unscored on a great diving grab. In the dugout Kendall Graveman, he of the two complete games this year, was egging his comrade on. "No more 8.2s!" Stratton said.
Nope, this was a full nine. It came despite the best efforts of Yarbrough with three hits in four turns batting in the third slot. Five different Dogs accounted for the five State safeties, Brownlee's double the lone extra-base knock. Greenwood reminded State coaches why they wanted so badly to get ahead on Wahl with 2.0 innings, a run and hit and a strikeout. "He's no picnic," Cohen said.
The shutout was State's second of the week after blanking Southern Mississippi 5-0 in Pearl Tuesday. In that win the Bulldogs also had just five base hits, though two left the big yard for two-run homers. Nothing traveled very far this evening though, and the home team was just fine with that.
"We did a good job scoring runs when we needed to, hitting with runners in scoring position," Slauter said. "And we didn't have to wait on the longball to do it."
Both teams don't have to wait long for the rematch with a 2:00 Saturday gametime. Ole Miss will put righthander Mike Mayers (4-2, 3.70) on the hill while righty Graveman (3-2, 2.92) gets his turn. And, his orders from Stratton.
"He'd better go nine now, he's got to match me!"