For Mississippi State (29-18, 12-12) it was, overall, a successful weekend with 3-1 and 3-2 wins in the first two games. But after rallying for five runs in the last two turns to take a brief lead, Bulldog hopes of all but clinching a post-season berth left some bitterness. Especially, the way it ended.
Because before hammering reliever Taylor Stark's fastball into left-centerfield, Smith had pounded a hopper seemingly off the plate for Stark to field, hesitate, and throw to first. Smith didn't even run it out; nor need to as it turned out. A foul off the batter's box was ruled, to MSU amazement.
"It looked like it hit off the plate to me," said pitcher Nick Routt, who had turned the ball over to Stark with those runners on base. "But that's their call, I guess."
Coach John Cohen was restrained in his own post-game opining, since SEC rules frown on officiating comments. His dash out to argue with umpire Nelson Graham was more animated of course. "Suffice it to say I disagreed or I would not have gone and asked for an explanation." Not that the explanation agreed with the Diamond Dog dugout then, and especially when given new life Smith delivered.
"When you go on the road in the SEC you have a lot of things working against you," Cohen did say. "Certainly I thought our kids did a great job overcoming some things that happen."
The ‘things' actually included how the top of the ninth ended. With one out and two runs in for the short-lived lead, a grounder by 1B Wes Rea rolled to shortstop turned into a double-play that wasn't. The fielder allegedly covering second base had his foot a yard off the bag on the catch-and-throw, but the usual phantom double-play was called anyway.
Ironically there were no notions this Sunday would end in controversy—including a post-post-game altercation in the MSU dugout between a campus security officer and MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson. When Alabama broke a 1-1 tie with four runs in their fourth inning a routine split seemed in the offing.
For a second-straight Sunday lefthander Luis Pollorena got the start for State. Unlike last week when he kept Ole Miss' big swingers in check, Pollorena had some early scuffles with an Alabama order just looking for contact. He lasted 2.2 innings with just two hits and one run, a walk, and two strikeouts; but was not in the kind of control needed in this matchup.
He also contributed too much to the first Crimson Tide run. In the second inning with two down Pollorena struck out Brett Booth only to have the ball get past C Mitch Slauter. An errant pickoff put Booth on second base where Andrew Miller could make it sting with a bouncer through the box for the 1-0 lead.
UA starter Charley Sullivan lasted longer, 7.0 innings in fact. He too helped the other offense score its first run, plunking RF Brent Brownlee to open the MSU third. 3B Daryl Norris bunted in front of the plate and catcher Booth went for the lead runner but threw too high leaving all safe. 2B Sam Frost executed his own sacrifice to advance both teammates, and Brownlee was able to come home on a Frazier grounder for the 1-1 tie.
But for all the late-game dramatics it was the fourth which was fatal to State in the long run. It came after the offense left two unscored runners in the top of the inning, both reaching with no outs. RHP Brandon Woodruff also left two Alabama runners on in the third, and was two outs into the inning when he lost control with consecutive walks. James Tullidge ripped a one-hopper that Norris could knock down but not throw-across in time to keep all bases from filling. Lefthander Chad Girodo, who hadn't thrown since Sunday at South Carolina, got the matchup call.
It failed. Taylor Dugas ripped it to the wall in right-centerfield for a three-run triple. "It's the best hitter on their club and he never saw a breaking ball," Cohen said. "We throw three-straight fastballs and he scrambles it, which is what good hitters do. Bases are loaded and you've got to throw it in the zone, that doesn't enable you to throw the breaking ball."
It didn't seem too much at the time when righthander Caleb Reed entered and was tagged for a soft single dropped a step in front of CF Hunter Renfroe to make it a 5-1 scoreboard. Then aggressive running chipped one off the Dog deficit in the fifth. Frost singled with one out and made third on a base hit SS Adam Frazier turned into a double. LF Tyler Fullerton couldn't drive anyone in with contact, striking out swinging; but the ball was dropped and catcher Booth went up the line to throw for the out at first. Frost saw an open plate and scampered home ahead of the return throw.
And Alabama got that one back with small-ball in the sixth inning, off Routt who had entered in the fifth. An infield single and one-out grounder that Frazier could field on the charge but, caught between-strides, couldn't throw over in time, had runners on corners. Dugas dumped a sacrifice in front of Routt with no play at home as Miller scored.
Trey Pilkington was handed the four-run cushion in State's eighth. He walked Slauter, and DH Trey Porter bounced a base hit through the right side for Dogs on corners. Pinch-hitter Philip Casey drove in pinch-runner Matthew Britton.
Rea barely missed a double that skipped wide of third base, foul, before missing on off-speed. But Brownlee singled into centerfield for loaded bases and another change as righthander Hubbard inherited the one-out jam. Norris pounded an infield hit to the shortstop for one RBI and Frost sacrificed in another with his fly ball. Hubbard escaped with the remaining one-run margin as Frazier grounded out.
And then thing got really interesting.
Down a run and to two outs, Britton reached on a full-count walk. Porter cranked his fourth base hit and second double of the day, which bounced for a ground-rule double scoring nobody. Saturday starter Kendall Graveman was sent in to run from second as he was the go-ahead score just in case…and Casey came through with a two-run single.
When Routt rolled consecutive outs to Frazier the sweep was in sight. Then Dugas and Jared Reeves each singled, and with a righthander up Stark got the call. Routt (2-5) got the loss on 4.2 tough innings with three runs on four hits and two strikeouts. A hard-luck decision to be sure.
"Down like that you just want to come in and get quick innings, get us to the plate and get some runs. I was able to do that until the last inning." Routt said Alabama helped him with the sort of aggressive swings a team well in front usually take. They got it under control in the ninth though from the top of the order.
Hubbard (3-2) got the win on 1.2 innings with two runs on three hits, a walk and strikeout. The greatest irony of the afternoon was that for the first time State out-hit a SEC opponent. The 11 safeties were the most by MSU since March 23 against Arkansas in fact. Porter was 4-of-5 and Casey 2-of-3 in a substitute role with three RBI.
"He gave me good pitches to hit, and I hit them," Casey said. "It's pretty easy to hit behind someone like Trey Porter and he's putting people on second and third."
Alabama had nine hits, three apiece by Dugas, Reaves, and Miller. Dugas drove in half his team's runs.
Cohen was still guarding his comments afterwards and not entirely informed of the post-game dispute in the dugout either. "I don't know, I was on the radio," he said. He did know that despite that deadly breakdown in the fourth inning, his club had played well enough for a win and a sweep that would have put State in outstanding May position. Even with the loss the Bulldogs are close to securing tournament status…but close means the job isn't finished.
The interesting aspect now is, how will a club that has won four of its last five series, and seven of the last nine league games, responds to a frustrating finish. Porter, for his part, liked the late-game fire State showed when they could have written game-three off and headed home content with two wins.
"That's the attitude of this team, we're going to come back and win. We never think we're out."
With school out now, the Bulldogs can focus entirely on baseball. And the remaining SEC season, though they also have a double-header scheduled for Tuesday with Mississippi Valley State. The twinbill is a makeup of one rainout with the Delta Devils and an added contest. But, given that playing the SWAC program will likely hurt the team's RPI more than wins help the record, fans should stay tuned for updates.